Korean Culinary Chronicle
Yes there is kimchee. At every meal. It’s the stuff you would recognize, cabbage fermented in a spicy sauce, but it is also much more. Kimchee (also spelled kimchi) is Korea’s national dish, made usually from cabbage but can also be made from cucumber, radish or other vegetables. It can be mild, spicy or sour. Most usually it is fermented but not always. In fact The Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul has documented 187 historic and current varieties of kimchee. Ingredients can be replaced or added depending on the type of kimchee being made. The most common seasonings include brine, scallions, spices, ginger, chopped radish, garlic, saeujeot (hangul shrimp sauce), and aekjeot (hangul fish sauce). Kimchee varies by region and season.
I really love it. It kind of grows on you, and it is actually very healthy. Kimchee is made of various vegetables and contains a high concentration of dietary fiber, while being low in calories. One serving also provides over 50% of the daily-recommended amount of vitamin C and carotene. Most types of kimchee contain onions, garlic, and chili peppers, all of which are salutary. The vegetables used in kimchee also contribute to its overall nutritional value.
FAB FIFTY FOOD FOR THOUGHT – Health magazine named kimchee in its list of top five “World’s Healthiest Foods”.
I knew very little about the cuisine in Korea before I arrived, except I knew about kimchee. Since I was going to be in Korea for such a long time (three weeks) I thought it would be fun and interesting to set out and learn as much as I could about Korean food and culture during my free time.
So, I signed up for a food tour with O’ngo Culinary Tours in Seoul. Last evening our tour brought together 6 Americans, 4 Australians, 1 Frenchman and our guide Daniel. Daniel was born in Korea, adopted and raised in Delaware and has lived back in Seoul for the past ten years.
FAB FIFTY FOOD FOR THOUGHT – If you are in Seoul definitely look up O’ngo for the tours and they offer cooking classes as well.
Through Daniel’s eyes, we were able to explore and experience some real treasures, hidden deep in the winding and narrow alleys of the Insadong area of Seoul. These places were not tourist food destinations – no English anywhere, no pictures on the menu and no plastic food in the window. This is where the locals eat. Great!
The weather was very rainy, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the adventure. Our first stop was for a hot and spicy Jjamppong 짬뽕 prepared right at our table on a gas burner. The spicy stew included mussels and squid as well as one of my new favorites, fat rice noodles called Ddeokbakki떡볶이 (also called Tteokbokki/Topokki). I am absolutely in love with these delicious noodles. These I must try to make at home. While we waited for the stew to come to a roiling boil at our table we enjoyed plum wine and got to know the other tour participants a bit.
There were two other American couples similar in age to us; one couple is spending a year teaching in Mongolia and another couple is just completing a month tour of Asia. The solo Frenchman is employed in finance in Shanghai and is in Seoul on holiday. Three of the Australian 20-something year olds were spending a year volunteering in Mongolia and were in Seoul for a holiday and the other 20-something Australian is in Sacheon Korea for 6 months teaching English. What a loud and rambunctious group we made.
With the warm stew in our bellies we headed out again into the wet alleyways of Seoul tromping along behind Daniel. Not too far down the alley and a few lefts and rights (I could never find this place again) we went through a ramshackle fence of corrugated metal and into a tent with walls to find a warm and cozy restaurant inside. Everyone inside looked up as we walked in and invaded the very Korean, very local neighborhood hangout. Hello Korea, we are here.
FAB FIFTY FOOD FOR THOUGHT – although many Koreans have limited English we have yet to find anyone who is unable to communicate with us with a lot of hand gestures, pointing and smiles. Everyone has been so friendly and accommodating. I point this out particularly because I overheard one of the Americans on the tour complaining that no one at her hotel or her taxi driver spoke any English. Well, duh. You are in Korea.
Plastic chairs around plastic tables with hot stoves strategically placed to heat the tent – boy this is about as far from my favorite tavern in my home town as I could get. Rolls of toilet paper hung from the ceiling…just reach up when you need a napkin.
FAB FIFTY FOOD FOR THOUGHT – Napkins are nearly non-existent in Korea. If you are provided one, it is about the size of one square of toilet paper.
This “restaurant” didn’t seem to have a specialty – or perhaps it did – but Daniel gave us the opportunity to try several things here and I really enjoyed them all. First, the kimchee of course, which included leeks. Next bugs. Yep there was a bug course. We had seen bugs in the market and Daniel explained these are actually silk worm pupae called Beongdegi (번데기). Korean’s eat these like popcorn, usually as a walking around food in a cup. So yep, we popped a few in our mouths. Actually not too bad, the texture, color and consistency of a soft raisin, a bit sweet but not much flavor really. It really wasn’t too revolting. Okay now I can say I’ve done that.
Next we enjoyed grilled mackerel. I’ve never eaten mackerel, despite always living so near the sea, it’s not a fish we see often so this was a new experience. It’s a very meaty white fish and it was delicious grilled so simply over an open flame.
Daniel took time here to teach us some hilarious Korean drinking games. We drank rice wine and played a counting game. Around the table we went counting one, two, three. But each time your number had a 3, 6 or 9 you had to clap instead of say the number. Around the table until you reach the number 70. If you mess up you drink and the whole table starts over. Well, there was lots of drinking, laughing and more drinking.
FAB FIFTY FOOD FOR THOUGHT – Rice wine is not Shoju. We thought they were the same but learned Rice Wine has an alcohol content of 9%. Shoju is a fermented beverage made from Sweet Potatoes and has an alcohol content of 19%.
Our final dish here was a delicious omelet type dish called Gyeran Mari, rolled and sliced. It tasted very much like any omelet I might make or order at home, except without the cheese. It also was very similar to an omelet dish we had in Slovenia. Eggs are popular around the world (more so than bugs!) and I had a second helping of the Gyeran Mari. It was delicious.
We pulled our coats back on and found our umbrellas and headed back out into the rain to our next stop, a Korean BBQ joint. Another very local neighborhood restaurant so filled with smoke from the tabletop BBQ’s you are offered a large plastic bag at the door to put your things into so everything doesn’t smell like BBQ.
The very hot coals on the recessed BBQ pit at each table again made me think about all the regulations we have at home. Through out the meal they kept bringing searing hot bricks to our table and adding them to the grill. Yikes. That would never happen at home.
So the game here is to cook your own food. Three kinds of raw meats were set before us; pork belly, beef, and marinated boneless pork rib meat. The meal included several kinds of kimchee as well as garlic to cook on the grill and lettuce leaves to wrap the meat in. Three sauces were provided; chili paste sauce, sesame oil/salt and a soy and vinegar sauce. We spent the most time at this restaurant, since it took a while to cook everything. Here we finally tasted Shoju, the famous Korean alcohol (19%) made from fermented sweet potato. We also enjoyed a lot of beer. And played more drinking games. And ate and ate and ate.
On our way to our final destination, Daniel took us to a place I don’t think any tourists would find – the raw foods market. Just like Steak Tartare in France, Korea has its own raw food delicacies. Using beef and eggs they have a dish that looked just like the tartare I have had a hundred times at home and in France, as well as hoe made with a raw beef and seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine; and gan hoe, a raw beef liver with a sauce of sesame oil and salt. Raw fish is also popular including octopus.
Though not on our menu tonight, we had time to walk around and look at the raw foods market, and another adjoining market serving just about anything you can think of right there with hundreds of diners enjoying the evening outdoors under tents. A popular item in this adjoining market is Sundae, a boiled intestine sausage.
FAB FIFTY FOOD FOR THOUGHT – Seated around a small little Mom’s Kitchen type of counter is a common way to dine. Supposedly most of these spots are operating legally, but it is loose. The feeling is of family, talking to the cook, laughing with other diners, very familiar and informal. Lots of sharing of communal dishes. Just like at home.
Our final stop was to enjoy what might have been my favorite of the evening, a delicious, savory and crispy Mung Bean Pancake called Nokdujeon. Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside very similar to hashbrowns, but with no potato or binder. We had seen these in the markets and didn’t know what they were. Now that we do, we will not hesitate to order it again – it was delicious.
It’s difficult to describe an evening like this because the food is wonderful but experiencing the culture along side the locals is really what makes it special. I highly recommend tackling this kind of activity when you travel, particularly if you are traveling to a region with foods you are unfamiliar with.
I should add, our tour included one diabetic and one vegetarian and both were easily accommodated. So if you are ever in Seoul checkout O’ngo Food Tours.
FAB FIFTY FOOD FOR THOUGHT – A final note on our evening – we purchased a special dish from a vendor on the way home. It was a dessert and unlike anything I have ever had in my life. I don’t know the Korean name, but it is called Korean Honey Candy or Dragons Beard. This stuff is unbelievable, both in the entertainment value watching the cute guys make as well as in the candy itself! A bit like cotton candy wrapped around Applets & Cotlets – fabulous and light. I must get more of this before I leave Korea. I found this YouTube video showing how it is made. Check it out.
To further my Korean Food education, I’ve signed up to spend two days with the Korea Food and Culture Academy next week. Watch for my post about that coming soon!
Thanks for joining me as I eat my way through Korea in my Fab Fifties! Kamsahamnida!