Monday, February 4, 2013

Week 52: A Journey to Korea

I approached this week’s plan for Korean cuisine with great anticipation.  I will always remember the first time my friend Vanessa took me into the heart of New York’s Koreatown for dinner.  I had never experienced such sensory satiation as I watched small dishes fill our table, felt the warmth of the grill in the center of the table, listened to the bustle of the servers keeping tables filled, smelled the spices, and tasted each dish.  When we finished our meal, I gazed in wonder and awe at the whole of my experience.  What were all of those little dishes?  Was there a rhyme or reason to them?  How could anyone possibly manage to serve so many dishes in such a short amount of time?  For this week’s project, I set out to answer those questions by planning and preparing an authentic Korean meal.

To begin my preparations, I studied the table settings and structure of Korean meals in the Korean Royal Courts.  During the Joseon period (1392 – 1897), the royal palace placed significant importance on culture and societal gatherings which resulted in the court’s focus on Korean cuisine and etiquette.  While a commoner’s diet consisted of seasonal dishes, the Royal Court insisted on serving the finest specialties from across the country.  Its banquets featured delicacies from each of Korea’s eight provinces each month.  The court even created official positions related to the procurement of the ingredients necessary to feature such dishes.  Five meals were served daily, and the main meals included an elaborate setting (bansang) of rice, soups, stews, vegetables, meats, and side dishes.  The number of side dishes, or banchan, dictates the setting of the table as a 3 cheop (cheop meaning the number of side dishes), 5 cheop, 7 cheop, 9 cheop, or 12 cheop.  Unlike a Western meal served in courses, Korean meals are served in one large course.  The dishes are arranged according to guidelines designed to organize them in categories.  Examples of these guidelines include setting cold dishes on the left, soups and stews on the right, vegetables and rice on the left, kimchi at the back, and sauces in the front.  Utensils, a spoon and chopsticks, are set to the right of the diner.  In other words, this is a “rules” cuisine, which makes it so much more complicated than the covered-dish suppers of my youth. 

As mentioned above, the number of banchan served can vary significantly at a Korean dinner, and in general, more formal meals include a larger number of banchan.   Several categories of small dishes varying based on ingredients and style of preparation make up the whole of a banchan presentation. 
  • Kimchi:  Likely the most popular category, it is in its most basic form fermented vegetables.  Most people are familiar with kimchi made from napa cabbage; however, boundless versions of the dish exist including different vegetables, varying times of fermentation, and the amount of chilis used for heat.  No Korean meal is complete without at least one presentation of kimchi, and most include more.
  • Namul:  Vegetables that have been steamed or stir-fried and seasoned.  
  • Bokkeum:  A dish that has been stir-fried with a sauce.
  • Jorim:  A dish simmered in a seasoned broth.
  • Jjim: A steamed dish.
  • Jeon:  A pan-fried dish.
While these are the main categories, there are a few other dishes that may be served as banchan, such as japchae (glass noodles served with vegetables and beef) and Korean-style potato salad.  Understanding these categories of dishes proved to be the most powerful lesson of this week’s blog for me.  What seemed a barrage of small dishes at a Korean table suddenly has transformed into a more meaningful, thoughtful presentation.
Never one to back down from a challenge, I took all of this information and formulated a menu for four people, which included rice, a clear broth soup (guk), a stew (jiggae), two secondary main courses featuring grilled meats, three kimchi presentations, and other banchan that featured vegetables in cold and hot presentations.  It would’ve been nice to stay true to the Korean way of presenting the full meal all at the same time, but I don’t have a workforce in my kitchen beyond me (and the hubs) so this meal would definitely have to be presented in a few courses.  I did commit to serving the secondary main courses and full array of banchan at the same time though, and that felt like a real accomplishment in and of itself.
While I knew that many types of kimchi existed, I did not understand what a significant role kimchi plays in Korean cuisine.  It’s not just a salad or a relish.  For the project, I wanted to make several versions so that I could experience the differences.  I made the kimchi several days before our meal to allow it time to ferment, but in reality, some of these kimchis would've been even better if they had been made several weeks before the meal. 
kkakdugi, dongchimi, baechu kimchi
I made three versions.  For the baechu kimchi, which is made with Napa cabbage, I seasoned it with garlic, ginger, fish sauce, grated daikon, scallions, and gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder).  I also made kkakdugi, which is made with cubed daikon, and I seasoned it with gochugaru, fish sauce, raw shrimp, garlic, ginger, and glutinous rice powder.  Because these two kimchis had similar seasonings, the flavors were comparable, but it was interesting to taste the differences based on the use of the cabbage or the daikon.  The one made with cabbage definitely had more bite, which is probably because the cabbage released less water than the daikon.  The third kimchi that I made is called dongchimi or radish water kimchi.  It presented a completely different profile than the others.  Water kimchis are considered “quick” kimchis, because they require less time for fermenting.  They are more watery and offer a lighter flavor.  The recipe I followed included daikon, sugar, napa cabbage, salt, thinly sliced chili peppers, scallions, and a puree of Asian pear, garlic, ginger, and onion.  I loved this one!  It offered a light, refreshing balance when served with grilled meats for our dinner.  We enjoyed all three with our meal.
duk guk
duk guk
Guk refers to soups that feature vegetables, seafood, and/or meat in a clear broth.  Even more specifically, guk is categorized into four different groups based on the ingredients used to make the broth.  For our dinner, we began with duk guk (also spelled tteokguk), a dish traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day.  Duk refers to a thinly sliced rice cake.  These rice cakes are white, and the custom of eating this dish on New Year’s Day originated from the idea of the white duk representing purity and bringing good fortune in the new year.  For my presentation, I sautéed garlic and ginger in a large pot for about a minute and then added beef broth.  When the broth came to a boil, I added the rice cakes.  (I purchased frozen rice cakes at Vihn An.)  Just like gnocchi, the rice cakes are finished cooking when they float to the top of the pot.  When they were finished, I turned off the heat on the stove and added fresh scallions to the pot.  To serve the dish, I labeled the soup into individual bowls and topped it with the traditional garnishments of thinly sliced fried egg, roasted seaweed, and roasted sesame seeds.  I liked the flavors of the broth with the garnishments, but I wouldn’t make the guk with rice cakes again.  I found them overly chewy and not very flavorful.  Perhaps I didn’t cook them long enough or maybe fresh ones would have had more flavor.  I don’t know.  I do know that everyone else at lunch disagreed with me and liked them, so it may just be an issue of personal taste.  Nonetheless, I was more than happy to slurp every drop of the broth out of my bowl.
haemul sundubu jjigae
Jjigae is a stew.  Many varieties exist, and their names differ based on their principle ingredients and seasonings.  The dish is served in a large communal hot pot.  Kimchi jjigae appears to be the most popular variation of the stew as there were more returns for it than any other versions when I performed a quick internet search for “jjigae,” but another version called haemul sundubu jjigae that features seafood, meat, and silken tofu intrigued me.  I thought the combination of ingredients was unusual, and I couldn’t resist experiencing the dish for myself.
The base of the stew is anchovy broth.  I must admit that this was a tough start for me.  As much as I pride myself in being adventurous when it comes to food, I just don’t like anchovies.  I’ve tried to like them.  I want to like them, but it just isn’t happening.  Unfailingly, I am presented with anchovies at a tasting about once a year, and each time I think that it will be the turning point moment when I finally like them.  Then, I take a bite and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Nevertheless, this jjigae recipe began with anchovy broth, so I bought some freeze-dried anchovies at a local market and made an anchovy broth.  I survived…that’s all I’ll say about it.
haemul sundubu jjigae
Now, for the good part…the stew!  I began by warming gochugaru and sesame oil over medium heat until a paste formed.  Then, I added thinly sliced strips of beef sirloin, diced onion, garlic, and soy sauce, and I cooked the mixture for a few minutes.  I poured anchovy broth over the mixture and brought it to a boil.  Then, I added large chunks of silken tofu and diced, fresh zucchini to the mixture and brought it to a boil again.  When it reached the boiling point, I added shrimp and clams to the stew and cooked it just until the clams opened.  Then, I added chopped scallions and turned off the heat.  At the table, I cracked an egg into the stew just before we began ladeling it into our individual bowls.  This was my favorite dish of the day!  I loved it so much that I would even suffer through making anchovy broth again.  The tofu added an interesting richness and texture to the stew, and the rich flavors from the chili powder and sesame oil complemented the seafood well.  When I make it again, the only thing I will change is the timing of adding the shrimp.  It was a little overcooked.  I think it would’ve been cooked perfectly if I had added it when the first clam opened, instead of adding it at the same time as the clams.  All in all though, a stellar dish!
gyeran jjim, modum bausut bokkeum
sigeumchi namul, baechu kimchi
kkakdugi, dongchimi
After careful consideration, I selected banchan from three categories to accompany the three kimchis.  I purposely selected side dishes that did not include meat or fish, because I needed to balance the meat and seafood in the jjigae and the grilled meats I was serving as secondary main courses.  (I am making a point to explain this because I don’t want my selections for banchan to mislead someone into thinking that banchan are vegetable side dishes.  In fact, many banchan dishes feature fish.)  From the namul category, which includes vegetables that have been steamed or stir-fried and then seasoned, I made a spinach dish called sigeumchi namul.  The dish is one of the most common namuls.  I included it because it can be served at a cool temperature, and I wanted to make sure I served a cold dish.  Quite simply, I blanched spinach in salted boiling water for less than a minute, moved it into a bowl of ice water, drained it, and then seasoned it with scallions, gochujang (Korean chili paste), soy sauce, garlic, sugar, sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds.  I’d make this dish for any occasion, because it presents an interesting combination of complex flavors yet I found it light and refreshing.  From the bokkeum category (stir-fried dishes with a sauce), I made modum bausut bokkeum, which is quite simply stir-fried wild mushrooms.  I selected this because it was easy.  Mushrooms release so much moisture when stir-fried that they basically create their own sauce.  I used a mixture of oyster, shitake, and portabella mushrooms.  My third choice for banchan was from the jjim (steamed) category and called gyeran jjim or steamed silken eggs.  I hadn’t considered eggs as a “steamed” dish, so I was intrigued when I found several references to it.  It’s a simple dish of eggs, water, gochugaru, garlic, scallion, sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds poured into a ramekin and steamed.  (It can also include salted shrimp.)  Placing the ramekin in a steamer basket insert is the most traditional way to steam it although I found several references on Korean blogs to cooking it in the microwave.  The end result is a delicious dish with a custard-like texture.
beef bulgogi and sam gyeop sal

beef bulgogi, sam gyeop sal
Since I don’t have one of those cool tables with a charcoal grill in the middle, we grilled our beef bulgogi and sam gyeop sal outside and brought them inside for the feast.  Making these dishes at home makes me appreciate the ingenuity of creating those special tables.  With such thin slices of meat, it is nearly impossible to cook on a large grill for a crowd unless you want well done temperatures on the meats.  It cooks almost immediately.  Next time, I may just invite my guests to stand around the charcoal grill and cook their own.
sesame salt, gochujang
soy sauce, asian pear dipping sauce
For the beef bulgogi, I used Mark Bittman’s recipe from a June 2011 NYT Magazine article I saved.  I sliced sirloin steak thinly and marinated it for a few hours in a mixture of scallions, garlic, sugar, black pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  For the sam gyeop sal, I followed Steven Raichlen’s recipe based on a version he had in Seoul.  I sliced pork belly as thinly as possible (not an easy feat), and we served it grilled with an Asian Pear Dipping Sauce (Asian pear, garlic, fresh ginger, scallion, sugar, salt, sesame oil, rice vinegar, gochugaru, and gochugang), sesame salt (salt, black pepper, and toasted sesame seeds), soy sauce, and gochuchang.  We filled lettuce leaves with the grilled meats and grilled garlic cloves, red chilis, and onions.  The pear dipping sauce was absolutely delicious.  Raichlen explains that the proper way to enjoy the pork belly is to dip it in the sesame salt and then in the pear dipping sauce.  The combination was great, and it was a nice accent to the pork.  There was not a single morsel left on the table when we finished, so I have to believe that we did something right.
What a meal!  I’m still surprised that I managed to organize so many dishes for one meal.  (Of course, having the hubs there to grill everything helped.  Plus, our friends Patrick and Stephanie were not shy about pitching in.  Patrick kept our glasses full of perfectly-paired beers, and Stephanie stir-fried the mushrooms for me.)  I must admit that I enjoyed the research for this week’s cuisine as much as the food.  It’s a fascinating approach.
I can’t think of a better way to end my 2012 project!  For those of you who read these blog posts and shared your thoughts with me, thank you.  This project was truly a life-changing experience.  It presented me with incredible opportunities to connect with lifelong friends, co-workers, fellow Miami food aficionados, and bloggers around the globe in a way that I never expected.  I have yet to decide on 2013’s project, but I can assure you that there will be more dishes and blog posts to follow.