The Food Post!
If you know me, you have probably been wondering when a food post would come along. Honestly, when I arrived in Seoul I wasn’t a huge fan of Korean food so I didn’t know if I would take to it. I even thought this year might lead to dramatic weight loss. Well, I have now spent ten months exploring Korean deliciousness and I’m happy to report that I have changed my mind (and tastebuds!) My weight, however, is about the same.
Korean food is intense. It is often a mix of salty, sweet, spicy and umami all at once. There is always pungent kimchi on the table. There are hundreds of kinds of kimchi, so if you search long enough you will find one you love. Mine is mild, young kimchi.
One thing that surprised me is the Korean food is very seasonal. The fruit and vegetable selection varies monthly. There is a limited number of choices at any one time, but everything is local and fresh. I haven’t had a soft apple, dry orange or less than perfect strawberry since I arrived.
Korea was also a poor country for most of its history. Cabbage is the most common vegetable. Cooks had to be creative, using every part of an animal to be able to feed their families. This year Phil and I tried chicken feet and pig trotters, but those were one and done experiences for me.
There is also a big American influence thanks to our military presence here since 1951. The US Army brought all kinds of rations here in the aftermath of the Korean war, and Koreans repurposed them in their own style. So you can get kimbab (the Korean version of a sushi roll) filled with spam, something called Army Stew, which I think is a bunch of rations stewed together, and KFC-- that’s KOREAN fried chicken; more on that later.
Today, the country is wealthy and well-fed. There are lots of Michelin starred restaurants in Seoul and plenty of wealthy Koreans eat at them. Although you can find any kind of food here, most restaurants still focus on traditional dishes and ingredients. And I have learned to love them.
Finally, here is Amy’s top ten list of Korean food.
1. Bibimbap. Perhaps, Korea’s most famous dish, bibimbap is a bed of rice with carefully cut, artfully arranged vegetables on it and delicious spicy sauce. My favorite kind includes beef tartare and comes in a hot stone bowl that crisps the rice on the bottom. When Korea was a monarchy, all dishes presented to the king had to have five colors. You can see at least five colors in authentic bibimbap.
2. Ttebokki. Of the many dishes that use rice flour, rice cakes and rice noodles here, ttebokki is my favorite. Ttebokki is chewy, oblong rice cakes in a spicy-sweet red pepper sauce. The best versions include beef and lots of fresh vegetables. At restaurants ttebokki arrives at your table warm and cooks on a burner on your table so that you eat it steaming hot. It also gets spicier as the meal goes on.
3. Korean Barbeque. Korean beef isn’t world reknowned, but it should be for its flavor and marbling. At most BBQ restaurants there are only two items on the menu, marinated meat and plain meat. EAch table has a charcoal grill built into it, along with an amazing ventilation system for the smoke and odor. You cook the meat yourself, then wrap it in lettuce or fresh sesame leaves with sauce and maybe some garlic, then stuff the whole concoction into your mouth. Amazing.
4. Shellfish Kalguksu. Kalguksu are handcut noodles. At market stalls, vendors roll them out, cut them, toss them into broth and serve them within a matter of minutes. I like them best with fresh local clams, mussels and scallops.
5. Malatang. This dish is actually Chinese but I never heard of it until I came to Korea, where it is popular. Malatang restaurants are partly self-service. You grab a large bowl and tongs then help yourself to all sorts of fresh vegetables and noodles. Then you hand your bowl to the kitchen where it is weighed and turned into a (very) spicy soup!
6. Dakgalbi. This is a spicy-sweet stir fry of chicken, vegetables and gochuchang sauce. You can order it with Mozzarella cheese which melts on top,1 making it even more gooey and delicious. Like so many dishes, you cook it yourself at the table. Save space at the end to stir in some rice to absorb every bit of sauce.
7. Korean Fried Chicken. Koreans didn’t invent fried chicken, but they took this American staple and improved upon it by making it lighter, less oily, and more flavorful. Fried chicken comes with spicy and sweet sauces often topped with scallions or garlic. It is fried twice to make it extra crispy. The chickens are also smaller and more flavorful. Koreans love to eat fried chicken with very light local beer. This combination is so typical that it is called Chimek, which stands for chicken and mekchu (beer).
8. Green onion and seafood pajeon. These pancakes would never go with maple syrup! They start with more scallions than you could ever imagine in one dish, and feature an assortment of seafood. They are held together with a batter and served with a soy garlic dipping sauce. Also, they are served with a big scissors to cut off pieces for each person.
9. Hoetteoks. Hoetteoks are a Korean fried dough sweet treat. These are deep-fried pancakes stuffed with brown sugar and cinnamon and, if you are lucky, an assortment of seeds. They are cooked to order at street stalls so you can munch on steamy goodness as you stroll through markets.
10. Bingsu: I can’t do this last item justice by myself, so I will close this post with a word from Phil:
My list of favorite foods starts with Bingsu and ends with Bingsu. Bingsu is one of those miraculous foods that looks stunning on Instagram and tastes just as good. It's powdery shaved ice with lots of different toppings. You won't see me much happier than in these photos where I'm sharing a bingsu at a Seoul dessert shop known for its Mango Bingsu, Oreo Monster Bingsu, Melon Bingsu, and my personal favorite -- the Red Bean Bingsu with rice cakes. I brought up a bingsu problem in one of my classes. The issue doesn't get as much attention as North Korean nuclear missiles or Korea's shrinking population, but it does raise some interesting public policy questions. Here's the problem -- bingsu always comes in 2-person sizes. You can't really eat bingsu by yourself. So, Korea has a bingsu diet deficiency among lonely people and people like me (whose spouses don't want to eat bingsu every day). If you'd like to learn about our class's plan to solve this problem -- I'd be happy to meet you in the Korean neighborhood of Palisades Park in New Jersey, one afternoon in 2022. Our treat on the bingsu.