Delicious and spicy, soothing, or sharp and funkily fermented, South Korean food has a whole spectrum of flavours and textures that's making it a huge hit in the United States right now.
And not only in the States: the eclectic variety, versatility, health properties, and balance of Korean cuisine has won it fans far beyond its shores.
American chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain is among its many fans. In a recent interview with Lisa Granatstein of Adweek, posted online on June 6, he observed how wildly popular Korean food has become in his country, especially among the "cool kids." Korean food, he noted, has always been very authentic to its ethnic roots, refusing to "dumb it down" for foreign tastes even when it's made abroad.
Here in Trinidad, it's easier to find African, Indian, Creole or Chinese-influenced flavours than Korean food. But that was not the case last Thursday, June 9, when the Korean Embassy hosted their Unique Taste of Korea event at the Korean ambassador's residence in St Clair.
From the multicoloured Platter of Nine Delicacies to the tangy kimchi nibbles, guests enjoyed samples from many different dishes, cooked specially by three Korean Master Chefs who are currently based in New York.
Among the dishes were bibimbaps–steamed rice topped with sauteed beef and colourful vegetables, mixed at the table with spicy gochujang sauce and sesame oil. There were seafood and green onion fritters; tender braised beef with chestnuts and ginkgo nuts; firm tofu blocks in a delicious, piquant sauce; many fresh vegetable dishes delicately arranged into small vessels that were like miniature visual artworks in themselves; and several different kinds of kimchi–spiced fermented vegetables, with a crunchy, savoury pickled taste.
Washing it all down were a selection of wines, as well as two unique Korean drinks: cinnamon punch, made from simmered fresh ginger, cinnamon and sugar, and Yuja Cha or citrus tea, made from the tart Korean yuja fruit and sweetened to make a refreshing drink.
Korean Ambassador Doo-young Lee, in a T&T Guardian interview before the event, spoke about his decision to use Korean food as a bridge for cultural understanding:
"Culture is the most useful and meaningful vehicle to build bridges for people to understand each other. So this year I invited Korean chefs working in New York to visit. As you know, New York is a major cultural, music, and financial centre. And there is a huge Korean community in New York–more than 30,000 people; with a large Koreatown. So there are many excellent Korean restaurants there. I invited three chefs to visit T&T from the Korean Chefs Association of America: Joy Cho, KCAA executive director; Dong Chan Lee, KCAA president; and Seung Joon Choi, KCAA vice president."
"Korean food is very popular in New York right now," said Master Chef Joy Cho, "and 80 per cent of our customers in New York are foreigners. We are very proud to cook our food for them. Today, we have examples of traditional Korean local cuisine, temple food, typical Korean family meals and street food."
Chef Dong Chan Lee (also called David Lee), who also plays the drums and was once an interior designer, said cooking has always been part of his family: "I am from a restaurant family–I am the third generation. My grandmother was a chef. That's why I couldn't decide on a different career! At first I was an interior designer, but then I realised cooking was in my blood and I became a chef. I've been cooking for about 12 years now in New York City. I learned cooking in school and improved my techniques in different restaurants."
Chef Lee graduated from the International Culinary Center in New York and has worked at many NY restaurants, including the Mermaid Oyster Bar, Spitzer's Corner and Barn Joo. He was the executive chef at Goggan, an upscale Korean restaurant in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, where he specialised in New American Cuisine, drawing from his Korean roots. Chef Lee has cooked many dishes, from French cuisine to traditional Korean to creative new fusions. When we asked him about his own favourite Korean dish, Lee laughed and said: "Anything from my mom!"
Perhaps the youngest chef at last Thursday's Taste of Korea event was Seung Joon Choi, who said he started cooking from the age of 16. He's worked in many cooking jobs, from fast food places to the military, and shared: "I was once the personal chef of a general. I then decided to study in America. I went to the Culinary Institute of America, graduated, worked at a couple of Michelin star restaurants, and now I am working in a Korean kitchen."
Today he is the executive chef of the Korean restaurant Gam Mi Ok in NYC. Seung Joon Choi says one of his favourite Korean dishes is mul naengmyun, which is a spicy cold noodle soup made from beef broth mixed with a little kimchi juice, with added noodles, pickled cucumber, radish, boiled egg, and slices of meat–a popular, refreshing summer dish in Korea.
Guests at last week's Taste of Korea event received a beautifully designed 54-page book entitled Hansik, explaining some of the ancient, communal, cultural and spiritual principles shaping Korean cuisine. The term Hansik refers to traditional Korean food, as well as the manners and rules for serving food beautifully. The book showcases earthy, tasteful food photography with well-written short features in a classic, artlessly simple, fresh yet timeless graphic design which breathes a sense of rustic elegance rooted in nature: the publication in itself is a thing of quiet, unassuming beauty. (The book, published by the Korea Tourism Organization, has won two design awards, including a 2015-16 Mercury Excellence Award.)
The book, on a page explaining the Korean verb danda–to contain (a word often paired with food)–includes this graceful statement:
"Koreans believe food should contain the values and devotion of those who make it, the wisdom and laws of nature, and the memories built by sharing it with others."What, exactly, makes Korean food unique?
If French cuisine is associated with sensory indulgence, and Caribbean food with eclectic spices and earthy, comfort-food flavours, then perhaps one defining quality of South Korean food is its sense of harmony, combining spicy tastes with healthy nutrition in culinary traditions developed over centuries.
South Korean food has evolved from dishes drawn from a rich culture of 5,000 years of Korean history. Balanced combinations of rice, vegetable and meat dishes developed from ancient agricultural and nomadic traditions. And because South Korea contains mountain ranges and is surrounded on three sides by the sea, there has always been a very wide range of ingredients to choose from, including many vegetables, root crops, many kinds of seafood, and meats. So Korean cooks have become adept at combining many ingredients in balanced ways.
A distinctive part of the Korean approach to food is the notion that food can be a form of medicine in itself. "In Korea, we believe food and medicines come from the same root. So, for instance, we may use ginseng or other medicinal substances and combine this with other ingredients to make very healthy food. Korean food is also a slow food: the food may seem simple, but the preparations take a long time," says Joy Cho, executive director of the Korean Chefs Association of America.
Korean cuisine has evolved to include many nutritious natural foods. With seasonal vegetable dishes at its core, Korean cooks make generous use of cabbage, bean sprouts and spinach. And they prefer to steam, boil or lightly pan-fry meat and fish, rather than deep-fry, to preserve the meat's inherent flavours.
Korean food is also distinguished by its condiments, or "yangnyeom", which, considerably more than casual sauces, play a key part in setting the tone for food flavours. Fermented soybean in three different forms are the three key condiments, while green onion, garlic and Korean chilli powder are essential herbs used in many dishes. Toasted and ground sesame seeds, sesame oil and perilla oil are also used to add a distinctive savoury flavour.
A key part of Korean food culture is not only the dishes themselves, but the way you eat them: sharing is essential, with large main platters and many smaller side dishes on the table, from which everyone helps themselves in communal meals.
Raw fermented vegetable dishes are a signature part of Korean food. Kimchi is the perfect example of this: a low-calorie food rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and probiotics that aid in digestion and help build the body's immune system. To make kimchi, vegetables are salted, mixed with seasonings including red chilli pepper powder, spring onion and garlic, and then fermented. The kimchi that is preferred most by Koreans contains salted shrimp or anchovies, and has aged underground for at least a year in a jangdokdae (large clay jar). Like a fine wine, the process of aging gives kimchi its deep taste.
Although napa cabbage and radishes are common, you can make kimchi from almost any vegetable; some have even made kimchi from mango, pineapple, cucumber, and watermelon.
According to the Korea Tourism Association, there are more than 200 different kinds of kimchi, and in the olden days, Korean village women would get together for "gimjang", the practice of making large amounts of kimchi to last through the long winter months. This tradition brought families, friends and neighbours together in a culture of cooperation which UNESCO, in 2013, listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity feature. (SA)
Korean food: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/1051_Food.jsp
Embassy of the Republic of Korea in T&T: http://tto.mofa.go.kr/english/am/trinidad/main/index.jsp
Korean Embassy address: 36 Elizabeth Street, St Clair, Port-of-Spain; telephone: 622-9081, 622-1069
Korean Chefs Association of America: http://koreanchefs.org/about-us/