Discovering Korean cuisine

- Ardelle T. Merton () - October 23, 2007 - 12:00am

While on a plane bound for Seoul, South Korea, some time ago, I suddenly realized something. What was I going to eat there? Accustomed to home-style adobo and semi-sweet spaghetti, I never did stray far from familiar tastes. Also, I’d heard that Korean food is spicy – as in flaming! Judging from Korean kimchi’s trademark reddish color, I thought it was the kind of spicy that give diners teary eyes and runny noses.

But soon after, that fear turned out to be a myth. Playing connoisseur just for that trip, I braved a medley of unfamiliar spices.  And it was delicious. The dishes had just the right kind of spice and full flavor – far from the choking kind I had imagined. I’ve been a fan of Korean cuisine ever since.

Korean cuisine is based largely on rice, noodles, vegetables, meats and tofu (dubu in Korean). Traditional Korean meals serve varied side dishes called banchan that accompany the ubiquitous steam-cooked short-grain rice, soup, and kimchi (fermented, spicy vegetable banchan, most commonly cabbage, radish or cucumber). Every meal is accompanied by numerous banchan and typically, all dishes are served at the same time. I’d recommend that you try each side dish to decide which ones you’d like best with the meats, because each has a distinct taste.

At traditional restaurants, meats are cooked at the center of the table over a charcoal grill, surrounded by various banchan and individual sticky-rice bowls. After self-cooking the fresh meat on the grill, the cooked meat is then cut into small pieces and wrapped with fresh lettuce leaves, with rice, thin slice of garlic, and other side dishes and seasonings. It’s superb! There are several meat dishes in traditional Korean cuisine, but from what I heard, probably the more popular ones are: Bulgogi, which is thinly sliced or shredded beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, sugar, green onions and black pepper, usually cooked hot off the grill; and Galbi, which is pork or beef ribs and is sliced thicker than bulgogi. It is often called “Korean BBQ”, and can be seasoned or unseasoned. A variation using seasoned chicken is called Dakgalbi. When coupled with lettuce wrapping and vegetable side dishes, the meats taste and feel just as healthy.

Gimbap literally means seaweed-rice and is a very popular snack in Korea. It consists of cooked rice, sesame oil, salt, and sesame seeds, to which small amounts of vinegar and sugar are often added as seasonings. Then it is placed on a sheet of dried laver (which is dried seaweed) and the dish is rolled to resemble Japanese sushi. There are many variations to this snack food, and laver is even paired with chocolate and sweets as other snack foods.

A well-known traditional restaurant called Samwon Garden in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea serves sumptuous Korean dishes at its best, amidst a backdrop of natural landscapes. It’s a must-visit! Locally in Cebu, various Korean restaurants have opened up and they offer diners an authentic taste of Korea, complete with numerous banchan and a charcoal grill in the center of the table. I’d encourage health-conscious diners to discover Korean cuisine for a healthy meal alternative that offers hearty servings of vegetables and meat servings hot off the grill and cooked just the way one would like it.

Bits and Bites about Korean cuisine:

•Kimchi, a staple of Korean meals, is one of the five world’s healthiest foods, according to Health Magazine of the United States. Citing recent studies, the magazine said the healthy bacteria in kimchi can prevent yeast infections, help with digestion and may also help prevent cancer. That’s another reason to love your veggies!

•The distinguishing feature of the Korean food is the spiciness. It’s the sharp kind of spicy. Seasonings (like red pepper, green onion, soy sauce, bean paste, garlic, ginger, sesame, mustard, vinegar, wine, etc.) are combined in various ways to enhance Korean dishes.

•Unlike other chopstick cultures, Koreans have used spoons since at least the 5th century. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, Koreans generally do not pick up their rice or soup bowls, but leave both on the table and eat from them with spoons.

•Dried cuttlefish is Korea’s most popular snack food and is even sold in vending machines.

•The consumption of dog meat is a traditional part of Korean cuisine and medicine. Dog is most commonly consumed in a dish called bosintang (spicy dog stew) and in the medicinal extract gaeju. Dog meat is believed to replenish energy lost to summer heat, and to enhance male sexual stamina. Historically, dog was also eaten because it was an easy source of meat in a poor agrarian society.


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