(When I wrote this article back in 2001, Korean food was well established in the Chicago area but still unfamiliar to most non-Koreans. I had titled the piece “The East that’s Known Least.” It was retitled “Some Like it Hot,” with the subtitle “Korean Food is Spicy, Savory and an Adventure to Eat.” The new title actually went better with what was left of my article, because the several paragraphs about Korea’s history were cut out in the published version. My title referred not just to the food, but to the entire story of Korea, so the change made sense. However, I’m a big fan of South Korea, so while I’ll cut those paragraphs here, so this matches what was published, I’ll post them later—because I think the story is remarkable. Not right for an intro to Korean food in a glossy magazine, I now realize, but still a story I love telling. So here is the article from North Shore Magazine. [The black patches on the page shown in the photo were side bars. One is the recipe that follows this piece. The other was a list of Korean restaurants and grocery stores. Alas, one of my favorite restaurants, Garden Buffet, has closed. The number of stores, however, has increased dramatically.])
“Want to try something new?” has long been a common question in my family. About a dozen years ago, a response of “yes” to my brother’s asking it landed me in a corner booth at the family-owned Mandarin House in Evanston. However, this time, the “something” wasn’t just a new restaurant, it was a new cuisine. This was to be my introduction to Korean food. Pleased to be sharing his latest discovery, my brother offered to do the ordering. Always appreciative of a good guide in new territory, I again said “yes.”
The table was set with chopsticks and large spoons. There was a bottle of soy sauce and a small bowl of red chili paste off to the side. Shortly after we ordered, the space in the middle was being loaded with little dishes full of intriguing things. I recognized bean sprouts and spinach; my brother pointed out white kimchi, red kimchi, diced white radish, and seasoned fish cake. Individual bowls of broth and of white rice added to the growing collection on the table. Then the main courses arrived—mandoo, bulkokee, chap chae, kulbi. Big on garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and onion, it was a cuisine that was easy to like. I’ve been back often, since that initial introduction, but have also delighted in exploring this cuisine in several other of the area’s increasing number of Korean restaurants.
Probably the single most widely known Korean food item is kimchi. This savory, fermented vegetable dish (which you may also see spelled kim chee or kimchy) appears at virtually every Korean meal. Cabbage is common in kimchi, but one also finds green onions, radish, cucumber, and other vegetables prepared this way. Kimchi can range from mild to hot, but Koreans use red peppers, so it’s always obvious if you’re getting the fiery stuff. (However, even the red peppers are fermented, so while the pepper paste you see brightening a dish signals heat, it may not be as hot as you think.) In addition to kimchi, a wide variety of other side dishes are served with meals. These might include spinach with garlic, bean sprouts tossed in sesame oil, shredded white radish, tofu with chili, omelet strips, diced potato, seaweed salad, or marinated fish cake. Actually, finding out what sorts of kimchi and side dishes you’ll get is a big part of the fun in Korean dining.
While Korea does have in common with other Asian countries that “waste not, want not” attitude that can include some odd items in the cooking, weird ingredients are not found in the most common or most popular dishes, so don’t worry. Plus at most restaurants, staff will advise you if they think something would be unpleasant for a Westerner (they want you to enjoy your meal).
Bulkokee is so popular in Korea that it is virtually the national dish. (You may find it spelled bulgogi or pul kogi. This and other Korean words are transliterated from the Korean alphabet, so there is no standard English spelling.) Strips of tender beef are marinated in soy sauce, garlic, onions, sesame oil, and brown sugar before being grilled. At most restaurants, your bulkokee will be brought out cooked, but there are a growing number of establishments where small charcoal grills are built into the tables, and you get to grill your own meat.
Sounding more like music than a meal, the name bi bim bop always makes me smile. It’s a dish that is found in both vegetarian and meated forms. A bowl is filled with vegetables, tofu or meat, and rice. A fried egg is put on top, broth is added, and everything is mixed together. Hot chili paste can be added to taste.
Charbroiled, marinated short ribs of beef (kulbi, or golbi) are rich and flavorful. They’ve been good everywhere I’ve had them, but one of my favorite places for kulbi is Garden Buffet. This is one of the restaurants where you can get a table with a charcoal grill in the middle. You load a plate with marinated meat, chicken, or seafood from the buffet, and then cook it at your table (though the staff will help you, if you’re new to the experience). The kulbi is cut almost to the bone, then you cut the rest off with the kitchen shears that arrive with your red-hot pot of charcoal. Garden Buffet is a great place—but probably not for first-timers, unless you’re with someone who knows Korean food. Because most of the clientele is Korean, there are no signs on anything, and you could find that the light broth you’re ladling over your noodles is really sweet cinnamon punch.
Dumplings, noodles, and “rice cakes” are also popular. Dumplings are mandoo, and they come fried or steamed, usually stuffed with a flavorful meat mixture. Noodles can be wheat, rice, bean thread, or buckwheat. They can vary dramatically in width, and are common in soups or stirfry. Chap chae (or japchae) is a savory mixture of cellophane noodles, meat, veggies, and black mushrooms. It is usually redolent of sesame oil and garlic, and is a favorite item at the carry out counters of Asian grocers, as well as being popular on menus. Buckwheat noodles are often sweetened and served as part of desert. Rice cakes, which are sliced into small ovals and added to soups and stews, are kind of like thick noodles in texture. The Lincoln Noodle House is a good place to explore noodles and rice cakes.
Living and working in the suburbs as I do, I have been delighted to see Korean restaurants moving farther north and west. I’ve also delighted in seeing a lot of Asian markets pop up in the ‘burbs. Though I rely on these markets for foods and ingredients from throughout Asia, most Asian markets in the northern suburbs are Korean-owned, so they are a great resource if you’re sampling Korean cuisine. They all carry a wide range of kimchi and side dishes (panchan), and usually offer carry-out of popular Korean meals, such as chap chae, yummy chicken wings in sweet sauce, or savory “pancakes” (chon) made of grated potato or dried peas, green onion, kimchi, and eggs. Each store is slightly different; all are great.
One word of warning—this is a cuisine where hot can mean very hot, so take that into consideration before you dig into a big serving of anything that has been identified as hot or spicy. Most dishes aren’t going to hurt you, but believe them if they tell you something is hot, at least until you’re familiar with the heat-rating system of a specific restaurant or brand name.
Dessert usually consists of fruit (commonly oranges or melon). However, sweet buckwheat noodles (mmemil makkusku) are sometimes served. Cold, sweet drinks—rice drink (shikhae) or (my favorite) cinnamon punch (sujonggwa)—are also sometimes offered as dessert.
In the suburbs in particular, where restaurants know that they are more likely to encounter neophytes, menus go into detail on what dishes contain. Sometimes, they will even bypass the transliteration, and go straight to the list of ingredients. These descriptions can help you experiment and discover your own favorites. And if you enjoy your Korean dinner, and you’re feeling adventurous, you can try Kamsa-hamnida. It’s Korean for “Thank you.”
Because there is such a wealth of restaurant and carry-out possibilities, there is not a lot of Korean food I bother to prepare for myself. However, I do make bulkokee. Once you know how to make the marinade, however, you’re not limited to using it for bulkokee. It can be used to prepare flank steak for the grill, or add a teaspoon or more of fresh, grated ginger and use it for chicken. And if you’re concerned about the large amount of sodium in the soy sauce, you can substitute dry sherry or cooking sherry for part of the soy sauce. Enjoy.
1-1/2 lb. lean sirloin steak or top round of beef
3 scallions (spring onions)
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
2/3 cup soy sauce
3 Tbs. soft brown sugar
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
5 Tbs. sesame oil (dark/toasted)
2 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds (optional)
Slice beef into strips about 1 to 1-1/4 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick. Combine next 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Add meat to marinade, coating all pieces thoroughly. Set aside for two hours at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator. (If marinade doesn’t cover meat completely, toss meat to recoat two or three times during marinating.)
Preheat the broiler. Lay beef strips on a lined broiler pan and broil for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the strips are evenly brown and cooked through. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
While grilling it over charcoal adds even more flavor, a small hibachi-style grill would be needed, because the pieces of meat can get lost on a full-size grill. Serves 4-6.
©2010 Cynthia Clampitt