Korean Food. Mmmm.

OK, so at this point, if you've read my past Korea columns, you've probably gathered that I love Korean food. And I don't mean a mere infatuation or puppy love, either. This is full-on serious I-could-spend-my-life-with-this-food kind of love. But it's hard to explain this sort of love without letting you actually taste the food - and that, unfortunately, is pretty impossible, at least over the web. However, there's nothing stopping you from finding a good Korean restaurant near you to see for yourself!

So why do I love Korean food? It's hard to break down, because food is a holistic experience that doesn't necessarily lend itself to being quantified. Partly, I'm sure, it's the atmosphere in which I ate it - the encounters with a culture that was largely new to me, the hospitality of Saeyun's family, the warmth and humor of their family dinners - a warmth that was readily apparent to me even without understanding everything they said.

So because I've raved about Korean food previously, and because it was a really important aspect of my stay in Korea, I'll give it a shot and try to describe the food.

One of the central aspects of Korean food, at least to me, is its complex taste. It's really spicy - and not necessarily spicy-hot. I do love hot food, whether it's Mexican or Indian - or New Mexican green chile. But there's something particular about the Korean version of hot, which is that it's both hot and somehow independently spicy. That is, the hotness doesn't overwhelm the other spices, and when you bite into rice cakes stewed in red pepper sauce, you're tasting a lot more than just red peppers. There are, as far as I could tell, a wide variety of spices used in Korean cooking, from ginger to fish sauce to peppers to fermented bean paste and much much more. I found a couple different sources that talked about the necessary harmony of the five different, basic tastes - bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and hot-spicy. These taste elements, it is suggested, relate to Asian traditions of the five basic elements. (These elements - wood, water, fire, air, and metal - also play a role in Chinese medicine and a variety of martial arts.)

So it's possible that this balance between the five elements of taste is what gives Korean cooking its complex taste. It is also, however, entirely possible that the tastes just seem particularly complex to me because they are not familiar. After all, "complex" may just mean that it seems to me like a combination of familiar tastes, because that's the only way I know how to interpret it. Maybe to someone who's grown up on Korean food, mashed potatoes with gravy have a complex taste. It's hard to say.

But for my tongue, the tastes were complex, and hard to describe without resorting to that unhelpful wine-tasting-type vocabulary, like "slightly woody with accents of iron" or some such thing. For example, a number of soups and stews are made from a fermented bean base. The resulting taste is nothing like beans, but is instead slightly tangy, a bit earthy, and seems like something that couldn't possibly have been cooked up without using some kind of meat. For perhaps a better imaginative aid, it's a similar kind of base as is used in miso soup, only much, much more so.

OK, now I know some of you out there are saying, "Uh, hey, wait a minute. Fermented beans? What's up with that?" Well, here's the deal: Fermentation is a central component in Korean cuisine. It's utterly logical; before iceboxes and refrigerators were invented, people needed a way of storing food, especially vegetables, which were often only available fresh at one time of the year. Vegetables, as even those of us with fridges tend to know, can go bad pretty quickly, unless you do something to them, and one of the things you can do to them is fermentation. Controlled fermentation can preserve vegetables quite nicely, and it also imparts a strong taste. This is not always to everyone's liking, but before you go off saying "Ew, gross, fermentation!!," remember that beer and wine are prime examples of fermented food (or drink, whatever) as well. This is why Europeans developed Sauerkraut, too. Fermenting is a good way of keeping cabbage stored over the winter.

If you are put off by the concept of fermentation, even if you love your beer, here's a basic rule to follow, especially when traveling: try first, ask questions later. When you're not familiar with a particular cuisine, some things just might not sound good, regardless of how they taste, and you might miss some great stuff if the thought of, say, bean paste on ice cream doesn't appeal. (Heck, who'd ever have touched a hot dog if they'd first been told, "Yeah, this is bits of meat stuffed into intestine"?) Granted, I do have a pretty high tolerance for unfamiliar food; I've knowingly eaten guinea pig (one of the national dishes of Peru) and raw (though marinated) squid. (Though I do tend to avoid hot dogs.) Even so, I tend to find it more interesting to decide whether I like it or not first, and then figure out what's gone into it. (This was, of course, a much more difficult proposition when I was a strict vegetarian...)

All of this, I suppose, is my way of introducing a central, and fabulous, part of Korean cuisine: fermented and marinated cabbage, better known as kimchi. This stuff is the food of the gods. Seriously. If you've never tried it, you need to go out and get some. Now. Go ahead, turn off the computer, look in the yellow pages under restaurants or Asian foods, and go get yourself some kimchi. This page will still be here when you get back.

Kimchi, of course, is a prime example of one of those foods that, to the uninitiated, probably doesn't sound good on paper. Or, for that matter, on fabric: there were banners all around Seoul, hanging from lampposts, celebrating Kimchi. "Korea's Fermented Food!" they proclaimed. They had a cute vegetable with eyes and legs on the banner as well, which worked a bit better than the slogan, but on the whole it seemed that there might be more effective advertising campaigns to introduce their World Cup tourists to kimchi.

Of course, kimchi is fermented food. Fermented vegetables, to be specific. (Only in rare instances, as I learned from exhibits at the Kimchi Museum, are seafood or meat made into kimchi.) It tastes spicy, kind of sharp, with a hint of tanginess, and you can almost taste the separate ingredients - cabbage, red pepper, garlic and more - just as you bite into it. It has a pretty potent smell, too; you can always tell a refrigerator in which kimchi is being stored.

The most well-known kind of kimchi is cabbage kimchi, made from fermented white cabbage marinated with hot peppers and a variety of other spices. The southern Korean variety has a softer consistency; northern cabbage kimchi is more firm (or, as one man put it, "it's not, well, flaccid").

One of the beautiful things about kimchi - and about Korean food as a whole - is that there are more varieties than I can count. Cabbage kimchi is most well known, sure. There's also cucumber kimchi, "white" kimchi (radish, marinated without the usual red peppers), scallion kimchi, "ponytail radish" kimchi, eggplant kimchi, sesame leaf kimchi, crown daisy kimchi... the list goes on. According to at least two different websites, there are at least 187 different kinds of kimchi. Mmmm...

And, much like kimchi, which has generated a whole body of research showing its health benefits (including reduced risk of cancer and lower cholesterol), Korean food on the whole is really healthy. I ate a LOT while I was there. Saeyun's relatives are very generous, most certainly when it comes to food, and Korean meals consist of more courses than I could usually keep track of. At the end of the day I usually felt like I'd eaten about as much as I weighed. Regardless, I lost weight. Sure, I was also walking a lot, but the food - even the "fast" food - is generally low-fat. A lot of it is cooked, some dishes are grilled, others are served cold, but very few are fried; vegetables are a part of most every meal (at very least in the form of kimchi), as is rice - and fast food that's made out of rice, veggies and seaweed is just a lot more healthy than a burger and fries. Even many desserts (see sidebar) are relatively low-sugar, low-fat affairs. Not that I pick my food for its healthiness all that often, but if it tastes good AND it's good for you, well, what a bonus.

I don't know if any of this has explained why I fell in love with Korean food. Hopefully, it's at least made you curious enough to go find a Korean restaurant and try it for yourself.

And since writing this has given me a massive craving for Korean food, that's exactly what I'm going to do right now!

If you want to read more, or try some recipes, here are some Korean food links:

This site is a great introduction to the flavors and philosophy of Korean food, with a sizeable portion about kimchi.

Here's a kimchi recipe - with fun pictures

Follow along at home! Korean recipes - stews and more

Food menu - with pictures and food descriptions to make you hungry, though no recipes

Mmmmm. Pad Bing Soo recipe (sidebar)

Index of selected Korean food recipes (personally, I would suggest trying the mung bean pancake)

June 26, 2002



Dessert? But of course.

DDUK/TTOK: These are rice cakes. No, no, no! not the dry, crispy American-health-food rice cakes. Nothing like that at all. These are steamed, they have a consistency like almost-hard, very dense pudding, and they are damn yummy.

I love the consistency of rice cakes; they're solid to the touch, but you can slice them easily with your teeth or push through them with chopsticks, and they're ever so slightly squishy on your tongue, like a very, very thick custard.

Much like bread, or couscous, these rice cakes can be sweet or savory. They show up in stews, where they often look like half-centimeter-thick ovals. They also show up in one of my favorite dishes, a hot, spicy concoction of rice cake logs in hot red pepper sauce. But they're really, really good when they're sweetened.

The rice cake dough by itself isn't sweet, so a variety of flavors and fruits are added to sweeten it. There is ttok flavored with pumpkin, or tasting like pines; there is ttok with sweet red bean paste (and if you've never had sweet red bean paste, you are seriously missing out) or with a swirl of fruits and nuts running through it.

You'll find ttok in traditional tea houses, sometimes accompanied by a sweet, cinnamony tea that has persimmons and pine nuts in it. My mouth is watering just thinking about it right now…

PAD BING SOO: OK, I've probably spelled it completely wrong, as I can't find my guidebook right at the moment and I'm having trouble finding it on the Net, but this is a fabulous, fabulous dessert invention. Shaved ice, sweet milk and a sweet red bean topping (and if you haven't ever tasted sweet red beans, you are seriously missing out - and no, they are nothing at all like the red beans you see Emeril cooking up!) make this frosty dessert a notable - and healthier - ice cream competitor. This stuff was incredible - especially when served with small bits of ttok in the red bean sauce. Heaven, sheer heaven...

Man oh man, am I hungry right now...

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