Inspired by two interesting articles, a few memorable conversations, and one great meal- an interest in Korean cuisine emerges.
Korean Cuisine: Salty-sweet-spicy, with a deeply pleasing u-mmmmm-ami appeal. Barbecued meats like galbi and bulgogi provide the basis of the meals, but the variety of side dishes, banchan, served around the mains add an enormous amount of flavor and texture. Pickled cucumbers, cabbage, daikon radishes, garlic, spinach offer a jolt of refreshing acid and lovely swathes of green to counter the heft and rich fattiness of the meat dishes.
Reminds me of: A Korean table reminds me of my Iraqi Grandmother’s table where the entire surface is covered by a series of serving platters heaped with meats, fish, and then the accompanying small plates and bowls brimming with colorful pickles and sauces, dishes of rice or noodles, and other assorted homestyle tid-bits.
The Source: A field trip to H Mart in Fort Lee, NJ was like being in a foreign country. There was aisle upon aisle of exotic-never-seen-before items in bright packages covered in unfamiliar script. As well as a whole array of fantastical vegetables and herbs, in strange and wonderful shapes , sizes, and scents. And lucky for me a few sweet Korean Grandmas who were happy to point me in the right direction, and offer a little advice.
The results: “Epic fail!” Kiddle #1 declared, as he flailed around for water. The saltiness was unbearable. And the cucumber kimchi was even worse than the cabbage… mushy and completely unappetizing.
The Barbecue Bonanza: To make galbi I marinated a few pounds of boneless flanken all day in a solution of chopped garlic, pineapple juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, and then flash grilled it on both sides. It was so delicious and so easy. Bulgogi features a thinner cut of beef (I used skirt steak) and is not as salty-sweet as the galbi, it’s flavored mainly with garlic and soy sauce. After figuring out that mool yut is malt syrup I made a marinade that was sweet, salty (soy sauce) and garlicky and submerged a few boneless skinless chicken breasts in it for several hours. It was my favorite barbecue dish of the meal.
Flavor notes: Garlic is essential in Korean cuisine along with gochugaro- finely ground red pepper flakes that deliver a hot and spicy zetz to the taste buds.
Veggie-Heaven: Korean food is not just for carnivores, vegetarians get much love too. Successfully combined a couple of recipes and came up with a Sesame-Soy Pan Seared Tofu- with Gochugaro Salsa. The Jap Chae noodles were beautiful looking and a subtle foil to the strident kimchi flavor as well as the heavily flavored beef and protein dishes. Plus it’s an interesting slightly chewy texture, the transparent noodles take on a glassy appearance when slicked with a bit of sesame oil.
…Meanwhile at the Fancy Food Show: Last Sunday amidst the altars of chocolate, the cobblestone countertops of gluten- free crackers, there was a heap of mushroom truffles that emitted the most pleasingly pungent aroma from 10 feet away and there were a few kimchi brands distributing samples. My favorite was Mama O’s Kimchi www.kimchirules.com , they offer great prepared kimchi at various levels of heat. They also carry a handy DIY kit for those of us who have delusions of authenticity.
Kimchi Take Two: Sliced Persian cucumbers in a salty-sweet-spicy solution, retained their crunch, and were a tangy-sweet-spicy addition to our 4th of July fare. Tried a different (read: more labor intensive) kimchi recipe, this version directed me to cut the napa cabbage lengthwise into quarters and rub the gochugaro-scallion-daikon-garlic paste between each leaf, and fold up the cabbage into rolls and stuffing them into the gallon jar. Definitely an improvement from the first attempt, but not there yet.
Anecdote: While immersing myself in Korean cuisine I have been reading The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This may seem like an incongruous pairing, but as I hand grated a large Korean daikon, a mental image of my grandmother grating a large similarly shaped horseradish root for her homemade chraine (horseradish relish that is served with gefilte fish) played through my memory.
My cousin Sharon from my father’s side commented on how my jars of kimchi made her think of our Nana Aziza’s Chakla B’akla (Iraqi pickled veggies). Mothers and Grandmothers seem to be an important theme in Korean cuisine as well. Two out of the three kimchi brands at the Fancy Food Show referenced Mothers and Mother-in-laws in their company names. I sense that there is a similarity and affinity between Jewish culture and Korean culture, that begins with the dinner table as the locale for celebration and family life in general, and extends to homecooked meals = love. And I suspect it might go even further than that.
Crossing-over: The fusion of gochugaro powder, daikon radish, garlic- lots of garlic- in the kitchen with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s words and images has me conjuring a whole roster of Kosher-Korean recipes such as kimchi reuben, gochugaro matzah balls, sweet and spicy roast chicken, braised gochujang brisket with daikon radish.
Prediction: It won’t be long before Korean Barbecue will be a regular stop on the shmorg circuit at bar/bat mitzvah’s and weddings across the tri-state region- placed right in between the sushi stand and the deli carving station. And the Kimchi Bar will be located next to the Israeli Salads.
The Takeaway: Korean Cuisine is not overly complicated and it’s not technically difficult. It is a satisfying sort of home cooking that will please all kinds of eaters and palates, with lots of colorful flourishes and substantial flavors. The fair amount of busy work in the form of chopping and mincing (garlic, ginger, spring onions), sautéing (tofu, spinach), boiling (potato starch noodles), marinading and grilling (the meat) only serves to create a whole tabletop of flavors ranging from intensely umami to fifty shades of spice, with offerings of delicate subtlety placed alongside for balance and variety.