Kalbi (kal-bee) Barbecue
I was not expecting, South Korea to be a country that knows how to grill a piece of meat. During my visit, I liked how they made me grill the food on the tabletop. It’s a great way to entertain and meet new people. Which on this occasion there were nine of us. Depending on where you eat Kalbi is the king of the coals. Meaning ‘rib’ in Korean, it’s usually made with beef, cut into long thin strips before being marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sugar. I always cooked at the table, the strips of meat were chopped into bite-sized pieces with a giant pair of scissors. From now on this is certainly an idea I will adopt when barbecuing back in London. There were many options on how you could team your meat at the table. One of my favourites was wrapping the beef in a fresh mint leaf. I also tried, wrapping them in lettuce with fermented bean and chilli paste (ssamjang) or hot pepper paste (gochujang) for the full experience. I found the chilli was not as strong as in Thailand. But I would encourage anyone to explore all the pastes on offer.
I am always a big fan of Asian soups, as mentioned before South Korea has a mix of Japanese ingredients too. On many occasions, with my set meals, I had soups. From tang to jang, jjigae to jeongol, there are all sorts of soups and stews in Korean cuisine. Traditionally served in a hot, glazed earthenware pot, jjigae is a thick soup made with strong seasonings like fermented soya bean paste (doengjang), or hot and sour kimchi.
Whilst in Pyeongchang I was taken to a dedicated tofu restaurant. Which included include sundubu jjigae with soft tofu. The soup was served in a huge earthenware pot and then cooked in front of me. It was one of the best soft tofu experiences I have ever had. I liked how the soft tofu was presented in different colour forms. The taste was the same though. If you are like me throw in some hefty dose of chilli powder.
I noticed throughout my eating experiences, kimchi jjigae filled with fermented cabbage, pork slices and plenty of garlic was always served. I also discovered that Doengjang is a little saltier than Japanese miso paste.
Throughout my barbecue restaurants, I was always given Bulgogi, it was a sweet and savoury beef dish. Using sirloin, or other prime cuts, the meat is thinly sliced and marinated in ingredients including soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil and puréed Asian pear. For a filling fixed meal, all dishes I was given came with steamed rice, salad and pickles.
Kimchi is a dish that one must try and for me, it was not to my tasting. It’s a side dish you either, love or hate. No Korean spread would be complete without a few mouthfuls of kimchi. A bit like spicy sauerkraut, the classic version is made from Chinese cabbage fermented with plenty of chilli and garlic. There’s a vast array of varieties out there. The pickle has been finding its way into all sorts of dishes across the globe. In London, people like to team it with a beef burger.
In all the dishes I was given there were plenty of side dishes served with seasoned veggies (namul) and stir-fries (bokkeum). These I was told were typical side dishes which accompany any Korean meal. In Seoul, you can expect free extras with every meal. Each restaurant I ate the side dishes varied both in quality and taste. My top tip is that if you want to add some extra kick then, use chilli paste.
South Korea is not afraid to mix other cultures into its core ingredients let alone cuisines. I was intrigued when I saw a Korrito burrean or what is known as Korean Burritos. This Korean Mexican mashup, may not be one for the purists. Though I would encourage anyone to try this Korexican food, which has now spread from a truck in Los Angeles to New York, London and Seoul. It is mainly available in a number of fast-food restaurants.