Dinner in Seoul
Mae-Un Myulchi Bokkeum
Bokkeum refers to stir-fried banchan, and this one is an umami-packed treat. Dried anchovies are a common ingredient in Korean cooking; they’re used in sauces, stocks, and stir fries. Here, they are stir-fried in a sweet, spicy, and salty glaze made with soy sauce, gochugaru (Korean dried chile powder), and mirin. This is a classic banchan that often shows up in lunchboxes and as an afternoon snack as well! (Contains fish, soy, gluten).
Muchim are quick-pickled banchan (as opposed to fermented or cooked banchan), and buchu are garlic chives. Garlic chives look similar to the more familiar onion chives that you can purchase at any local grocery, but they taste more… garlicky! They’re sometimes referred to as Chinese chives, as they originated in China almost 5000 years ago; they’ve since become widespread, and are often used as an ornamental plant in the US. They’re used in many Korean dishes, but this simple preparation really lets them shine. (Contains fish, soy, gluten).
Buchu Oee Muchim
Another quick pickle for you! We’ve talked about the origin of the cucumber a few times now, and this preparation is common in Korea. Cucumber (oee) kimchi is a common type of kimchi, and contains many of the same ingredients used here, but with the added step of fermentation, which makes for a much stronger dish. This light and crunchy muchim has a little spice from the gochugaru, and together with the buchu muchim, provides a nice contrast to the heavier main stew and noodle dishes. Try this with a bite of each for a veritable symphony of flavors! (Contains fish; no gluten).
Easily the national dish of South Korea, kimchi is more than just a food. There are over 180 different kinds of kimchi, but the most familiar (and the one on every table for every meal) is baechu (napa cabbage) kimchi. It is generally made with brined cabbage, scallions, garlic, and gochugaru (red pepper), and there are countless variations; once the ingredients are combined in a laborious and time-consuming process, the kimchi is sealed into airtight containers for fermentation - anywhere from two days to several months.. On average, Koreans consume 40 pounds of kimchi per person each year, and many households have a dedicated kimchi refrigerator. Traditionally, kimchi-making was a community event (kimjang), where people would come together after the fall baechu harvest to make copious quantities of kimchi. With urbanization, people began to buy more commercially-made kimchi, but in recent years, city dwellers have begun trekking out to rural communities to participate in kimjang and bring home the superior kimchi that results. (Contains fish, shellfish; no gluten).
This stew is a very frequent main dish and has a history that dates back to the Three Kingdom’s period of Korean history. The Korean Peninsula is a largely arable land that lacks reliable sources of protein, especially during the cold winter months. Thus enter jang, the collective name for fermented soy products used to flavor Korean food and a good source of protein - perhaps you’ve had gochujang (chile paste), or ganjang (Korean soy sauce). Doenjang, the base of this stew, is far more subtle and complex; while gochujang adds a spicy flavor and ganjang adds a salty flavor, doenjang adds a savory-earthy-funky-nutty flavor - in other words… umami! If you’ve never been quite able to figure out what umami really is, this flavorful stew should be an eye-opener. We first start by making a Korean-style dashi broth with large anchovies, kombu seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms. And this is only the beginning. The flavor gets built with doenjang, gochujang, and gochugaru before we top it all off with zucchini, fresh chilis, soft tofu, and thin slices of brisket. (Contains fish, soy, gluten).
White rice. That is all. (Of course that’s not really all - rice is amazing! No Korean meal - or snack, for that matter - is complete without rice. Rice provides a vital counterpoint to all the spices and flavors in the other dishes, and is often part of every bite of the meal. Food too spicy? Have more rice in each bite! Not spicy enough? Try less rice and more kimchi! We’ve written about the origins of rice, but it’s worth noting that there are over 40,000 different types of rice on the planet; we’ll probably keep writing about it! Korean rice is generally medium- or short-grained and prepared without seasoning, so as not to interfere with other seasonings in the meal. In most homes, a pot of rice is prepared every day, usually with great attention to freshness and texture). (No gluten, vegan).
This noodle dish originated in China, was brought to Korea by Chinese workers, and has been adapted substantially into the beloved and ubiquitous food it is today. It is the second-most popular delivery food in Seoul, and also makes a frequent appearance in home-cooked meals. The Korean version blends chunjang (black bean paste) with crispy pork belly, potatoes, and zucchini to make a jet-black sauce that coats the hearty wheat noodles. This is Korean comfort food! (Contains fish, soy, gluten).
Dessert is not as common in Korea as in other cuisines, with most meals concluded by a bowl of fresh seasonal fruit. Given it’s still a little early in the season for the best of Michigan’s fruit, we’ve opted to serve Sikhye. This cold rice drink is often served as dessert after a big meal - as it is thought to aid digestion and has a subtle sweetness that comes from the malted barley syrup. Not too heavy after a large dinner, and it should still satisfy that sweet tooth. (Contains gluten; vegan).
While not all that common in the United States, Soju is actually the most popular alcohol in the world. Distilled from rice, it has a mild flavor and can range in alcohol content from 15% to upwards of 20%. This makes it an easy drinking spirit that takes to other flavors well, and you’ll often see soju sold in a variety of fruit flavors. The origin of soju dates back to the 13th century, when the Mongols invaded the Korean Peninsula. The Mongols themselves learned distilling techniques from their conquests in the Levant (with drinks such as arak). Over time it has developed into a staple of Korean meals, the delicate nature of the wine providing a subtle rice undertone that does not overwhelm the flavors in the cuisine. It is traditional to pour soju for others, so make sure to keep an eye out for when your dinner partner’s cup is empty!
We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again, nothing pairs better with hot & spicy food like a cold beer. We couldn’t find any Korean beers around town, but an easy drinking lager from elsewhere in East Asia would fit the bill perfectly here. We’d recommend something like Tsingtao, Asahi or Singha.
Seoul, South Korea
If you had to conjure up an image of Seoul in your mind, what would you see? We performed a highly unscientific study, and in response to this question, most of our study participants (i.e., family members and friends) described a somewhat grim and pallid place, with heavy Cold-War-era-Soviet overtones. The images of Seoul ingrained in many American minds reflect the aftermath of the Korean War, and the Seoul of today couldn’t be more different. It is a vibrant juxtaposition of ancient temples and ultramodern skyscrapers, and veritably pulsing with life. (To be fair, younger study participants had a slightly different sense of things; the very youngest participants were totally useless to our research, but they received a Target gift card nonetheless.) Despite being home to the widely-viewed 1988 Summer Olympics, misconceptions about Seoul persist.
Seoul is a bustling and populous city, home to 10 million people; its population density is almost double that of New York City. Over half of the residents in all of South Korea live in Seoul or its surrounding area. While South Korea is nicknamed “Land of the Morning Calm”, there is little calm to be found on the streets of its capital city. Instead, you’ll find a sparkling and efficient subway system, museums, cafes, shopping, street vendors, and never-ending nightlife. Seoulites work hard and stay up until the wee hours - on average, they get less sleep than residents of most major cities in the world, snoozing for just under six hours per night. In contrast, the city has five beautiful historic palace complexes that showcase traditional Korean architecture, scores of ancient Buddhist temples, and royal tombs dating back to the 15th century.
A common message (within and outside of Korea) is that Korea can claim 5000 years of unbroken history - a history longer than that of any other place in the world, excepting China. In reality, Korea was not Korea 5000 years ago (just as China was not China), but there is no disputing the fact that truly ancient traditions and history have shaped the people and culture of the Korean Peninsula, which includes both North and South Korea. The Dangun origin story tells that the grandson of Hwanin (the Lord of Heaven) founded Gojoseon (the ancient kingdom in what is now Korea) in 2333 BCE. Throughout the ensuing thousands of years, Korea has faced external pressure - ranging from cultural influence to military aggression to brutal occupation - from China (to the north) and Japan (across the East Sea to the southeast). We’ve linked an article describing its tumultuous history in the resources below. The Korean War divided the peninsula into North Korea and South Korea in 1953, and since that time, the two nations have diverged dramatically, often in ways that eclipse their shared history. South Korea’s government began an aggressive effort to modernize, rapidly transforming it from one of the poorest to one of the wealthiest countries in the world. This transition has been both praised and criticized; rebuilding infrastructure and lifting its people out of poverty have come at a cost to the culture and traditions of South Korea.
This tension - between old and new, authentic Korea and “Westernized” Korea - has, of course, filtered into Korean food culture as well. While Korean food is exploding in popularity all over the world, immigrants have spoken for years of being ashamed of their food traditions (e.g., predominantly white Westerners complained about the smell of kimchi, until we decided to start gobbling it up). Furthermore, along with this explosion in popularity has come explicit cultural appropriation, and vicious backlash. We recognize this tension, and have stayed as true to authentic recipes as we can, keeping in mind that we are neither Korean grandmothers, nor do we have access to all of the ingredients found in South Korea.
Korean food is complex - most meals contain a balance of spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. Seasonings include garlic, chile peppers, ginger, gochujang (a red chile paste), doenjang (a fermented soybean paste), and soy sauce (among many others). Of course, there is kimchi, which is a condiment and virtually always a side dish as well. Typically, there is rice, jjigae (stew), perhaps an additional protein, and several side dishes. Banchan (the side dishes) are an important component of every meal, and there are countless individual recipes for both freshly prepared banchan and preserved banchan. Dishes are set out all at once, and meant to be shared. Each diner has their own bowl of rice, but the other dishes are served for communal eating. (See the resources below if you want to dive into the details of spoons, chopsticks, and table manners)!
The philosophy of obangsaek calls for each meal to include five symbolic colors (green, black, red, white, and yellow) to achieve optimal balance of yin and yang. All the dishes are intended to work together harmoniously, so you should take small bites of each, in no particular order. There is a strong connection between food and health - of the mind and of the body. We hope that this meal brings you health and vitality!
Featured Recipe: Jajangmyeon
Makes 4-6 servings
Check out Hyundai Asian Market for specialty Korean ingredients
1 pound skinless pork belly cut into half inch pieces
2 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
5 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp, minced ginger (jarred or freshly minced both work well here)
1 tbsp gochugaru (Korean red chili flakes)
550 g onions, (about 3 medium yellow onions)
1 cup Korean black bean paste (choonjang)
1 tbsp packed brown sugar
3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
3 cups Dashi or store bought chicken stock
½ lb Korean green squash or zucchini, cut into ½”x ½” cubes (about 1 large zucchini)
1 lb of large Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ½”x ½” cubes
2 tbsp stirred into 3 tablespoons cold water
1.5 pounds Korean udon or jajang noodles
½ of an English cucumber, julienned for garnish
Set a dutch oven or other large heavy bottomed pot over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of oil. When the oil begins to shimmer add the diced pork belly. Season the pork with salt and pepper and cook stirring frequently, for 7~8 minutes, or until the pork is crispy and golden brown.
Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the garlic, ginger and onions and cook for 7-8 minutes stirring often, until the onions are translucent and just beginning to color.
In a large bowl combine the black bean paste, brown sugar, vinegar, mirin & gochugaru.
Stir the black bean paste mixture into the pot and let everything cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the dashi, zucchini, and potatoes. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat so that the sauce cooks at a simmer for about 30 minutes
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Taste the sauce for salt and to check the doneness of the vegetables. Once the vegetables are cooked, stir in the cornstarch slurry, and cook for a few minutes more, just until the sauce begins to thicken. Turn off the heat and cover.
When the water is boiling, add your noodles and cook according to the instructions on the package.
Drain the noodles and divide amongst bowls.
Ladle a hearty portion of the sauce atop each bowl of noodles, garnish with cucumber and enjoy!
Recipes Inspired By:
“My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes” an amazing cookbook from Chef Hooni Kim, owner and Chef at Danji, the first Korean restaurant to earn a Michelin star
“Korean Home Cooking: Classic and Modern Recipes” another incredible cookbook from Chef Sohui Kim and author Rachel Wharton
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Season 5, Episode 1 (Korea).
An excellent and concise history of Korea, untangling years of complicated corruption, war, occupation, and modernization.
An article featuring photos of South Korea’s historic sites and natural beauty (mostly outside of Seoul).
A primer on Korean table manners and etiquette.