“Korean food isn’t shy,” said actor Hugh Jackman, “It’s all about loud, punchy flavours.”
Guided by beautiful and compelling African-American-Korean show host Marja Vongerichten, Jackman and his wife Deborra-Lee, actress Heather Graham, and star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten ate their way through 12 fascinating episodes of The Kimchi Chronicles in 2011.
Since then, Graham and Jackman aren’t the only westerners who’ve gotten hooked on Korea’s distinctive flavours.
I had my first Korean meal last week at Arisu restaurant on Bloor West. An excellent impression was pretty much assured—Arisu’s chefs were selected by the Korean Consulate to cater this year’s “Rendezvous Korean Cuisine 2012,” where politicians and celebrities sampled Korean culinary favourites.
I needed help, you see.
My first Korean food experience involved my neighbour giving me a tub of perfectly aged year-old kimchi for my university graduation. I love cabbage, but when I tasted it I thought, “Does she hate me?”
Apparently it takes time to get used to the strongly fermented flavour. When I ate at Arisu I asked for week-old kimchi instead, which was delicious.
With the help of Arisu owner James Lee, I became an initiate and an enthusiast in the same day.
The Yin and Yang of yum
Science is just now catching up to Korean food philosophy. Each dish should be in harmony with all the others. Main and side dish ingredients are blended to optimize health, reduce toxicity, and stimulate the appetite.
A Korean meal needs to be experienced in its totality. Everything in the “set” you order should come to the table at once to be grazed upon at will.
When you are eating you will notice the contrasting colours and flavours. The five cardinal colours of blue, red, yellow, white, and black correspond to nature’s five elements, as do the five essential flavours: salty, hot, sweet, bitter, and sour. It’s all very feng shui.
All elements should be eaten at every meal, “making balance, helping each organ at once,” explains Lee. You needn’t worry about making a study of harmonizing your meal. You can order a set that’s already organized on the menu.
Think of banchan, the five or six small side dishes that come with a main meal, as sophisticated condiments used to balance the meal. The most famous banchan constituent is kimchi.
Kimchi is the very heart and soul of Korean cuisine. So central to Korean life, people say “kimchi” when they smile for the camera instead of “cheese.”
This probiotic super-food is not confined to cabbage. Onion, radish, cucumber, eggplant, and sesame and radish leaf kimichi, all have their season. There are hundreds of regional varieties.
Kimchi’s salty taste comes from naturally sun-dried sea salt high in calcium, magnesium, iron, and other minerals.
Just as the wine cellars of the west have been replaced by wine coolers, the traditional earthen pots that were buried to allow kimchi to ferment have been replaced by special kimchi fridges. Most Korean homes have one.
Do it yourself!
Korean barbeque is very accessible eating. You and your fellow diners cook it together on a grill in the centre of the table. There is a convection fan under the grill, so your hair won’t smell like dinner afterwards.
The barbequed meat or veggies can be placed into ssam, lettuce, or sesame leaves, with a little spoonful of rice and a dollop of your favourite banchan condiment. You pop the tasty bundle right into your mouth in one shot.
I had the bulgogi, which is a giant pot of marinated beef and veggies we cooked ourselves at the table. I paired it with a delightful bowl of multigrain rice.
Make monastic eating a habit
Korean Buddhist cuisine is also on the menu. Though Lee regrets not offering a complete selection of vegetarian monastery food because he is “very close to vegetarian” himself, there is a lovely vegetarian set called Celestial Garden and many other options for herbivores.
The perilla and mushroom stew Deul Kkae Tang was tasty, but the black sesame soup made my body hum on a cellular level.
Korea’s national dish, bibimbap, and hotpot are both available in vegetarian options. Next time I go I’ll have the vegetable gyoza, agedashi tofu, or ginseng tempura.
Getting down to business
When I said Koreans put everything on the table at once to eat, there are some exceptions to this rule. Most notable is the business meal, which comes in formal courses and is available if you specify when making a reservation.
Between $50 and $60 per person, it is a great way to impress an illustrious confrere or placate the in-laws.
European wine-tasting is very trendy in South Korea right now. Lee has taken the time to select a list of wines from around the world that pair well with Korean and Japanese menu items.
There is an impressive list of Asian beers, wines, and spirits. Herb and fruit wine is of interest, as is soju, which is akin to vodka but sweeter and made from everything from rice to sweet potato.
Many types of sake and a careful selection of Canadian, Asian, and European beers are also available.
A little liquid encouragement is always recommended if you are having a private party in the karaoke facility downstairs.