Living in a culture that`s not your own is both exciting and alienating. My philosophy has always been to experience a culture as authentically as I can. It is hard to respect anyone who travels across the world and only eats hamburgers. I met one woman when I lived in Germany who had lived there for ten years and didn`t know what schnitzel was. That`s embarrassing.
Nonetheless, you can only go native for so long. There are times you need the food you are familiar with. The trouble comes when the ingredients that you had back home are not easily found in your new country, or you are at a loss on how to make dishes from your homeland from the start.
I have heard Westerners in Korea complain that they can`t make the foods from home because they don`t have the precise ingredients. French onion soup can only be made with brown beef stock. Pesto can only be made from fresh basil. Folks are also still stuck on the fast-food notion that only beef or chicken can go into tacos. In reality, there is little room for dogmatic culinary orthodoxy when in a new land, and not everyone has convenient access to a military PX, Costco or the import stores in Itaewon.
Immigrants have always brought their cultures with them and have adapted them to their new homes. The world`s greatest cuisines have spawned from this interaction and improvisation. If you don`t have what you need to cook, you cook with what you have. The mark of a good cook is not following a recipe to the letter. It is the ability to create something good and new from what is available.
I will show you how to use the ingredients we have in Korea to make something familiar -- yet new. It will also explore the Korean culinary landscape and hopefully expand your knowledge and appreciation of this unique and largely unknown cuisine. I fully disclose that I am not an expert on Korean food. I am merely an explorer like everyone else.
One ingredient I have been exploring recently is the sesame leaf, or kkaenip. It is a herb in the mint family, related to basil, and has a smooth licorice flavor, like fennel. I have been playing around with the idea of substituting it in dishes that call for mint, basil or fennel.
A writer on the website www.desertmodernism.com came up with the ingenious idea of making a pesto out of sesame leaves. It`s taking an Italian approach to ingredients that are common in Korea and is the perfect example of creating an exciting and new dish by making do with what you have. Here`s my version.
Toast a half cup of pine nuts in a dry pan until they are slightly brown. Put them in a blender along with three cloves of garlic, one cup of extra virgin olive oil, half teaspoon of salt, quarter teaspoon black pepper and one pack of fresh sesame leaves, approximately 25 to 30 leaves. Blend everything until it is a smooth paste. Toss it in a bowl with some freshly cooked pasta of your choice and serve, garnishing with some leftover pine nuts and chopped sesame leaves.
The sesame leaves do indeed work well. The pesto is smooth and nutty with just a hint of licorice flavor. Serve with some nice bread and a green salad, and you are all set. All you need is a blender and a trip to your local Korean grocery store for an upscale restaurant experience in your own home.
Joe can be reached through his website, the ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal, www.zenkimchi.com -- Ed.