Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Korean food

The very first mouthful was enough to change my personal food landscape forever. The savoury-ness from the chickeny, spicy broth was both intense and soothing. The chilli rapidly creeps up on your unsuspecting tongue but it is the perfect accompaniment to a glass of cold beer and a dish of white rice. The blast of heat quickly tapers into a low, background hum of residual warmth that lingers in the background. The clean, steamed white rice, dotted with several other grains cools the mouth further before the process is repeated.

Every third or fourth mouthful of the appropriately named ‘tang’ is replaced with mouthwatering and meltingly delicious pieces of chicken, cooked and served on the bone (is there any other way?). The chicken pieces are cooked in the surprisingly simple but magical combination of water and ‘gochu jang’, or chilli paste, until they fall apart at the merest touch of a chopstick and therefore provide no resistance to my formidable and well practised jaws. Sometimes you get a large chunk of breast with a sliver of bone or cartilage and a small coat of skin and sometimes you get a piece of the bottom of the carcass with all the hidden treasures such pieces have, the oysters being my absolute favourite part of any chicken. They are all there, the thighs, legs and neck. If you are lucky you will have a dining companion that isn’t fussy what part they have, or better still a companion that actually desires the breast and breast alone. This leaves the greedy to mop up the rest of the chicken, to suck, nibble and prise all the tender little morsels from their boney prisons.

This first, life changing experience has been repeated many, many times since and has, every time, elevated me into a kind of Korean, culinary Nirvana, a trance like state of blissfulness that I have not found through any other food.

After living in Korea and indulging in many things that the culture had to offer, not least of all the food, with its inventive use of usually snubbed vegetables like the radish and the cabbage, I was ready to leave and travel elsewhere not knowing if I would ever return.

All throughout my time in Korea, in spite of the delicacies at my disposal, I would often find myself slipping into day dreams about food from home. The home cooked food of my youth, roasted joints of meat, fresh from the oven, sizzling, as I sliced off a piece of the crispiest and at the same time moistest meat, all the while avoiding my mother’s hand as it tried, futilely, to stop me. The corned beef hash, the stews made with the carcass of the previous days roast dinner, the cheese and potato pie with pickled beetroot and my mothers own take on Spaghetti Bolognese and curry.

I travelled around Japan and China after twelve months in Korea and ended up taking the trans-Mongolian train from Beijing to Moscow, which is a long and, at times, arduous journey. Most people stop off several times along the way in places like Ulaanbaatar, Ulan-Ude and various other places with funny names. We had been away from home for around fifteen months and this was the final leg of the longest adventure of my life and both my girlfriend and I were looking forward to going home and so we did the five and a half days straight through, from Beijing to Moscow. This mammoth journey provided us with a challenge. We had to entertain ourselves, in very close quarters, and not fall out before we triumphantly arrived home. We had bought a chess set but as Christina had never really played before the first game lasted all of five minutes and the second game never happened at all. Card games were soon exhausted too which left reading, but as the only pastime left we were weary of using up all our reading material and being left to have to, gulp, talk for the remaining few days.

Our conversations have always centered on food yet in such an environment and with twelve months of home cooked eating to catch up on we earnestly started compiling a list of what we would devour, like ravenous wolves, the second we got home. It started innocently enough at first, each of us naming something delicious and the other licking their lips and agreeing with exaggerated head bobbing but it soon turned into a game where we would try to trump each other with an even more delicious, or forgotten delicacy.

As the train got closer and closer to the west and further away from the east everything became increasingly comfortable. The formerly indecipherable characters of the Japanese and Chinese languages made way for the almost comforting Cyrillic alphabet, so much so that when we finally stepped off the train at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky rail terminal and saw ‘Москва́' on the station front I felt practically at home.

The list of food conjured by our starved minds was extensive and consisted of all kinds of British fare, both traditional and pseudo-British. The most missed by us was probably pies and pasties. I grant that they aren’t the healthiest of snacks and I rarely eat them at home but there were times when a pasty would have been perfect, corned beef, a Cornish pasty or even one of the newer varieties like chicken tikka would all have gone down very well. As mentioned, the roast dinner (chicken, lamb, beef or pork) with roasted potatoes, vegetables and gravy, was sorely missed as were newer additions to the staple British diet, the curry and the surprisingly missed Kebab. Homely soups and stews were there too in all their forms as well as simple baked potatoes, various cold meats, crumpets with butter, hummus and pitta, real British chips and of course cheese.

We eventually arrived home after a short stay in Moscow and a day and a night in Stuttgart, where we sampled fantastic (or should that be fantastisch?)German sausages and beer.

After the usual round of going to see friends and family I sat and contemplated what I had just experienced, the things I had seen, the people I had met and the food I had eaten. As happy as I was to be home and to have at my disposal a supermarket that had almost everything that was on my mental list to eat there was something missing. Now, all the things I had dreamed of eating were at my fingertips but I didn’t really want them, not in any serious way. What I did want was the one thing I couldn’t have, the one thing I thought I wanted to escape. Like a victim of Stockholm syndrome, I wanted, once again to stimulate my tastes buds with the spicy, the sour and the salty tones of unpretentious, home cooked Korean food.

Korean food is notorious for its liberal use of chilli, indeed the vast majority of Korean food is swamped in chilli paste. But don’t let that put you off, the use of chilli may be generous but it is sensibly used in conjunction with other flavours and produces mouth watering and thoroughly palatable food. I have my favourites from the mouthwatering array of dishes available and I have also been brave and tried many things that may have made less enthusiastic eaters wince, but in all my culinary experiments I have come across one thing that I found thoroughly unpalatable and downright disgusting and, coincidentally, it doesn’t have any chilli.

The abhorrent bondeggi, the larvae of the silkworm, is stewed for what smells like an age and then dished up to locals and unsuspecting foreigners alike. At its very best it smells and tastes rancid, nauseating and utterly unwholesome. The single one I put into my mouth burst upon impact with my teeth, even though I tentatively bit into it, and spewed its bitter tasting liquid into my mouth. The liquid coats your mouth for what seems like days and no amount of soju, beer or paint thinner will move it. The musty, rancid old insect carcass would benefit from a healthy dose of chilli paste, then, and only then would I even consider breaking my one hundred meter exclusion zone.

Korean food is also incredibly healthy (even the bondeggi I gather) but as I find it all so irresistible weight gain is a real possibility as most dishes come with rice. Lots of dishes in Korean cuisine are served in a semi-raw state and so retain a lot of their natural benefits and seeing as every dish comes with some kind of pickled vegetable side dish, every meal has its health benefits.

I lived in Jeonju, which is a centre of Korean food excellence and home to the nationally (and soon to be UK wide if I get my way) famed ‘Bibimbap’. Jeonju bibimbap, as it is known around the country, as well as in Japan and parts of America, is one of the healthiest dishes in Korean cuisine. The genius of this dish is in its simplicity. It consists of a bowl of cooked rice topped with up to thirty ingredients including nuts, seeds, seaweed, various pastes, meat, some salad leaves, and chilli paste, topped off with a raw egg. The ingredients are hurriedly mixed together until uniformity in colour and texture has been achieved. It is then eaten as quickly as you can move spoon to mouth (or is that just me?). Personally I prefer the ‘dolsot’ version, this comes in a heated stone bowl and so scorches the bottom layer of rice and sticks it to the bowl, which is to be scraped off and eaten with relish.

Korea is perhaps most famously known around the world for its barbeque, although the word rarely features in Korea. The restaurants have a network of pipes, suspended from the ceiling, that weave around the room and drop down to hover above a table looking like an alien from a poorly funded fifties Hollywood ‘B’ movie. This network of extractor fans are essential to the wellbeing of the patrons as the smoke from the inbuilt BBQ pits can threaten to get out of control. Pots of hot coals are placed in the well in the centre of the table, a grill placed over them and meat grilled to your liking. You are in complete control (unless the owner takes it upon him or herself to help the useless foreigner) to grill away.

Kalbi and samgyeopsal are the two most famous BBQ’d meats but moaksal (pig neck) is my personal favourite which has the perfect fat to meat ratio and tastes fantastic. The pieces of meat are cut up on the grill with a pair of scissors into bite size pieces, dipped in one of several sauces and then wrapped in a lettuce leaf. In these restaurants, sometimes known as ‘gogi jips’ or meat houses, marinated chicken feet are served as well as ‘dak dong jip’, which translates as ‘chicken poo house’, but for the weaker stomached among you it can be called marinated chicken gizzard. All these barbequed meats, as well as most things in Korea come with some kind of chilli accompaniment, whether it is as a pure paste or as a chilli soaked vegetable.

Korea is equally famous for its liberal use of chilli as it is infamous for its use of a certain, unmentionable meat. If you aren’t too fond of having a thin layer of skin scorched from the roof of your mouth and tongue, there some dishes that don’t utilise the heat infusing properties of this capsicum. Contrary to what I said earlier, not every dish in Korea has chilli as a major component but the ratio of dishes with chilli to dishes without fall heavily in favour of the former. Samgyetang (a soup made with a whole, stuffed, small chicken) and poshintang (the infamous dog soup), both come without chilli but are also both seasonal and so not at their best all year round.

Far and away the most popular and famous food, both in Korea and out of it, is Kimchi. The dish of spicy picked vegetables (most commonly Chinese cabbage) is now so famous that it recently made its maiden voyage into outer space with Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So Hyun. It is used widely as a major ingredient in some of Korea’s most popular dishes including various soups (tangs/guks) and stews (jjigaes) as well as being the driving force in the delicious Kimchi chon (a pancake often dubbed ‘Korean pizza’) and the first side dish served with every meal.

The health benefits of Korean food, particularly Kimchi (which is said to have cancer prevention properties), are often quoted by Koreans, as much out of national pride as any irrefutable evidence that they do indeed prevent any illnesses. There is no doubt in my mind that Korean food is good for the body, the semi raw vegetables served as banchan ( ) with every meal convinced me of that and I know it is undoubtedly good for the soul. The endorphins released into my bloodstream the second the first spicy, tangy, sweet or sour mouthful is delivered will, under oath, testify to that.

My personal favourite food is, I suppose a controversial one in many ways but it is my standout food from Korea and it is the reason I sat in my bedroom, after being away from home for fifteen months, not longing for bacon sandwiches or crumpets with salty, melting butter. It is the indisputable (for me at least) king of Korean food, the hotter than hot, the tastiest of them all, all hail and bow down to the magnificence that is dak dori tang. 

As you can probably tell I like this dish. A lot. It’s spicy and savoury taste is, for me at least, unrivalled anywhere in the world yet its authenticity, and therefore its status as a Korean food, is sometimes challenged by Koreans. The name may suggest to you the origin of the dispute and that is that ‘dori’ is a Japanese word, or more accurately a koreanisation of ‘tori’, the Japanese word for chicken (‘tang’ is really the Chinese word meaning soup as Koreans tend to use ‘guk’ but seeing as Koreans don’t really look to favourably on Japan the ‘dori’ part seems to the main point of contention). It should, I suppose be labeled a fusion food because of its nomenclature but that would put it in the same league as sweet potato pizza and tofu doughnuts (which are surprisingly nice!) and I’m just not prepared to do that.

The dish, in English, would really translate as chicken chicken soup and does exactly what you might expect from a Korean chicken soup. Chicken, potatoes and chilli paste, all cooked together with water until the magic happens, and boy does it happen. The juices run from the chicken pieces (and the bones and skin) and mix with the water and chilli paste to form the most delicious dish imaginable, the sweet and spicy nectar can be drunk by the spoonful or mixed with rice to make a delicious, spicy and savoury kind of rice pudding. If a dish was ever to be said to be greater than the sum of its parts then this is undoubtedly it. The bowl of bubbling soup arrives at the table (it is sometimes put onto a small gas burner at your table) and is sometimes topped with a few large slices of raw onion. The hit of pure and simple satisfaction that I get from the first mouthful of steaming, spicy, maroon broth is a sensation that I have not experienced with any other food (in fact there aren’t many other things in my life that give me this kind of pleasure). Digging around the bowl you unearth big chunks of potato that have been nestled amongst the chopped up pieces of chicken and are soaked in the cooking liquid and are quite simply irresistible. I imagine Nigel Slater would like it, earthy and simple home cooked food that is as cheap as it is delicious.

The debate will rage over the dish’s status as authentic Korean food or not, but even the most ardent nationalists cannot resist its spicy charms. 

Korean food is often overlooked in the western world by the more fashionable Japanese or the better established Chinese cuisines; much like the country itself but such a secret cannot be kept hidden forever. I will endeavour to speak up in defence of this small peninsula’s mouth watering, gut burning but soul satisfying food and will promote it at every opportunity. I will, for evermore, bore people with my tales of out of body eating experiences and culinary nirvana in Korea. 


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