Korean food

No tales of toil or adventure today. This post is only about food. I’ve been wanting to write a post about Korean food for a while and here it is.

Korean food is intense. That’s simply the best way I can think to describe it. Most meals are pungent and incredibly flavoursome. Almost everything is prepared with either garlic, sesame or chilli but most things have all three. Pickling and fermenting is commonplace so many flavours used with scarcely or subtlety in other cuisines – sourness, bitterness and spiciness – are a normal part of every meal. I guess you could describe it as esoteric – it’s such a distinct cuisine and, at least locally, it’s very revered but I think a lot of flavours would be strange and rather alarming to a foreign palate, particularly one from the West.

One thing I’ve always been amused by is how intensely red it is. It has a reputation for being spicy but I think that’s inaccurate. Almost everything is spicy but usually only enough to tingle the top and tip of your tongue. Very spicy meals do exist but they’re comparatively rare. As I understand chilli is used more for its flavour than its spiciness. There’s a huge variety of chillies and an even bigger variety of powders and pastes, most famous of which is gochujang, a paste made with fermented chillies. People foreign to the cuisine might say the use of chilli pastes and powders makes everything taste similar or generically Korean but the use of chillies and chilli products is very nuanced and produces a wide range of subtle differences.

I’ve talked before about how difficult it is eating alone in Korea. The tradition here is to eat together. Most meals are designed to share. They come in big quantities and with a variety of side dishes. These side dishes, called banchan, come with every meal free of charge. How many you get can range between two side dishes to fifteen, the most I’ve seen, but the most common amount is four or five. Kimchi, fermented cabbage with garlic and chilli, is always represented. Other common dishes are pickled radish, fish cake slices, steamed greens with garlic and shallots or other vegetables with chilli paste. Everything is served with rice. Even noodles and soups come with rice. It’s common practice here to dump a hunk of rice in a soup once the other ingredients are eaten or just straight after it’s served – what I usually do.

In a really basic explanation of cooking methods I would say there are three main ways to eat things – BBQ’ed, mixed in with or on top of rice or in a soup or stew. BBQ meats are usually cooked at the table with variety of vegetables and sauces on the side, doenjang, a fermented soy bean paste being the most common. Soups will often have sauces to the side for dipping soup-inhabiting meat or mushrooms. Stews are usually served in huge round pots and there’s often some choice into what ingredients you want to throw in.

I could rattle on vaguely like this for pages but maybe it’s better if I just give you an example.

My dinner last night:

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1. Toasted black sesame soup.

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This was came before the meal. It’s served steaming and the smell of sesame is strong. The soup is gluggy and thick but the taste is light.

2. Mixed mushroom stew with beef.

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The six kinds of mushrooms and beef come raw over the top of a boiling mushroom stock. As the soup cools down the mushrooms and beef stop cooking and stay slightly chewy and crunchy respectively. The thin soup is strongly, and simply, mushroomy and has onions, long green chillies and shallots. The mushrooms I could identify were swiss brown, enoki, shiitake and oyster.

3. Wasabi dipping sauce

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Dipping sauce for the beef and mushrooms. Mostly wasabi with a bit of sesame. Very light in spice, just a tickle in the nose. The texture is slightly gooey. It’s served cold.

Side dishes (all cold):

1. Kimchi

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Kimchi can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few years old. This one was comparatively sour and savoury so must have been quite old. The chilli flavour was strong but the effect was light. It starts with a tingle on the top of the tongue and grows slightly in strength and breadth until it reaches the tip.

2. Watercress like greens steamed with garlic

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The greens are bitter and strong in garlic flavour. They’re wet but retain a slight crunch. Little bits of garlic and sesame seeds hang around giving texture and flavour.

3. Fermented radish

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Like the kimchi, it’s fermented with garlic, chilli and sesame. The chunks are sweeter than the kimchi but similarly sour. They’re crunchy at the first bite and chewy after a few chomps. The chilli level is light and interacts with the mouth the same way as the kimchi.

4. Boiled kelp

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Slightly boiled or maybe just blanched with carrot, onion, long green chilli slices and sesame. It’s served rubbery in a light syrup – sweet and light.

5. Fermented cabbage

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A different kind of fermented cabbage made with soy beans. It’s spiced with chilli, garlic and sesame like kimchi but it has a really nutty and savoury flavour. It’s really wet but still crunchy with a similar level of spice to the kimchi and radish. Strangely, it reminded me of a raju sauce.

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