• Regional Cuisine

    The A B C of Korean Cooking

  • – Bikram Bindra

    Our cheat sheet to make you a Korean food and drink pro in no time!

    A multi-faceted cuisine that has caught the fascination of gourmands across the nation, Korean food is a fine melange of diverse flavors, marrying sweet, spicy, savory, sour and umami elements to produce food that truly delights.

    While on the face of it, the food may seem a wee bit unapproachable and confusing, but closer inspection reveals a culinary tradition that serves up a bit of the known and familiar with elements of the exotic.

    With a high use of vegetables, legumes and rice, Korean food finds some synergy with the Indian palate. The use of spice, though not as widespread as ours, can be just as intense when it comes to elements of heat. And the reliance on extremely fresh produce, for both vegetables and meat is again something that resonates with our food traditions closer home.

    However, there is so much more to Korean food that the famed kimchi- which is often the only window to this cuisine that gets showcased in ‘Asian’ restaurants across the country. With the influx of residents from this land arriving on our shores, authentic Korean eateries have mushroomed in modern day Gurgaon- each competing to serve the most authentic Bibimbap ( rice and veggies cooked in a hot stone pot) or the crispiest Pajeon ( savoury spring onion pancakes).

    Sourcing authentic ingredients can be a challenge, especially since the cuisine demands an extremely high level of freshness, but export markets and the bylanes of INA in New Delhi, and some supermarkets in the NCR often sell ingredients that would work for beginners who want to do some homestyle Korean cooking, including dry sauces and specific spices and condiments.

    Korean food is all about fresh vibrant flavours, and food that is carefully assembled to tell a certain story. There is a certain attention to detail, and even the simplest of dishes can be quite painstakingly put together, with thought having gone into the selection of each ingredient, and even the kind of cutting that has gone into the making. Having said that, a novice can conjure up a few staples at home, including a classic potato salad and even the Korean Ramen.

    Elemental pastes used in the cooking are crucial ingredients that define the palate. Gochujang paste or the red chili paste is a savoury, sweet, and spicy fermented condiment made from chili powder, glutinous rice, meju (fermented soybean) powder, yeotgireum (barley malt powder) and salt. This paste is the lifeline of the classic Bibimbap, adding life, bounce and your desired level of heat to the mixed vegetable and meat rice dish.

    The Ssamjang is a thick, spicy paste used with food wrapped in a leaf in Korean cuisine. The sauce is made of doenjang (fermented bean paste made of soybean and brine), gochujang, sesame oil, onion, garlic, green onions, and optionally brown sugar. The Ssamjang is a critical part of the Ssambap– a Korean style lettuce wrap that is eaten like a desi Paan– with a piece of meat wrapped with the paste and some rice in a lettuce leaf, and then savored in one go!

    How can we talk Korean without a mention of kimchi? This most famed import of the country is a staple, an absolute essential that is loved all over- and produced in many diverse ways. At the heart of kimchi are fermentation and a deliciously intense side dish that adds spunk to every meal. Cabbages and radishes are the most commonly used vegetables for this, with a variety of seasonings that depend on the choice of the vegetable. With more than 200 varieties of kimchi popular in the country, this side dish often becomes the main dish, and even finds its way into rice, soups and traditional porridges.

    Korean food scores high up on soups and stews, and warm comforting broths are a mainstay of the meal, along with rice, some kimchi (of course!) and other side dishes. The Doenjang Jjigae is a simmering traditional hot pot flavored with soybean and kelp and is rich and silky, and feels like something you would eat if you were in a homestay in a small village in Korea.

    Interestingly, for long time pork was discouraged in Korea, and hence the meat of choice is mostly beef, with chicken also finding its way into soups, stews and in an addictive and fried avatar as well. Of course, being a peninsula, there is a plethora of seafood that is also a part of the dining table, from mackerel to squid, prepared in many different ways: boiled, braised, roasted, grilled, dried, fermented, and even raw.

    Traditionally, Korean meals don’t usually have desserts served at the end. At best, you end the meal with some sliced fruit, which is more of a palate cleanser than the actual dessert. Sweet treats are usually served on special occasions, festivals, sometimes by themselves as refreshments, or occasionally to accompany a hot beverage like coffee or tea.

    The patbingsu is one such deliciously refreshing treat, made of shaved ice and condensed milk, and often containing red beans, a range of fresh fruit and even marshmallows. Chilled and not too sweet, this is one café favourite that is a perfect summer cooler.

    If you think you have drinking skills, think twice. No one can beat the Koreans when it comes to guzzling it down, and the main reason for this is that drinks are always had in one single shot! The star of any hic-hic session is, of course, Soju. A clear, colorless distilled beverage usually made from rice, this remains a top-seller in Korea. Soju was traditionally always had neat, but now its best friend is a bottle of good old fashioned beer.

    So while your first Soju shot is neat, you then chase this with a beer and Soju cocktail {the beer helps balance the slight burn of the Soju}. The best example of this is the Poktan-ju, or the Bomb drink, in which a shot of Soju is dunk into a glass of beer. This merry mix is also typically downed in one swift go!

    For special drinking occasions, the cocktail to be savored is the Kojingamlae – which is the bomb along with an added shot of cola below the Soju shot, within the same beer-filled glass. We are feeling heady already.

    But knowing what to eat and drink isn’t really the same as knowing how to truly savour it- and so we decided to get in the know of some of the key tricks of the trade of this wondrous cuisine with a tete-a-tete with the vivacious Hyunkyung Cho, the owner of Hahn’s Kitchen in Gurgaon, a delightful eatery that sets the mood for some serious gastronomic exploration. Over shots of soju, and her favourite fried chicken (crusted with cornflakes and glazed with honey), she shared some trade secrets.

    Indians have warmed up to Korean feels Cho, enjoying the Korean gochujang flavour (sweet and spicy chilli paste). Also, contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of vegetarian options, and the Korean temple cuisine is world famous for healthy and pure vegetarian dishes.
    The classic dishes can be made vegetarian, and mostly even vegan, like the bibimbap, the sweet chilli tofu, kimchi stew, mapo tofu etc.

    We asked Cho what are the rules one must follow, while eating Korean, and her first input was on making it as immersive an experience as can be. “Don’t be scared to eat with your hands, feel free to grab leaves with your hands, then use your chopsticks to pile them with meat, rice, paste, and your choice of banchan. Do eat wraps in one bite. Similar to sushi etiquette, wrapped meats should be consumed in a single go. If the wrap is too large for your mouth, you’re probably overstuffing it or using pieces of lettuce that are too big.”

    When it comes to refilling your glass, always pour drinks for others first, especially for those senior to you. If your neighbor’s glass is half empty that is when you would customarily refill it. This also means that it is your neighbor’s job to keep your glass refilled as well.

    Interestingly, Koreans crave Pajeon (Korean scallion-seafood pancake) and Makgeolli (milky Korean rice wine) on a rainy day.
    Some people say the sound of rain reminds people of the sound of making Pajeon. Other say that flour in Pajeon and Makgeolli contain lots of serotonin which elevates emotion and appetite. This may cheer people up when they feel down on rainy days. ?

    Classically, Koreans don’t mix a full heavy meal with an evening more focussed on drinking. The idea is to pair the Soju with a soupy broth, like a spicy hot pot, or something milder like the Doenjang Jjigae {a traditional soya bean and kelp broth that has tofu and mushrooms}, and keeping sipping the warm liquid as you down drinks faster than anyone can say ‘Bibimbap’.

    Wines work well with Korean barbequed meats, especially a fruity and full-bodied wine. And Soju pairs well with barbecue grills too.

    For more peckish crowds, sharing platters like the Jokbal {braised pork trotters with accompaniments} or delightfully fresh and mild Sashimi platters may be ordered, but never a fried delicacy or rice or noodle-based dish. The only exception is if you’re giving Soju a miss, and downing only beer, in which case the Yangnyum Chicken {lightly battered crispy chicken in a sweet chili sauce} makes for a perfect pairing.

    Isn’t it fascinating that a country this tiny represents such a rich culinary conversation, and has diversity in food and drink that far surpasses its size? With the right mix of flavors, and a play in textures that we inherently love, the time is right for Korean cuisine to step out from the shadows and move beyond pockets of expat eaters, and the corners of Asian restaurant menus to truly shining in their own special space in the sun.

    A food enthusiastic and new flavor explorer, Bikram enjoys exploring culinary landscapes around the world and earthing hidden play in food and drink. He is currently conquering the city of Delhi, one restaurant at a time, and is partial to tea, aquatic life, tubers and gin, not necessarily in that order.