Korea: Yin-Yang Cuisine

| July 5, 2013 | 0 Comments


Korean Kalbi (grilled beef ribs)

Korean Kalbi (grilled beef ribs)

With the mention of the word Korea, tastes of smoky, sweetly marinated thin slices of grilled beef (bulgogi), extraordinary barbecued ribs (kalbi), memorable soya sauce-scented noodles with various vegetables (japchae) and fire-hot kimchi, all compete simultaneously in exciting my appetite. Ambassador Cho Hee-yong recognizes my enthusiasm and admits that Korean food is playing an important role in promoting his country internationally.
South Korea is a peninsula projecting southward from the northeastern part of Asia. Surrounded on three sides by water and with a 70-percent mountainous topography, South Korea has access not only to a wealth of marine products, from fish and seafood to seaweed, but also to an extensive variety and boundless quantities of herbs, sprouts, shoots, mushrooms and wild vegetables.

Margaret Dickenson prepares her own  kimchi.

Margaret Dickenson prepares her own

Korean food is all about harmony and nature, and respecting the interaction between man and nature. Indeed, there are five cardinal colours in Korean cuisine that represent the five elements — white (metal), blue (wood), red (fire), yellow (earth) and black (water). These elements play a role in the principles governing the yin-yang theory used to explain how supposedly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in nature. Korean cuisine combines coloured ingredients believed to enable efficient absorption of nutrients by the body and to stimulate one’s appetite through the five essential tastes: sweet, sour, salty, hot and bitter. A perfect example of this five-colour, five-taste formula, is bibimbap (a one-dish meal composed of beef and an assortment of stir-fried vegetables that are added to rice and seasoned with red pepper sauce).
Koreans regard food not only as a source of energy for the body, but also as nourishment for the mind and soul. Their diet is rich in fermented foods, vegetables, grains, soups, teas, traditional and non-traditional liquors. Soya sauce, soybean paste and red pepper paste rank as essential “fermented” condiments, giving a depth and complexity of flavour characteristic of so many Korean dishes.
Not too many years ago, what a charming sight it was to see in backyards of Korean households a series of covered earthenware jars, specially fired to allow proper breathing and fermenting, containing homemade varieties of these pungent condiments, plus various types of kimchi. But this custom is rapidly vanishing due to the growing trend of apartment living, the availability of excellent commercially fermented products and even high-tech kimchi refrigerators with different compartments, each offering a choice in the degree/strength of fermentation. As the ambassador explains, “A kimchi refrigerator is an indispensable appliance in a Korean home.”
There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi, depending on the region and season; however, it is primarily prepared in the fall to be consumed during winter months when fresh vegetables are limited and more costly. The most common combines nappa cabbage with white radish, red pepper, garlic, scallions and salted fish.
Kimchi and other fermented and preserved foods are staples in the Korean diet, highly valued as seasonings and as prevention against diseases and obesity. It’s also lauded for giving one a youthful complexion and boosting one’s immune system.
The ambassador and his wife point out that during the avian flu outbreak a decade ago, Korea was the only Asian nation to escape the virus completely. Kimchi got credit for that, which prompted an immediate and high demand for its export to neighbouring countries. Non-fermented condiments and spices include black pepper, red chili flakes, mustard, onion, garlic, leeks and ginger.
Indeed, many Koreans consider certain foods medicine. For example, pine nuts, like pine trees, are synonymous with longevity, while balloon flower root, white pear, white radish and ginseng sooth sore throats. Salted shrimp eaten with pork (a perfect example of the yin-yang theory) breaks down fat. To combat the stress of summer heat and loss of stamina (physical and sexual), the choices are numerous: ginseng chicken, abalone, eel, carp, bone marrow, pig kidney and dog. Yes, dog (not the breeds Westerners keep as pets) is still consumed, but only by a very small portion of the population.
Korean cuisine has a reputation for being healthy and well balanced; it features fresh and natural ingredients and healthy cooking techniques that preserve nutrients and reduce fat and calorie intake. Cooked vegetables are steamed or lightly blanched while fish, meat and chicken are most often steamed, boiled or grilled. Deep-fried foods are rare.
Rice, another staple of a Korean’s diet, is served at every meal. “It’s not a meal without rice,” insists the ambassador’s wife, Mrs. Yang-lee Cho. Rice-based porridges (flavoured with chicken, pumpkin, red bean and abalone), noodles (buckwheat, sweet potato and wheat), soups and stews are also popular in Korea. The country’s cuisine also includes thin soups (known as yuk) as well as thick soups (tang), which would be considered as a main dish when individual bowls of rice are poured into them. Seaweed soup is referred to as “birthday soup,” which toasts good health and fortune or “post-childbirth soup” (to replenish body nutrients). Stews are cooked and served in glazed earthenware pots.
While the most common stews would be those made with kimchi, soybean paste and tofu, the most dramatic is the mushroom hot pot (jeongol), which is often cooked on a small brazier at the table.
Side dishes feature grilled meats and vegetables, steamed/boiled meats, seafood, fish, vegetables stuffed with fillings, raw fish and seafood (usually dipped in chili paste or soya sauce and served with lettuce leaves), savoury pancakes (often with chopped or whole seafood), fresh vegetables (seasoned with vinegar, chili powder and salt), blanched/cooked vegetables (tossed with soya sauce, sesame oil and garlic or chili powder), pickled and fermented vegetables.
According to tradition, depending on how many side dishes were offered to individuals (besides rice, soup, kimchi and various sauces), the dining table would be called a three-, five-, seven-, nine- or 12-dish (cheop) table with the 12-dish table being considered “royal cuisine.”
Although these old dining traditions are returning (notably in high-end restaurants) as economic development accelerates, everyday meals have been simplified and are usually served family-style, with dishes placed on the table and people helping themselves. Dessert doesn’t exist in Korea’s food culture. Rather, Koreans eat fresh fruit at the end of a meal. But Mrs. Cho notes that they enjoy steamed sweet rice cakes and light, crispy traditional cookies and sweets with tea between meals.
The culinary heritage of various Korean cuisines has evolved over thousands of years. Regional cuisines developed first. Royal courts (which existed for nearly 2,000 years and lasted until 1910) indulged in a cuisine of their own and over time assembled regional specialties for the royal family’s meals. As royal kitchen maids (drawn from all parts of the peninsula) retired, they took these specialties and other royal recipes back to their home regions, blending royal cuisine with their own. What is known as Korean temple cuisine (using organic seasonal vegetarian ingredients) originated in Buddhist temples more than a millennium ago. This cuisine, too, was influenced by retired royal kitchen maids, many of whom became temple nuns and brought palace recipes and cooking techniques with them. Temple cuisine is considered to be the basis of Korea’s vegetarian cooking. It was during the last century, when modern transportation linked various regions closer together, that a national Korean cuisine took hold. More recently, there has been a resurgence of Korean royal cuisine, with the Korean government proudly designating it as an important, intangible cultural asset.
Some of Korea’s other specialties include ginseng chicken and ox-bone soups, spicy monkfish casserole, leek pancakes, stuffed squid, spicy grilled chicken, pine nut-mushroom rice, dumplings, abalone porridge, various hot-pot recipes, seafood earthen-pot stew, cold buckwheat noodles, sliced raw fish, seasoned broiled octopus, oysters and stone-pot rice.
Inexpensive street food, featuring snacks from steamed rice rolls, instant noodles and fritters to sugar-filled pancakes and roasted chestnuts, are sold from carts and, at night, from dimly lit tents.
Please try my version of kalbi (grilled beef ribs), one of the ultimate choices among beef dishes. The recipe uses lean prime ribs cut crosswise into thin “bone-in” strips that resemble strips of bacon. Bon appétit! Or as they say in Korea, Mashikeh Duseyyo!
Korean Kalbi (Grilled Beef Ribs)
Makes 4 servings

2.2 lbs (1 kg) lean beef ribs,* cut crosswise into bone-in slices (1/3 inch or 0.8 cm)
1 can cola drink**
1 to 2 tsp (5 to 10 mL) liquid smoke***

1/3 cup (80 mL) soy sauce
1/4 cup (60 mL) granulated sugar
2 tbsp (30 mL) sesame oil
3 tbsp (45 mL) medium-dry sherry
1 1/2 tsp (8 mL) lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp (8 mL) minced fresh garlic
1/2 tsp (3 mL) peeled and grated fresh gingerroot
1/2 tsp (3 mL) crushed black peppercorns
1/4 tsp (1 mL) Korean red chili flakes
1/3 cup (80 mL) finely sliced green onions
3 tbsp (45 mL) each of peeled and finely grated fresh pear (Korean) and apple

1. Soak ribs in cold water for 2 hours, changing water and rinsing ribs regularly. Drain well.
2. Soak ribs in cola for 1 hour; drain well.
3. To make the marinade, whisk together soya sauce, sugar, sesame oil, sherry, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, crushed black peppercorns and chili flakes. Stir in green onions, grated pear and apple.
4. Place beef rib slices in a single layer in large, glass baking dishes or plastic containers. Drizzle evenly with half of the marinade. Turn slices over and drizzle beef with remaining marinade. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or up to 24 hours, turning beef occasionally.
5. Allow rib slices to come close to room temperature. Brush one side of rib slices lightly with liquid smoke before placing slices in a single layer on a well-oiled preheated grill (or grill pan).
6. Cook for 2 minutes per side, turning once.

* Available at Korean grocery stores as well as some large local grocery stores and Asian food markets. They are referred to as LA (i.e., Los Angeles) or Miami beef ribs. Once marinated, they are perfect for grilling.
** The “cola” acts as a tenderizer and enhances absorption of spices.
*** Available at specialty food stores and some large grocery stores.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining. (www.margaretstable.ca)

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (www.margaretstable.ca).

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