Wednesday, August 19, 2009

South Korea: Where in the World Wednesday!

This week's "Where in the World Wednesday" jets us off to SOUTH KOREA. My good friend Zac moved to Seoul two years ago after living in the two Washingtons (Washington State and Washington D.C.) for most of his life. His two years seem to have been very well spent extensively sampling all of the delicious eats Seoul has to offer. He is now my Korean food guru - thanks Zac for sharing your knowledge with us! (Perhaps a South Korea part two is in order?)

(1) How would you describe Korean food in 10 words or less?

Spicy, savory, haphazard, frequently-pickled, unexpected, served-fast, goodness (with kimchi).

(2) Are there any dishes that you think are traditionally Korean? Do you have a favorite?

Kimchi, which is of course a side-dish, is the thing that immediately comes to mind as being distinctly Korean. Kimchi is served at almost every meal in one form or another (yes, there are many many different types). If you are desiring to make kimchi at home in its classical form (with cabbage), you need to take some cabbage, mix in some pickling salt, water, some garlic, ginger, kochu (hot korean pepper) vinegar, ginger and scallions, pickle the cabbage mix in the other stuff, bury it in the ground for several days and then dig it up and place it in an odor-proof fridge until eating. Practice this about 40 times (or get a real recipe off the internets) and you should be ready to go. Actually, there are many different approaches to making kimchi and I cannot speak with any experience as I have never made my own. Most Koreans these days don't even make their own kimchi, since it is easy to buy and cheaply-imported from China.

(3) Do you find that the food in Korea has been greatly influenced by certain cultures/ethnicities/
religions? If so, which ones?

In fact, no. I would say that Korean food is quite distinct. There are some dishes that have been taken from Japan, particularly stuff involving seafood--blowfish stew comes immediately to mind--but even with those the Korean version is really its own thing. That being said, if you are looking for foreign food in Seoul, Chinese and Japanese are definitely the most common, but I would say their impact on actual Korean cuisine has not been significant.

(4) If you were putting together a food gift basket representative of Korea for a friend that was visiting you from somewhere else, what would you include in it?

A gift basked is limiting since I have to skip over all kinds of fresh seafood, not to mention Korean BBQ and all the delicious stews that make up a large part of Korean cuisine, but there is still plenty of Korean goodness to pack in there. Top of the list would be kimchi, of course, in its cabbage and radish variations at least, dduk (Korean rice cakes), kim (dried seaweed), kochu (the aforementioned hot peppers), sam-jjang (a salty red soybean paste for dipping the kochu), dried squid, pajeon mix (Korean pancakes--savory, mix at home with spring onions and octopus) and some asian pears and grapes so large you have to squeeze the flesh out and chuck the skin. Of course we would also need some Korean alcohol, soju, the every-man's rice spirit, and makgeoli, traditional cloudy rice-alcohol that is really sweet and drank from a bowl.

(5) Was there anything that surprised you about Korean eats when you first moved there?

Many things, but the first time I ate live octopus was the biggest shocker. Live octopus comes in two main varieties: either cooked on a hot plate in front of you or its simply cut up and left to squiggle around on your plate. The latter can be a bit tricky to grab with the chopsticks, depending on the speed with which it is making a break for the open table. Its also a little unsettling the first time you eat it, since you need to dunk it in oil to keep it from suction-cupping its way around your mouth or your throat (SCARY!). Indeed, the stories of strangling on unchewed live octopus are legend, particularly amongst foreigners. Even though this happens very rarely, I wouldn't recommend eating it like this.

Despite being a bit out of the ordinary for most people, sannakji is in fact really delicious once you get used to it.

(6) Say that you’re taking me around Seoul, where would we go for breakfast and what would we have? Where would we go to cap off the night for late night eats and what would we have?

Breakfast is not a big thing in Korea: ramen, rice, kim-bap or other little things. Coffee culture is getting to be the rage these days and lots of urban-Seoulites are going to Starbucks, Coffee Bean or similar establishments for coffee and pastries. Waffles have also seeped into the culture, though they are not considered breakfast. Western brunch spots are also appearing around town, a favorite past-time of mine.

If we skip to lunch though, the options abound. A very typical lunch would be spicy korean stew (jjigae), of which there are numerous options: kimchi jjigae, soy-bean paste jjigae, soft tofu jjigae and pudae (meaning: military base) jjigae, to name a few. The latter is famously made with spam and hot dogs, amongst other things, which came from the US military bases back when South Korea was a poorer country. All of them make a great lunch!

For dinner, its Korean BBQ!! Beef is my favorite, Korean beef (han-woo) is the best, but it is some of the most expensive beef you can find. It is usually served with soup and tons of side dishes. It is fun to grill kimchi (the more sour the better) and garlic with it, then wrap it up in lettuce of a sesame leaf with some onion and rice eat it all in one bite. That is a rule! Other favorite Korean BBQ food includes sam-gyeop-sal and doaeji galbi, two different pork dishes. For only one day though, we would have to have Korean beef.

(7) Where was your last amazing meal in Korea and what was in it?

Grill eel, which is one of my all time favorites, at a little restaurant behind the Seoul Plaza Hotel. It is best eaten with friends (like all Korean food) so you can enjoy the full meal, which is usually one eel covered in sweet sauce and another covered in hot sauce. It is served with some soup and a wide assortment of side dishes. All Korean food is served with heaps of side dishes, including your kimchi and a variety of other tasty treats.

(8) On a normal evening, what would you have for dinner?

Any of the above stews or other soups, Korean BBQ, sashimi (mainly tuna), bo-sam, etc etc. Seoul is an eater's paradise. There is really too much to name.

(9) If you could pick one food item that you had in Korea that you could have with you always, what would it be?

Sour kimchi! I eat it more than any Koreans I know.

Thanks again Zac for all your interesting food tidbits!! Until next week... where will we go next?


Snowbell said...

Wow, thank you Zac for the detailed info! I think I might have to visit South Korea now :)

OysterCulture said...

These are such fun reads - thanks for sharing!