KOREAN CRAZE

The lit­tle things we love about Korean food that make it Asia’s hottest food trend

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

THERE’S NO DENY­ING IT – KOREAN FOOD ISN’T JUST A PASS­ING FAD. FROM BANCHAN AND SOJU TO THE FINE DIN­ING FARE OF MICHELINSTARRED KOREAN RESTAU­RANTS, WE EX­AM­INE THE ROOTS OF THIS EAST ASIAN CUI­SINE AND ITS RISE IN THE GLOBAL CULI­NARY SCENE. BY EU­NICE LEW AND VIC­TO­RIA LIM

You’ve seen it on tele­vi­sion, in the news, and on the streets – South Korean food is the hottest Asian cui­sine now. In 2016, a din­ner se­ries or­gan­ised by Kore­anyc Din­ners and Seoul-based gourmet mag­a­zine La Main

in New York City saw five top Korean chefs part­ner with two U.s.-based toques. On the small screen, the world­wide pop­u­lar­ity of K-dra­mas and K-pop mu­sic videos has also in­tro­duced food-fo­cused pro­grammes to an international au­di­ence, such as Please Take Care of My Re­frig­er­a­tor (where chefs have to whip up a meal us­ing in­gre­di­ents from celebri­ties’ re­frig­er­a­tors) and Three Meals a Day (dur­ing which a star-stud­ded cast is sent to rural or se­cluded lo­ca­tions and forced to cook three meals a day from scratch). Kore­atowns all over the world – even in far-flung lo­cales such as Brazil (yes, Brazil) – are flour­ish­ing, whether you’re there to stock up on kim­chi, gochu­jang

(fer­mented red chilli paste) or pre­served seafood from gro­ceries, sink your teeth into mar­i­nated meats cooked over char­coal grills, or get your hands dirty with sticky and spicy fried drum­lets with a jug of beer (a style of eat­ing called chi­maek).

To make sense of the rise of this Korean cultural phe­nom­e­non known as han­ryu (han means Korea and ryu means wave), ro­man­ised as hal­lyu, one has to look back to the 1990s. Then, the eco­nomic cri­sis hit South Korea and forced the coun­try’s min­istries to re­think their eco­nomic strat­egy. Fear­ing that the con­stant im­port of for­eign cultural prod­ucts would di­rect their fi­nances out of the coun­try and di­lute their iden­tity, South Korea’s Min­istry of Cul­ture rolled out ini­tia­tives to boost and pro­mote lo­cally made en­ter­tain­ment world­wide. The penin­sula’s clos­est neigh­bours – China and Ja­pan – ea­gerly lapped up K-dra­mas and K-pop, spark­ing the de­mand for Korean cul­ture and even­tu­ally its food in Asia, and soon enough, the rest of the world fol­lowed.

THE BUILD­ING BLOCKS OF A CUI­SINE

With 5,000 years of sto­ried his­tory, Korean cui­sine has been ex­posed to count­less cross-cultural in­flu­ences (such as the in­tro­duc­tion of sweet pota­toes by the Ja­panese in the 18th cen­tury) and is thus in­cred­i­bly nu­anced. Yet, it re­mains distinct, due to the na­tion’s sea­sons, prox­im­ity to the seas, un­du­lat­ing ter­rain, and the fer­til­ity of its lands. But Korea wasn’t al­ways an agri­cul­tural haven. Af­ter the wars of the 20th cen­tury, poverty and the scarcity of food and crops height­ened the im­por­tance of food to the peo­ple.

As a penin­sula sur­rounded by seas on three sides, and en­com­pass­ing a land­scape that in­cludes plains and peaks, the coun­try

has the ideal cli­mate to cul­ti­vate rice, and the grain thus be­came a lynch­pin of the cui­sine. “Home meals usu­ally com­prise of bap (rice), at least two types of banchan, soup such as beansprouts or beef bone, and larger dishes such as bossam (sliced pork belly that has been mar­i­nated in spices),” says South Korea-born chef Sun Kim of one Miche­lin-starred Meta in Singapore.

Like many Asian cuisines, a typ­i­cal Korean meal is com­mu­nal and not sep­a­rated into cour­ses. Mains, banchan (side dishes) and rice or noo­dles are served at the same time. The se­lec­tion of dishes that go into a meal isn’t hodge­podge – care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion en­sures that the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is har­mo­nious, with vary­ing preparation tech­niques, tex­tures and tastes. The cui­sine’s flavour pro­file is a bal­ance of salty, bit­ter, hot, sweet and sour, and em­pha­sises the use of pre­served and fer­mented foods along with fresh in­gre­di­ents. The re­sult is a meal brim­ming with di­men­sions of flavour – and pun­gency!

In par­tic­u­lar, the coun­try’s distinct sea­sons gave rise to the need to pre­serve or fer­ment dry food af­ter the fall harvest to get through win­ter, keep­ing per­ish­ables fresh. And as it was later dis­cov­ered, these preservation meth­ods also in­crease the nu­tri­tional value of the foods by in­tro­duc­ing gut-healthy bac­te­ria to your stom­ach, re­duce choles­terol level and even help to pre­vent can­cer. Of the myr­iad com­po­nents in Korean food, kim­chi (a mod­ern ver­sion of the word chim­chae, which means soaked veg­eta­bles) is the first fer­mented food that comes to mind as it epit­o­mises the cui­sine’s flavour pro­file. On top of the veg­eta­bles­based dish (of which there are count­less va­ri­eties), Kore­ans also fer­ment seafood such as shrimps, an­chovies, cut­tle­fish, oys­ters, crabs and shell­fish to make jeot­gal. Cured in salt and then stored, the pro­tein in the seafood breaks down and de­vel­ops unique flavours and aro­mas, while the cal­cium-rich bones also be­come ten­der and edible.

The Korean kitchen is never with­out these in­gre­di­ents: jang (sauces) such as gochu­jang, doen­jang (fer­mented soy bean paste) and gan­jang (soy sauce); bap such as short-grain white rice, gluti­nous rice, boribap (bar­ley rice) and jap­gok­bap (multi­grain rice); veg­eta­bles such as napa cab­bage, radishes, sea­weeds and mush­rooms; and the sea­son­ings of gar­lic, gin­ger, soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vine­gar.

Per­haps the most iconic of Korea’s complex flavours is spici­ness. It is noth­ing like the numb­ing heat of Sichuan pep­per­corns or the rich and aro­matic pi­quancy of In­dian curry pow­ders – the Korean’s preferred spice re­lies in­stead on the deeply flavour­ful and strong-smelling funk of fer­mented soy bean pow­der min­gled with red chill­ies. This va­ri­ety of chilli is wide­spread in Korean cui­sine – whether as gochu­jang or gochugaru (red pep­per flakes or pow­der) – and was brought to the na­tion by Catholic priests from Por­tu­gal, who had trav­elled with Ja­panese troops dur­ing the Ja­panese in­va­sion of Korea in the 16th cen­tury. Such was the Kore­ans’ love for the chilli’s in­tense flavour back then that its fiery yet ad­dic­tive kick is now ubiq­ui­tous in the cui­sine, ap­pear­ing in bul­gogi (sliced, mar­i­nated and grilled beef) and bibim­bap (a mixed bowl of rice, meat, sea­soned veg­eta­bles and egg) to tteok­bokki (spicy rice cakes) and stews.

RE­FIN­ING AND REDEFIN­ING FLAVOURS

De­spite the sig­nif­i­cance of veg­eta­bles and health ben­e­fits to its cui­sine, the coun­try’s most in-de­mand culi­nary ex­ports can be said to be gogigui (bar­be­cue) and chikin (fried chicken). Case in point: just along the Tan­jong Pa­gar Road in Singapore, you can

find co­pi­ous out­lets ped­dling suc­cu­lent grilled and jang-mar­i­nated meats and the nu­mer­ous tongue-tin­gling flavours of sticky drum­lets and wings. The latter is par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar be­cause of its shat­ter­ingly crispy skin, the re­sult of be­ing fried twice.

Be­fore the turn of the 21st cen­tury, the con­cept of fine din­ing by western stan­dards was for­eign to Kore­ans. What they were fa­mil­iar with was han­jeongsik. Tra­di­tion­ally served to roy­als or aris­to­crats, this multi-course meal is still con­sid­ered a lux­ury and nov­elty. In stark con­trast to daily meals, han­jeongsik em­pha­sises va­ri­ety (to pro­vide the up­per class more sam­pling op­tions) and in­volves sev­eral ta­bles filled to the brim with health-fo­cused dishes. Such was the ex­cesses of han­jeongsik that even the rice was mixed with up to 12 dif­fer­ent types of grains. “Tra­di­tion­ally, these meals are sel­dom fin­ished – there’s a lot of wastage,” says Kim.

It took an­other decade from the birth of hal­lyu for mod­ern Korean fine din­ing to come into its own, as the con­cept was for­eign even to those liv­ing in South Korea. Jungsik Yim of his epony­mous restau­rants Jungsik (one Michelinstarred in Seoul and two Miche­lin-starred in New York) is widely cred­ited as a pi­o­neer of this din­ing style. Af­ter train­ing at top ta­bles in New York and San Se­bastián such as Aqua­vit and Ake­larre, the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica grad­u­ate struck out on his own in Seoul in 2009 and New York in 2011. At that time, ‘fine din­ing’

and ‘Korean cui­sine’ were mostly alien con­cepts to South Kore­ans and U.S.A. ci­ti­zens re­spec­tively, so Yim fused the two, pre­sent­ing Euro­pean style re­fined fare with smidges of Korean flavours, to pre­vent a cul­ture shock and make his dishes more palat­able for din­ers un­used to Korean cui­sine’s pow­er­ful tastes.

Sim­i­larly, sim­pler Korean fare such as spice-laden stews, soups and meats as well as fer­mented veg­eta­bles and seafood had to be toned down when out­side of its home­land in or­der to cater for unini­ti­ated palates. But now that the food cul­ture has in­fil­trated much of mod­ern so­ci­ety, the cui­sine’s bold flavours are em­braced and can even be said to be as au­then­tic to those in Korea, when the right in­gre­di­ents are used. Fast-for­ward 10 years later, Korean flavours have be­come much more per­va­sive, and Yim has in turn be­come more con­fi­dent with serv­ing un­re­servedly Korean-style fine din­ing fare. Now, there’s a whole gen­er­a­tion of Korean chefs striv­ing to do the same, such as Min­goo

Kang of one Miche­lin-starred Min­gles and Kim Sung Il of three Miche­lin-starred La Yeon. Says Kim: “Korean food is head­ing in a new, broader di­rec­tion as more peo­ple are be­com­ing keener to un­der­stand it.”

TAK­ING IT GLOBAL

Of course, hal­lyu can’t take full credit for the Korean food boom around the world. “As the econ­omy re­cov­ered in the early 2000s and South Korea wel­comed glob­al­i­sa­tion, din­ers started look­ing for bet­ter ways of eat­ing. Dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, we also some­what con­sid­ered western cui­sine ‘bet­ter’, al­though of course, nei­ther cui­sine is ‘bet­ter’. We sim­ply learnt to em­brace our culi­nary roots,” says pas­try chef Je-wook Ko of Mille Gâteaux in Seoul. “There are many rea­sons for the Korean food ex­plo­sion – South Korea’s rise as an international des­ti­na­tion, Kore­ans trav­el­ling and mov­ing abroad and open­ing busi­nesses in other coun­tries, plus in­di­vid­u­als such as David Chang of Mo­mo­fuku res­tau­rant group and Roy Choi of the famed Kogi Korean BBQ fu­sion food trucks in Los An­ge­les zeal­ously push­ing Korean food into the main­stream,” ex­plains Kore­anamer­i­can chef Corey Lee of three Miche­lin-starred Benu in San Francisco, where he doles out re­fined, Asian-in­flu­enced plates through tast­ing menus that cost a pretty penny.

As Kore­ans crossed bor­ders and oceans – whether to Hawaii as sug­ar­cane plan­ta­tion labour­ers in the early 20th cen­tury, to Latin Amer­ica from the 1950s as small-time tex­tiles busi­ness­men, or to the U.S.A. to es­cape the hor­rors of war in the 1950s and seek greener pas­tures as white-col­lar work­ers from the 1970s – they brought their beloved cui­sine with them. The ed­u­cated and skilled pro­fes­sion­als from the latter spawned what is now U.S.A.’S sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of Kore­anamer­i­cans, many of whom, like chefs Lee, Chang, and Peter Cho of Han Oak, are ea­ger to re­con­nect with their eth­nic roots.

The launch of the Miche­lin Guide in Seoul in 2016 and fea­turette on monk-chef Jeong Kwan on Chef’s Ta­ble’s third sea­son in 2017 also gave fur­ther promi­nence to Korean food by putting South Korea-based Korean chefs on the international stage and open­ing the international au­di­ence’s eyes to the world of tem­ple cui­sine. If the glob­al­i­sa­tion of other Asian cuisines are any in­di­ca­tion, the world will soon be see­ing more Korean chefs and re­gional cuisines come into spot­light. We can’t wait.

Chef-owner Jungsik Yim of Jungsik in Seoul and New York There are 187 dif­fer­ent types of kim­chi

Head chef Louis Han of Kimme and chefowner Sun Kim of Kimme and Meta

Benu A nine-course din­ner at three Michelinstarred Gaon costs 290,000 won (S$355)

Chef-owner Corey Lee of Benu Char-grilled Beef Sir­loin at La Yeon Ex­ec­u­tive chef Kim Sung Il of La Yeon

Min­gles La Yeon’s Royal Hot Pot

Dol­hareubang at Jungsik

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