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[SAVOR KOREA (19)] Enjoying Korean food without knowing it

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  • Published : Mar 29, 2010 - 17:24
  • Updated : Mar 29, 2010 - 17:24

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SEATTLE - Some kids are afraid of monsters under the bed. I was afraid of kimchi.
It was my dad`s doing. The second he cracked open a jar of the stuff, I could smell it anywhere in the house. None of my friends had fathers who ate kimchi. I didn`t know what was in the jar and I didn`t want to know.
Yes, I know this sounds like the classic story about a child of immigrants, embarrassed by his parents, who eventually comes to appreciate the foods and customs of his homeland. I`m a fan of that kind of story, I admit and this one roughly follows its contours.
Except that my parents aren`t Korean. They`re Eastern European Jews. My dad came to kimchi for the same reason he kept a tub of extra-hot salsa in the fridge: he`ll eat anything spicy.
Meanwhile, I was enjoying Korean food without knowing it. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and our standard family vacation destination was Seattle. On one trip we had dinner at a restaurant near downtown called Shilla, which opened in 1985. I didn`t know it was a Korean restaurant, but I knew that cooking my own bulgogi on a tabletop grill was awesome. The combination of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and garlic is magical, don`t you think? (I`m sure they brought some kimchi to the table and I was appropriately shocked: it followed us?)
This is how I remember Korean food in the Northwest in the `80s: mostly barbecue, with the (correct) assumption that non-Koreans wouldn`t want to venture far beyond that. To that end, most of the rest of Shilla`s menu was Japanese. I remember having sukiyaki on another visit.
Years later, I was married, living in Seattle and attending the University of Washington. Like many students, I had teriyaki for lunch most days. Teriyaki has long been the most popular lunch in Seattle: grilled chicken thighs, sweet teriyaki sauce, rice and salad for about $5. It`s pseudo-Japanese food. To the average Seattleite, teriyaki is simple, unthreatening, cheap and healthy. And most teriyaki places are Korean-owned: a large wave of Korean immigrants came to Seattle in the early `80s and found a niche in the teriyaki business.
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Around 2000, my favorite teriyaki place put bulgogi and bibimbap on the menu - a response, no doubt, to a new influx of Korean students at the university. The first time I ordered dolsot bibimbap, the woman behind the counter demanded to know where I had heard of the dish. It felt like the sort of interrogation you`d get from your date`s parents. How did you meet bibimbap? What are your intentions for it? I explained that I`d had it a couple of times in New York in the `90s and I must have passed the test, because they let me have the bibimbap. "Dolsot bibimbap?" the woman asked next time I came in. I nodded.
In 2003, a little Korean restaurant opened near my apartment on Capitol Hill, in central Seattle. I went there often and gave it an enthusiastic review for the Seattle Times. After the review ran, I got an e-mail from a Korean-American reader who said she tried my local place and wasn`t impressed, and what did I know about Korean food, anyway? Not much, I admitted and asked if she would take me to her favorite Korean place.
We went to Akasaka, 25 miles south of Seattle in Federal Way. More recent waves of Korean immigrants have settled north and south of Seattle proper and that, I now understand, is where you`ll find the best Korean food in the area. Akasaka (yes, really, it`s a Korean restaurant, despite being named for a Tokyo neighborhood and boasting a sushi menu). We had excellent galbi, bibimbap and haemulpajeon, but what really jumped out at me was the quality of the banchan (side dish) - everything was bright, fresh-tasting and colorful and the variety was outrageous. I had to admit it: this was a lot better than my neighborhood place. (Of course, I still go to the neighborhood place, because mediocre Korean food is a lot better than no Korean food.)
Near Akasaka are two other good Korean restaurants, Kokiri and Mi Rak and across the street is H Mart, part of a supermarket chain that offers a full range of Korean products (including dozens of types of kimchi) but also makes a special effort to reach non-Korean customers with English signage and a good selection of Western products. Open since 2005, H Mart is a huge, immaculate supermarket with low prices and a great fish counter, finally bringing some competition to Uwajimaya, Seattle`s venerable Japanese megastore.
Up north in Lynnwood, 28 km north of Seattle, you`ll find another loose cluster of Korean restaurants. There`s the 24-hour sundubu restaurant, BCD Tofu. Nearby, in the Pal-Do supermarket food court, is Chicky Pub, which serves the city`s best Korean fried chicken. It`s a thrill that I can call anything the city`s best Korean fried chicken, since there was absolutely no Korean fried chicken in Seattle a couple of years ago. (There are several other Korean fried chicken places in the northern and southern suburbs, such as Cockatoo`s and Hanmaum, but Chicky Pub is generally recognized as first in the pecking order.)
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Across the street from Pal Do is Sam Oh Joung, which has a full menu but specializes in mulnaengmyeon, serving up cold noodles even in the dead of winter. Nearby is Green Garden, where I first tasted sundae and there`s another branch of H Mart in the area, too.
"The biggest thing that I`m seeing in the scene is definitely that restaurants are diversifying," says Jonathan Kauffman, restaurant critic for the Seattle Weekly. "So for example there`s this place that just opened in Lynnwood that specializes in seolleongtang. People are getting farther and farther away from barbecue and so I`m also seeing more jokbal on menus and more restaurants advertising that they`re specializing in innards or jeongol or stews."
Despite Kauffman`s tireless promotion of these restaurants, however, it`s rare to go into one and find a non-Korean customer. They rarely advertise in the English-language press and frankly, Americans don`t always know what to do at a Korean restaurant. We want to know what all these little banchan are and what dishes we should order to make up a complete meal.
If only someone would just drive up, park next to me on the street and serve Korean food in a familiar format! When I heard about a truck in LA serving Korean tacos, I was jealous. My gogi (meat) envy didn`t last long, because Seattle got its own Korean taco truck, Marination Mobile, within months. Marination serves Korean-Hawaiian-Mexican fusion: pork bulgogi and galbi tacos, spam burgers and kimchi quesadillas. In November they were named the best food cart in the nation by Good Morning America. My favorite Marination taco is the pork bulgogi, with tender chunks of pork and a cooling slaw-although I wish the pork were a little less sweet and more spicy.
It`s still easy to find Korean-owned restaurants serving something other than Korean food in Seattle. But now I`m seeing kimchi at restaurants that aren`t explicitly Korean. Kimchi is becoming American food. Rachel Yang puts kimchi all over the menu at Seattle`s Joule, an Asian fusion restaurant. She makes kohlrabi and Asian pear kimchi and serves a kimchi and pig`s trotter dumpling. Unlike the suburban Korean restaurants, Joule`s clientele is largely non-Korean. "In the restaurant we serve kimchi in a little mason pickle jar," says Yang. "Kimchi is something very pungent, it`s fermented, it`s a really scary food. But when you see it in a pickle jar, it`s not so scary. I often find people even ordering a couple jars of kimchi with their champagne to start with."
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At a new Capitol Hill neighborhood restaurant called Huiyona, they have "Korean-style Steak and Eggs" on the menu: galbi-marinated hanger steak with kimchi fried rice and a fried egg. And ART Restaurant, at the swanky Four Seasons hotel downtown, has been known to serve a so-called reuben sandwich with wagyu pastrami and kimchi on rye bread. They always sell out, according to chef Brandon Wicks.
Talk to any food writer - Kauffman, say, or Nancy Leson of the Seattle Times, or Rebekah Denn of eatallaboutit.com - and you`re likely to hear that Korean is one of their favorite cuisines. But we have a long way to go before Korean restaurants catch up with Thai or Japanese. According to Urbanspoon.com, the leading local restaurant directory, there are 70 Korean, 287 Thai and 526 Japanese restaurants in the Seattle metro area. (A majority of the "Japanese" restaurants are Korean-owned teriyaki places.)
There hasn`t been a Korean food breakout here yet, on wheels or otherwise: the average Seattleite can tell you exactly what pad Thai or Vietnamese pho is, but would probably struggle to describe a single Korean dish. But I think there are signs that Korean food could go large.
There are the food writers who can`t stop talking about it. There`s the presence of Korean elements on Western and fusion menus. At my local Western chain supermarket, QFC, one of the most popular items in the meat case is galbi-marinated flank steak. There`s the kimchi, bulgogi and bibimbap appearing at teriyaki restaurants. And there`s H Mart`s hybrid of Korean and Western supermarkets.
At the same time, there are few Korean restaurants in central Seattle; the best restaurants and all of the specialty restaurants (the sundubu and sundae restaurants, the fried chicken places) are found near or outside the city limits.
"I`m not seeing them yet creep into Seattle. I think that`s a matter of time," says the Weekly`s Kauffman. "I think the success of Joule and potentially Huiyona and also David Chang becoming this national figure is going to increase Westerners` interest in Korean food. But I don`t necessarily see that happening right away."
Well, I`m impatient. If I wanted Korean food to take over Seattle - and believe me, I do - I`d take a three-pronged approach.
First, though I`m conflicted about the idea, I`d like to see a chain of inexpensive restaurants serving a streamlined menu of authentic Korean dishes that appeal to Western tastes: bulgogi, galbi, bibimbap, japchae, mandu, kimchi fried rice and pajeon. We have successful Vietnamese and Thai chains in Seattle built on this principle. A Korean chain could grow out of an existing Korean-owned teriyaki chain.
Yang takes the accessible-Korean idea in a different direction. "There should be some sort of really modified version of a Korean restaurant where they still serve really authentic food and great flavors," she says, "but have it really accessible to downtown Seattle, where people could go out for lunch or have a great atmosphere and service for business dinners." To Yang, the food is no obstacle, it`s the format.
"People go to Korean restaurants as a very exotic, foreign experience. The whole dining experience itself is very different from American-style." A restaurant with Americanized decor and service but genuine Korean flavor could be a real hit.
Second, how about an ad campaign promoting gochujang? Seattleites have no fear of spicy food. We buy tons of salsa and sriracha and that extremely sweet Thai chili sauce. I think gochujang is more delicious than any of those sauces and I`ve been accused of putting it on everything. But they don`t sell it at my local supermarket. Yang uses gochujang in her salad dressings and she reports that customers ask about the great flavor. "I can explain that we`re using Korean chili paste for the flavor. And they`re just like, `Okay, I like Korean food, then.`"
Third, I think Korean tacos have done more to make Korean food mainstream than anything else. Nobody seems to have any trepidation about ordering kimchi if it comes out of a truck. Yes, the Korean taco is kind of a weird idea and it has all the hallmarks of a trend that will disappear in a couple of years. But as a Korean-food delivery system in a plain brown (tortilla) wrapper, it`s been a blockbuster. I`m not sure anything needs to be done to promote more Korean tacos, but it`s an opportunity for lovers of Korean food in general to say, "You know that stuff you love in your Korean tacos? Here`s the original version."
Okay, maybe I`ll never head an underground Korean food vanguard in Seattle. But this year I started making my own kimchi. "Be sure to bury it in the ground," said my 6-year-old, Iris, who got her archaic ideas about kimchi from a book she read at school. "I`m pretty sure they have kimchi refrigerators for that now," I said.
"Then let`s get one of those," said Iris.
I wish!
"Oh and I don`t want any kimchi."
"When I was your age, your grandfather used to eat kimchi and I hated it. Someday I bet you`ll love it, too."
"I don`t think girls like kimchi."
She`ll come around. While she was at school, I made two jars of baechu kimchi. I`m still working on getting the balance of salt and chili just right. But this is my kimchi. I`m going to snack on it, serve it on nights when we have bibimbap or japchae for dinner and make it into dumplings and kimchi pancakes.
Oh and I`ll save a jar for my dad.


By Matthew Amster-Burton