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Dig In, and Hold the Table Talk

Tempering conversation at the Korean table may be more out of necessity than manners

SHHHH. Korean-style dining means no talking while eating. This politeness is perhaps one reason why there's so much food at a typical Korean meal. A light dinner might consist of miso soup, potato pancakes, fried stuffed ravioli, radish and cabbage pickle, bean sprouts, spinach, and rice in addition to a few main dishes - say marinated grilled beef and mixed vegetables with rice and hot bean paste.

``This restaurant is original Korean food,'' assures Mee Young Im, as she serves these delectable dishes to this writer who is accompanied by a Korean friend. Mrs. Im and her husband own Korean Garden, a pleasant little nook open for dinner, sometimes lunch. And yes, you're allowed to talk.

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Observant diners can behold a small plaque near the shoebox-size kitchen reading: ``We've got the real thing.'' But there are other telltale signs of authenticity: delicious aromas, traditional Korean music, and paintings showing rural life.

Mrs. Im, who came from Seoul in 1978, says they haven't had to adapt their fare in the United States. Most Americans who come here have had Korean food, Im adds, although some ``don't like squid'' because of its rubbery texture. More than half their customers are Korean.

Although Korean cuisine isn't as prominent as other Asian cuisines in the US, it is gaining ground in many metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and New York. ``As more Korean immigrants come here, they're opening up restaurants,'' says Madhur Jaffrey, author of ``Far Eastern Cookery.''

The 1988 Olympics held in Seoul also helped spur on a hefty number of curious Americans to try Korean cuisine, says Mrs. Im, a Korean dance instructor and mother of two. Like almost all Korean women, Im does all the cooking - the norm in male-dominated Korea. One meal can take up to three hours of work and some Korean women spend from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the kitchen, she says.

With Korean markets and mail-order companies, ingredients are not difficult to find in the US - except Korean red pepper, says Im. Although some Korean restaurants use the less expensive Chinese red pepper, Im insists that Korean red pepper tastes much better. The last time she visited Korea, she returned to the States with 200 pounds of the hot commodity for her restaurant.

Korean cuisine is often described as very bold and hearty, relying heavily on rice, fish, soups, and pickled vegetables. Seasonings can make food industrial-strength - hot red pepper, sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, green onion, green pepper, scallions, vinegar, hot mustard, black pepper.

Korean food ``can be hotter than Thai [food], but it's a different kind of heat,'' says Ms. Jaffrey. ``You feel it more, because it's not balanced by sweetness.''

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Hot and spicy kimchi is Korea's national dish. Eaten every day and at every meal, this fermented cabbage pickle is sometimes made with radish or cucumber instead.

``You can't eat anything without kimchi,'' stresses Im, who makes shredded cabbage (mujae) and cubed radish (gakdugi) kimchi. First, the cabbage or vegetable is salted, then seasoned with garlic, green onion, red pepper, and gingers; some Koreans add fish. Then it's left to bubble up and ferment in jars.

Korean women pride themselves on their kimchi recipes; a museum in Seoul is even devoted to the dish.

If kimchi is a given, then beef is the passion. ``The Koreans eat, now, much more beef than the Chinese do,'' says Ms. Jaffrey.

Despite the fact Korean beef prices are four to five times US prices, the high consumption is due to the rise in availability of the meat, which has become a ``must'' for entertaining guests. Korean children seem to share this passion: In Madhur Jaffrey's ``Far Eastern Cookery,'' she writes that when the Korean Times polled children on their likes they found ``mother came first, beef was second, and father was third.''

``They have a lot of grilled meats which is one of their favorite ways of cooking,'' says Jaffrey in a phone interview. They also have a lot of stews where they combine meat and fish often.''

One beef dish in particular is a bona fied favorite among many Koreans and Americans - Bulgogi. This piece de resistance is made by marinating beef strips in soy sauce, sugar, scallions, ginger, and garlic for up to 24 hours, then grilling or broiling it. Traditionally, Korean restaurants grill bulgogi at the dinner table, but fire regulations don't permit that here, explains Im.

Korean dining includes an elaborate system of etiquette. Specific settings are followed for New Year, Thanksgiving, a child's first birthday, and other holidays, for example. Seating, however, seems to be in a state of flux: ``Ten years ago they sat on the floor,'' says Im about restaurants in Korea, ``but it's different now - it's American style.'' Korea Garden features chairs and tables as well as a separate traditional section where diners remove their shoes and sit at low tables.

``Their eating system is different in the sense that they eat with very thin chopsticks - almost like metal knitting needles - and a long spoon,'' says Jaffrey. ``They share the food at the table, which is very Chinese. And each person has soup and a bowl of rice of their own,'' she adds. Food is treated with great respect at the table: Using your hands is a no-no, and knives are not present. Also, bowls of rice are not brought up to the mouth.

Breakfast is an important meal for Koreans, says Im. One would normally eat spicy soup, rice, kimchi, and some vegetables. ``Big soup,'' says Im, describing how some people will have three large bowls of soup for breakfast. Lunch is typically a noodle dish, kimchi, and perhaps other side vegetable dishes. Dinners vary, but are always large and include numerous side and main dishes. Tableside condiments often include salt, black pepper, hot pepper, and soy sauce. Sweet barley tea is the main beverage.

``Some people [in Korea] like American food,'' says Im, mentioning McDonald's, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. ``Children, they like sausages and bread.'' But at home, just as in her restaurant, she sticks to traditional fare.

One Korean food Americans wouldn't likely take to is dried squid (ojingo). Eaten for a snack, it's serves a purpose similar to beef jerky.

Dessert is usually fruit. But here at Korea Garden, a slice of watermelon is followed by unconventional ginger ice cream. More elaborate desserts accompany holidays such as shigay - a sweet mixture of cooked rice, sugar, and tiny chestnuts mixed with dried, ground barley skin and water; and yaksik - a sticky rice cake made with brown sugar glazed dates, pine nuts, persimmon, soy sauce, sesame oil.

After more than 15 different main and side dishes, one can understand the need to concentrate on eating and not holding conversation. As this writer muses over the quantity of food served, Im casually smiles and remarks: ``This is nothing.''

Next week: Indonesian cuisine.

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