Monday, March 27, 2006

Seoul 2006 - Part II: Korean cuisine

(Continued from Seoul 2006 - Part I: Cityscape of Seoul)

Secondly, Korean cuisine. Its ingredients are more or less similar to those of Japanese cuisine, but they cook them quite differently. On the first evening in Seoul, Sooyoung, my Korean friend in Seoul, took me to a restaurant in the Gangnam area. It was full of surprises. Doenjang-jjigae, soybean paste stew, looks like Japanese miso soup, but smells of natto, fermented soybeans unique to Japanese cuisine. This confused me a lot. These two - miso soup and natto - are different things to me, but they are part of the same dish for Koreans. Sooyoung was surprised to know that I didn't know this national stew for Koreans. How little I knew about Korea. I also had mackerel-kimchi stew. Again an impossible combination in Japanese cuisine (Kimchi, Korean spicy pickled salad, is popular in Japan as well, but Japanese people eat it only with barbecued meat, never with fish.

The list still goes on. Koreans love beef and pork grilled on an indoor barbecue. Japanese love it as well though we usually broil raw beef (not so often pork) while Koreans more often than not barbecue marinated beef and pork. But the crucial difference is that Koreans dip grilled beef or pork into kinako powder (ground soybean). Kinako in Japan is used for eating mochi - sticky rice cake - especially on New Year's holidays or for sweets. Its combination with grilled meat is again an impossible one in Japanese cuisine. On the other hand, it's an impossible mix for Koreans to eat boiled rice with barbecued meat, which Japanese love to do. Koreans wait for rice (or naengmyeon - cold noodles in soup) until they finish eating meat. They also use pears extensively for cooking - to make marinating sauce for barbecue or to add slices to naengmyeon and yukhoe (raw beef strips). Japanese only eat them as dessert.

The similarity-cum-difference is not limited to ingredients. Koreans use a large pair of scissors to cut grilled meat on a barbecue, which initially made me feel uncomfortable - the pair of scissors they use looks like the one we Japanese use for cutting cloth or gardening. When we do an indoor barbecue, beef is already sliced to a mouthful size. Koreans put a large chunk of meat on a barbecue and then cut it into pieces after grilled.

Korean cuisine is quite diverse, by the way. I only knew the tip of iceberg. My favorite turned out to be dwaeji kalbi (marinated pork ribs on a barbecue) and jumullok (marinated loin beef that is unstiffened by hands). Plus, lo and behold, it's value for money. Dwaeji kalbi costs around 8000 Korean wons (4 pounds or 6.5 dollars) while jumullok at Seogyangchip, a rather expensive (by Korean standards) restaurant in the Mapo district, costs 30000 Korean wons (15 pounds or 25 dollars). These prices include a wide range of side dishes - different kinds of kimchis, garlic cloves for grilling, lettuce leaves for rolling barbecued meat, and, in the case of Seogyangchip, naengmyeon noodle soup. This is a Korean way of serving dishes. If you order one main dish (or two), you'll get a wide range of side dishes as well - what side dishes come along differ restaurant by restaurant. (Continued to Seoul 2006 - Part III: Japan and Korea in the past.)

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