When I was a bachelor in Boston, my favorite neighborhood rest-aurant was a small, unassuming storefront called Korea Garden. At least once a week, I would retreat to this oasis of calm and warmth for a sorely needed dose of mandoo (garlicky beef ravioli), kimchi (fiery pickled napa cabbage), and bool kogi (sweet-salty sesame grilled beef).
In matters culinary, Korea tends to be eclipsed by its two giant neighbors, China and Japan. Most Americans have had a lifelong experience with some sort of Chinese cooking, while sushi, teriyaki, and other Japanese dishes are now so popular, they’ve become part of the North American repertoire. But most of us would be hard pressed to name a single dish from Korea.
This is a shame, for Korea offers some of the most refined, sophisticated, and intrinsically healthy food I have eaten on five continents. Dishes designed with a dazzling array of colors, textures, and flavors. Menus remarkable for their sparing use of meats and seafoods and high proportion of grains and vegetables. Korean cooking lacks the oiliness associated with many Chinese dishes, while its flavors are more vibrant than the restrained, disciplined tastes of Japan.
Actually, barbecue was about the last thing on my mind when I visited Korea. The month was February, and the bone-numbing cold had frozen the water in the moats around Seoul’s Kyongbuk-kung Palace. This was the time of year for hearty soups and stews.
Curiously, though, wherever I went, I found barbecue-in showy restaurants, homey neighborhood eateries, and back-alley cookshops. In the process, I discovered that in Korea grilling is done, as often as not, indoors and is popular all year round. Koreans gather around their tabletop charcoal braziers with the same fervor, the same hunger for warmth that bring skiers to crowd around fireplaces at ski lodges in the Alps.
This truth was brought home to me by a restaurant called Dae Won Gak. Actually, the term "restaurant" is a bit of an understatement. Dae Won Gak is a veritable village of 60 traditional Korean houses on several acres of hillside overlooking Seoul. Some of the structures are large enough to accommodate 300 people, others cozy and intimate enough to seat only two. Each boasts the gracefully curved eaves, ceramic tile roofs, rope mats, and intricate woodwork of a traditional Korean home.
I took my seat on the floor at a knee-high table with a ceramic brazier in the center. Our waitress filled it with blazing coals, then, leaning over with her chopsticks, arranged thin sheets of marinated beef and tiny skewers of garlic cloves on the concave grill over the brazier. Smoke filled our nostrils, the sounds of sizzling meat sang in our ears, as the bool kogi was grilled before our eyes.
The traditional way to eat bool kogi is wrapped, much like moo shu pork or fajitas (although this is not how it’s usually served at Korean restaurants in the U.S.). I placed a snippet of meat and a grilled garlic clove on a romaine lettuce leaf, rolled it up, dipped it in a delicately flavored Asian pear sauce, then popped it into my mouth. The contrast of sweet and salty, of pungent and fruity, of crisp vegetable and chewy but tender meat was as haunting and complex as the twangy kai ya kum music that played in the background.
To round out the meal, there was an impressive array of refreshing side dishes: spicy daikon radish salad, onion and lettuce salad, nutty bean sprout salad, three types of kimchi, plates of lettuce leaves, sliced cucumbers, and rice.
Korean Barbecued Ribs
Koreans have raised the beef short rib to the level of art in a dish called kalbi kui (literally, "grilled ribs"). I enjoyed my rib experience in one of Seoul’s most famous grill restaurants, Samwon Garden. I didn’t enjoy it alone: This behemoth eatery seats 700 and serves 2,000 people on a busy day. Samwon means "three utmosts" in Korean, explained the restaurant’s manager, Mr. Park. The three utmosts in question here are cleanliness, kindness, and deliciousness. I might add a fourth utmost, entertainment, as Samwon is a veritable theme park, complete with its own pond, mountain, and waterfalls.
Mr. Park led me down to an immaculate kitchen, where 70 chefs toil round the clock to feed the appreciative multitudes upstairs. One whole room has been consecrated to the preparation of the kalbi. The restaurant starts with whole rib sections of beef, which are cut into 2-inch cross sections on a band saw, then butterflied into thin strips. According to Mr. Park, kalbi kui is a relatively new addition to the Korean repertoire, originating in restaurants, not in the home, in the 1950s. As with bool kogi, kalbi kui is cooked on a brazier in the center of the table and is eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves.
Like most Korean dishes, Korean barbecue is built from a simple palate of flavors: the salty succulence of soy sauce, the sweetness of sugar or honey, the nutty tang of sesame oil and sesame seeds. Accents are provided by the pungency of garlic and scallion, the tingle of ginger, the bite of chile powder and chile paste.
What this means in practical terms is that Korean food is much easier to prepare in an American kitchen than, say, Chinese or Japanese. It requires few esoteric ingredients or tricky cooking techniques. Using a relatively limited number of ingredients, Koreans create an astonishing range of flavors.
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