A foreigner attempts to re-create the flavors of food-crazed Korea and reflects on the meal that started it all.
One of the first things my wife and I did after making the joint decision to start a new life in Korea was visit a Korean restaurant in our hometown. We brought along a few adventurous (and food crazy) friends who blindly led us into ordering the better part of a large and complicated menu. The waitress seemed quite amused by the quantity of our selection, but obliged us anyway.
We were rightly embarrassed when the food arrived in waves. The first wave of nearly a dozen fermented vegetable side dishes preceded a platter holding a giant pan-fried flounder and another seafood pancake dish. A plate of spicy rice cake took up the last open space at the table, so various soups and two kinds of pork ribs were temporarily housed on a cart which the waitress kindly set next to our table, within easy chopstick range.
I am pleased to report that more than a year later, my wife and I have learned not only the value of moderation, but also the names and correct pronunciations of many of the foods we sampled that fateful day back in the States. I am also happy to find that our little hometown restaurant was just about spot on in recreating the flavors prevalent on the Korean Peninsula.
Most people associate Korean food with spiciness, and a recent battle with a teary, nose-runningly hot stir fried octopus confirms my belief that this assumption is undeniably correct. However, in addition to spicy and salty fermented foods, the Korean palate is also partial to sweet flavors-especially concerning meat. I am not ashamed to say I now crave the “Koreanized” versions of some of my favorite foods such as pizza from my pizza oven (with corn, sweet potato puree, hot sauce and sweet pickles) and hamburgers made from my burger press (marinated and topped with a pear juice-based barbecue sauce).
Here is a traditional Korean meat sauce recipe that works great as a marinade for big cuts of meat, or as a garnish to toss in after cooking for something like ground beef or (my favorite) cross-cut short ribs.
Traditional Korean Meat Sauce (for 1/2 lb. of meat)
- 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/2 Tablespoon sugar
- 1Tablespoon crushed garlic (Here are some great garlic presses for you!)
- 2 teaspoons chopped green onion (Here are some great onion choppers for you!)
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- pinch of black pepper
Restaurants are extremely popular here. I am convinced there isn’t a block in Korea without a row of family run restaurants and most are modestly priced in the $5(USD) a meal range. Of course, one of the benefits of living in such a go-go-go culture is that you don’t have to wait very long to get your food. Plus, the no tipping policy isn’t a bad perk either.
Despite the obvious benefits to dining out in Korea, my wife and I still cook for ourselves most nights. One of my favorite dishes for using up all of the leftovers is fried rice. I put kimchi in my fried rice when I have it on hand, but obviously you don’t have to. The best part about fried rice is that you can experiment and throw anything you like in there. It doesn’t have to be exact. Just make sure you use old rice (at least a day old). I tried doing it with just cooked rice and it was a sloppy mess.
- Batch (4 servings) of day-old, cooked white rice
- 1/2 lb. chopped chicken (or any leftover meat you have on hand)
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup scallions, chopped
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup oyster sauce
- 4 Tablespoons sesame oil
- Heat a non-stick pan or wok with the vegetable oil and half of the sesame oil.
- Break apart the rice and add to the pan
- Add in the oyster sauce, half of the soy sauce and the chicken. Heat through. The rice should look dry, not shiny from the liquid.
- Remove from pan
In a separate bowl beat the remaining soy sauce and sesame oil into the eggs. Fry the egg mixture in a pan and incorporate into the rice along with the chopped scallions.
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