I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight in Seoul in November, working on a number of articles. In between a crazy schedule of interviews, I managed to eat extremely well — and discover even more about Korean food, one of the world’s great cuisines. Here are a few things you need to know:
1. Dietary diversity. Conventional nutritional wisdom goes something like this — we should be filling our bellies with the largest possible range of foods every day. Thirty different foods a day, even 40, and we might be starting to hit our nutritional stride. A Korean meal’s not a Korean meal if the table isn’t close to collapsing. Soup, rice, a main dish, perhaps barbecued meat, and a truckload of side dishes including kimchi (the cuisine has, apparently, a repertoire of 1500 banchan, or side dishes). During one Seoul lunch, an average lunch for a Korean as far as I could tell, I counted the following ingredients (and there would have been more): potato, black sesame seeds and soy oil (in a potato pancake); carrot, cucumber, pine nuts, onion, seaweed, mugwort, water dropwort, acorn jelly (in a salad); freshwater snails, soybean paste (a little casserole); fresh ggaennip leaves, cabbage leaves, purple cabbage leaves, mustard leaves (to wrap things up in); raw garlic and raw green chillies (to be wrapped); anchovies, chilli (side dish); spinach, sesame oil (side dish); burdock, sugar (side dish); cabbage, carrot, red pepper powder, salt, radish, garlic, minced salted shrimp (kimchi). Thirty-two ingredients, and that was just an average lunch. OK, average if you take the snails out of the equation!
2. Green leafy stuff. It’s there in spades — from the constancy of cabbage in kimchi, to the fresh raw leaves used as wraps for barbecued meats or something like that snail casserole. “Ssam” means wrapped (Korean-American chef-preneur David Chang appropriated the word for his momufuku ssäm bar in New York) and during my trip I soon enough discovered that I love anything wrapped in the tangy, slightly bitter ggaennip leaves — the Koreans call them “sesame leaves” although apparently they’re a type of perilla. This week, I found them in the fridge at a Korean grocer in the Sydney CBD (there are a few such providores in Pitt Street, Sydney, in the block between Bathurst and Goulburn; in Melbourne, I’m told Korea World in Box Hill is one of the go-to places for Korean stuff). My half-arsed, home-cooked Korean beef dish was a forgettable affair but, wrapped with a finger of Japanese short-grain rice in a perilla leaf, it almost had me back in Gangnam.
3. Fried chicken. Well, not everything can be healthy, can it! In the student district of Hongdae we ate bite-sized pieces of sweet-and-spicy-sauce-doused fried chicken out of cute paper cups — washed down with beer and soju.
4. The best sweet treat you’ve never heard of. It’s a street-food called hotteok (or hoddeok or hodduk) and it’s magic. Wandering in the Bukchon area in the north of Seoul on a wickedly cold Sunday, I attached myself to the end of a too-long queue and shivered my way to the front to grab one of these brilliant doughnutty, pancakey treats — for less than $1 a pop. The dough is flour, water, sugar, milk and yeast; the insides are a gooey deliciousness that may include cinnamon, honey, brown sugar and chopped nuts. There’s a convincing recipe here that I’ll be trying. When I’ve got a few spare hours.
5. The amazing flavour of charcoal. And we thought we knew our way around a barbecue. Koreans have the barbecuing jump on us. Every second restaurant seems to have a barbecue, or grill, and most use charcoal. The coals will blaze, die down then, when the food is cooked, a waiter will come along and remove the coals. Think barbecued sirloin (bulgogi), ribs (galbi), pork belly, pork jowl, duck, chicken...
6. Fermented stuff. Poor old Pete Evans copped it for admitting to a diet of activated almonds and cultured vegetables but there’s a growing body of opinion that he might be on the right track; that fermented and cultured foods, from sauerkraut and pickles to kimchi and soybean paste, deploy a powerful army of beneficial bacteria in our intestinal tracts. Koreans live on kimchi! They have temperature-controlled kimchi fridges (and if they don’t, a kimchi fridge is on top of their Christmas wish list). Fermentation is also a feature of other indispensable Korean ingredients such as soy sauce, soybean paste, red chilli paste and salted seafood.
7. The best noodle dish you’ve never heard of. The celebratory dish jap chae (or chap chae) uses glass noodles or sweet potato noodles and mixes them up with ingredients that might include stir-fried spinach, carrots, mushrooms, onions, leek, soybean oil and sesame oil. I like this recipe; if you have Terry Durack’s Noodle, it also includes instructions for this great dish.
8. Pork appreciation. Koreans understand that one of the best things in life is pork fat. No, make that layers of pork fat. Samgyeopsal, meaning three-layered, is a national treasure. It’s usually barbecued, often eaten wrapped in perilla leaves with raw garlic and green chilli. (There’s also a five-layered version with a higher meat to fat ration.) For my money though, barbecued pork cheek (gabeurisal), delicately seamed with fat, has the edge on the belly.
9. Sesame. This brilliant ingredient is in everything, sweet and savoury: as roasted seeds — black and white — and as an oil. I picked up a couple of bottles of what may have been some of the world’s finest sesame oil from the excellent SSG food store (1st floor and basement floor, 4-1 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, phone 02 1588 1234) but left my brain behind when it came time to pack it. Thought I was smart putting it in my cabin baggage — easy to access and declare at Sydney Customs, I thought. Not so smart: of course, as more than 100ml of liquid, it was confiscated when I was screened at Incheon airport. I got the very strong sense that the man in uniform who took it from me was delighted to take it into his possession.
10. Serious appetites. The South Koreans aren’t prissy or prim when it comes to food. They love to eat and they love to eat lots. At one of the city’s fancier, more contemporary restaurants, my slim, elegant guide confided that her friends wouldn’t like the restaurant — because the portions were too small. Within half an hour of our three-course meal she was snacking on macarons.
In Sydney you can do Korean cooking classes at the Korean Cultural Office in Elizabeth Street. I’m on the hunt now for the finest Korean restaurants in Australia. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
* Stephanie Wood was a guest of Korea Tourism in Seoul.