More than Just Kimchi
Most Chinese tourists carry instant noodles and packets of pickles with them while travelling, in case they don't take to the food in the countries they visit. But there is one place where such precautions may not be necessary. And that is South Korea, as Korean restaurants are now quite popular in China.
The capital of a country usually showcases the best food of the land. So it is with Seoul. As one embarks on a tour to touch the soul of Korean cuisine, the first stop, a frequent suggestion made by the locals, is the Myeongdong area, one of the main commercial streets of the country.
The narrow lanes in this area are littered with numerous small clothing stores, cafes and restaurants, and are always overflowing with foreigners and white-collar workers from the nearby offices, for a quick coffee or a short burst of shopping.
If you ask a Chinese to name one Korean dish they are most familiar with, more than half are likely to answer, the steamed rice mixed with vegetables, or the rice hash in hot stone. In the Gogung restaurant, patrons can enjoy the traditional Jeonju (a southwestern city) rice hash, or the bibimbap.
South Koreans pay a lot of attention to table setting, and the presentation of the Jeonju bibimbap is a good example of this. Diners are served with boiled rice, cooked in cow bone juice beforehand, in a brass bowl. On a big plate lie small piles of cooked bean sprouts, cucumbers, ferns, spinach, pickles, mushrooms and beef, and a bowl of sauce combining sesame oil and soy sauce. Diners place the vegetables one by one on the rice and top it with an egg, dribbles of sauce, a tablespoon of the Korean chilli pepper paste and a sprinkling of fish powder. Patrons take pride in, and compare one another against, how well they arrange all of this.
Koreans invented the bibimbap according to the principle of Yin and Yang, and added vegetables, meat and seasonings to represent the Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water). They see the nutritious dish as the distillation of the wisdom of their ancestors.
But before one rushes in to enjoy a DIY bibimbap, there is the distinctive rice aperitif to down. The drink looks thick and brown and more like a cup of miso soup. It has a refreshing, slightly herbal, taste.
Koreans are seen to have an extraordinary enthusiasm for drinking, by many Chinese. This can be attributed largely to imported Korean TV drama series, that often have scenes showing men and women enjoying a casual drink at pojangmacha (the sidewalk food stalls).
When one walks down the bustling alleys of Seoul at night, it feels like the whole city's exhausted labour forces has poured into the cafes and pubs to loosen up and ease their tensions.
My tour guide says pojangmacha offering inexpensive beers and rice wines are also very common in residential neighbourhoods and well-received by ordinary people. When their husbands work late, Korean housewives sometimes meet at these food stands for a drink and to vent their grievances. The most expensive and best-selling drugs in Korea, says my guide, are those meant to cure hangovers and to protect the liver.
According to one news report, there are three things Koreans can't escape from in life: death, taxation and Samsung products. The author has clearly forgotten kimchi (Korean pickles), the spirit and pride of the nation with a 1000-year-old tradition.
A meal without kimchi is unthinkable for Koreans. They see it not only as a spicy-sweet side dish that can also be added to all types of food, such as soup, fried rice and pancake, but also admire kimchi as a gift from nature, which, they believe, has numerous health benefits.
English-speakers yell "cheese" and Chinese say "qie zi (eggplant)" to squeeze out a smile when taking photographs. In South Korea, the word is 'kimchi'. There is even a kimchi museum and a kimchi expo is held every October in Seoul. One can buy kimchi chocolates in souvenir shops. Some weeks ago, the country's first astronaut, 29-year-old woman scientist Yi So-Yeon, took kimchi to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time.
There are more than 200 types of kimchi. One can taste cabbage, radish and stuffed cucumber kimchi in any traditional restaurant in Seoul. But when in the country, the must-do thing is to make kimchi oneself.
Kimchi workshops run by institutes and kimchi factories are accessible to everyone. I took my first kimchi-making class at the Korean Food Institute of Sookmyung Women's University, which also offers short-term courses for housewives and brides-to-be.
The cabbage kimchi is the most common and usually made during winter. I have a brief note on the sophisticated procedure which runs as follows:
Split a nice big cabbage into half. Sprinkle salt evenly on the leaves, dip the cabbage in salt water for 8 to 10 hours and turn over it from time to time. Mix meat stock and chilli pepper powder with radish pieces, salted sand eel, shrimps, garlic, ginger and sugar, in this order, and then add green onion, dropwort and leaf mustard. Spread this sauce paste evenly on the cabbage layers and wrap it up with the outer leaves.
Many people may find it difficult to remember all these ingredients. I can sympathise. A friend, whose husband is South Korean, says her mother-in-law visits their home in Beijing's suburb every winter and helps her make several jars of kimchi, which are then stored in the cellar. Some Korean families still follow the traditional procedure, while many living in apartment buildings buy ready-to-eat packets off supermarket shelves.
If one visits South Korea in summer, the samgyetang, or chicken soup boiled with ginseng, is a must-have. People wait in long queues outside restaurants during the hottest months of the year just for a hot pot of samgyetang. Locals believe the soup energises people in the blistering heat.
The Tosokchon, or traditional village, is one of the most famous samgyetang restaurants in Seoul. Diners have the soup, the essence of Korean cuisine, in the old way - sitting on the floor in a Korean style courtyard, decorated with pots of white, purple and pink mugunghwa (rose of sharon), Korea's national flower. In waft the intoxicating smells of chicken soup, ginseng and unknown seasonings. A 49-day-old chicken is cooked with six-year-old ginsengs, chestnut, jujubes, glutinous rice and 10 other mixtures till the soup turns milky white. One can have it with a small cup of ginseng wine. And if the drink makes one feel weak, one can always pour some into the soup!
This article was first published in China Daily. Reprinted with permission.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008