When I was in S. Korea, one of the president’s wives was on a mission. She wanted to introduce the rest of the world to Korean food, and make them like it. That is a pretty hard task. You see, Korean food is so different from food in the rest of the world. The first year, I made friends with an American guy who had been there for a while who was trying to teach me about Korea, and he said to me that Korean are bad cooks. He was big and fat, so he really liked to eat, but he didn’t like Korean food. Luckily for him, he used to work as a cook in America and he had access to the American military base, so he was fine. However, he lost weight when he first got to Korea because he had such a hard time with the food. This is the reaction many foreigners have initially to Korean food. The first year I went back to America to visit my parents, and I brought them gifts. One of the things I brought was a can of kimchee for my dad because I knew he liked to eat unusual things. Kimchee is Korea’s signature dish that many of them think they need to eat at every meal. It is pickled cabbage that is full of chili spice and garlic. It is spicy and sour at the same time. My dad took one look at that can of kimchee and said, “I know what that is, and I am not going to eat it.” My dad really liked German sour kraut, but adding all that chili spice to the pickled cabbage was just too much for him. I have to say that these people are right to some degree about Korean food, but there are dishes that are good that foreigners truly enjoy.
My introduction to S. Korea came when I traveled from Japan to Seoul, S. Korea because there was an agreement between the two governments that you had to get your visa in Japan if you were in Korea and get it in Japan if you were in Korea. I stayed at a hotel close to Incheon Airport which is considered one of the best airports in the world. I took a bus into Seoul to the Japanese embassy to get my visa. There was a restaurant close to my hotel, so I decided to go in and try some Korean food. There was a grill in the middle of the table, and they brought the beef I ordered and grilled it on the grill in front of me. It was like steaks on the grill. I loved it!! They also brought me pieces of lettuce and other leaves as well as a red sauce. There was also a dish of kimchee on the table. I had no idea how to eat the lettuce and other leaves or the sauce. However, eventually, when I lived in Korea, I learned they put the pieces of steak inside the leaves, put the red sauce on the steak, and roll it up and put it in their mouths. This is a Korean dish that foreigners love. It is called songeopsal. If you happen to visit Korea, you really need to try it. Beef songeopsal is the most expensive kind. There is also pork songeopsal, and it is cheaper and also tastes good. Sometimes, they bring you cloves of garlic when you eat songeopsal, and the garlic is good roasted along with the the meat. Sometimes, you get a restaurant where you cook it over a grill with a fire under it in the middle of the table, and sometimes, you get a restaurant where there is a big grill like a frying pan in the middle of the table. I have even eaten duck and lamb songeopsal, and they are good too, but not as common as beef and pork songeopsal. When foreigners came to Korea, often I took them to a restaurant in Seoul not far from Korea Christian University where taught, and the restaurant had a big dinosaur out front as if they would be eating dinosaur, but actually, they got the choice of beef or pork songeopsal cooked on the grill. This is what you have to feed foreigners so they know there is good food in Korea. You can often spot these kind of restaurants from the outside because there are chimneys over the tables.
Another really good dish I discovered the first year I was in Korea is bulgogi. This is another dish some of them understand they need to serve to foreigners. There are different kinds of bulgogi. The best kind is made with beef and has a sauce over it made with soy sauce. A Korean preacher used to make it to share with the church, and I enjoyed his bulgogi, but he was also very used to spending times with foreigners and spoke both English and Japanese fluently. (Before I could speak Korean, I always spotted the Koreans who spoke Japanese and spoke Japanese to them. At one time, Korea was ruled by Japan, and several of the older people speak Japanese, and some of the younger ones have studied it at school and like to use it because they like to tour Japan. Yes, there is an attitude problem between Korea and Japan. It is like brothers and sisters who squabble.) Back to the bulgogi, you can get ahold of bad bulgogi, so if someone tells you a dish is bulgogi, don’t automatically think it will be good. You see, they used to serve bulgogi in the cafeteria at the university here taught several years, and it was nothing like what that Korean preacher used to make. Bublgogi is supposed to be beef, but in the school cafeteria, they used pork. Not only that, but instead of a sauce with soy sauce in it over the meat, they put chili spice all over the meat. As my American friend had told me, there are some pretty bad cooks in Korea, but not all of them are.
Another good dish that I always enjoy is mandu. They like to call mandu “dumplings,” but it is not what we think of as dumplings. It is more like a large noodle stuffed with ground meat, green onions, soy sauce, and often in Korea, rice noodles. They also serve mandu in Japan and China. In Japan, they fry the mandu and call it gioza. In Korea and China, the mandu are steamed, but you can find the fried mandu in Korea also. A Chinese guy once taught me to make mandu by boiling it, and if you look through my blogs, there is a recipe where I boiled it. If it is fried or boiled, it has a crescent shape. If it is steamed, they take the stuffed crescent shape, and take the ends and put them together making the mandu appear round. You can order this at a restaurant, and they will bring you a plate of just mandu. If you want rice, you usually have to order it extra. The Koreans don’t seem to eat as much rice as the Japanese, although they eat it often. I also like to go to a Korean restaurant and order doc mandu guksu. Doc mandu guksu is a kind of soup, and it goes down wonderfully when you aren’t feeling well or even if you are feeling fine. “Doc” means “rice cake.” There is no sugar in doc. There are pieces of doc and mandu in the soup. It is usually a beef based soup with small pieces of beef in it, and it may even have egg drops in it, but not always. It is extremely tasty. Korean food has a reputation for being spicy, but this is not spicy at all.
Since I mentioned “doc,” I will tell you about it. It is something that everyone enjoys. They take glutinous rice four and form it with water into shapes and steam or boil it. As I said, there is no sugar in it. You see, sugar is a recent development in Korea. It is so new in Korea that many parents are still not to sure about it and won’t let their kids eat it. When the rest of the world had sugar, Korea didn’t. You can buy doc in many different forms. You can buy just one long spaghetti noodle shaped doc that is about as big around as a fifty cent piece and about six inches long and just eat it plain like that. They usually slice a piece of doc up like this to put it into the doc mandu guksu. They also use the doc and make it into small cakes about the size of a large walnut and fill it with sweet bean paste, dried peas, nuts, and other things like that. Sometimes, the rice cakes are not made from doc, but from rice and they have the dried peas, nuts, and other similar things in them. The ones that are made with the glutinous rice flour sometimes come in different colors. They could be white, green, pink, brown, etc. It is according to what they have added to that flour. The Japanese do the same thing to their mochi (what the Japanese call doc). If they are green, often, they have added ground up green tea to the glutinous rice flour. If they are pink, the may have added ground up cherry blossoms to the glutinous rice flour. They add different things to make the taste slightly different and make the colors different, but all the rice cakes, or doc or mochi are good. The Japanese style mochi can be bought in Korea also, and they have white powder on the outside, and I am not sure if it is more glutinous rice flour or powdered sugar because they are sweet, but since the Koreans don’t care for sugar much, it is probably more glutinous rice flour. If they are the Korean style doc, they may have sesame seed oil rubbed on the outside of the doc instead of the white powder. At times, I have been given Christmas cakes that look like Christmas cakes from the west, but once you cut into them and take a bite, you realize they made a huge Christmas cake from glutinous rice flour. They are much heavier than western cakes. They don’t taste the same, but they are good. At the university, if someone got married, had a death in the family, etc., that professor would bring doc (the small kind) for all the other professors and have them available to give out after chapel. These are not easy to make. If you want to try one and don’t live in Korea, you can find them in oriental import shops. I served some at a Christmas party in Oklahoma, and they were the hit of the party. However, when I gave some to my brother when he visited Korea, he really didn’t want them. But from my experience, most foreigners really like them.
Another good thing to eat can be made with pieces of doc it and the traditional kind has the sweet beans that you find in doc in it. It is called “paht binsu.” “Paht” is what they call the sweet beans or sweet bean paste. You can buy it in cans in the grocery store. The paht binsu is an ice desert usually served in cafes or coffee shops that is delicious. It has grated ice, and the traditional kind, has sweet beans (paht), and doc (rice cakes), sweetened condensed milk, maybe a few nuts and a small dip of ice cream. It is downright delicious!! You can also buy it with strawberries or other kinds of fruit in it. It is like going out to eat ice cream, but it has a lot less calories. From what I understand, they also have this desert in other oriental countries, but I have only eaten it in Korea.
Since I mentioned that Koreans didn’t get sugar as early as the rest of the world, I thought I would tell you about the Korean candy before sugar. It is still served now at the traditional villages and at times, you can buy it at E-Mart. E-Mart is the big store that is comparable to an American super Wal-Mart. In fact, when I first got to Korea, there was a Wal-Mart, but E-Mart bought them out. E-Mart is a department store with a big grocery store and a food court. You can buy mandu and doc mandu gooksu at the food court at the E-Mart food court. At times, they also sell Korean traditional candy at E-Mart. Its base is honey rather than sugar because when it was invented, there was no sugar in Korea. You see them kneading and stretching the candy like it is taffy in the glutinous rice flour because there is also glutinous rice flour in it. It is good candy, and it is not extremely sweet. It is a very light brown color bordering on white because of the mixture of honey and rice flour.
Here are just a few Korean types of food that I know foreigners enjoy. I am not done telling you about Korean food, but this is enough for one blog. Korean food is a huge topic. Yes, you have to sort through the food to find things you like. It is very different from food in the west. Most Koreans like kimchee, and some foreigners like it too. Some foreigners are thrilled with the spicy food in Korea, and others want to run from it. However, the dishes I told you about are ones that foreigners always like, and they are not spicy except the kimchee and the bulgogi served in the KCU cafeteria. Stay with me on these blogs, and I will tell you about some more food that foreigners like in Korea. There are people like the man who told me that Koreans are bad cooks, and there are dishes I just didn’t like in Korea, but do you like every dish from your home country? Even though most Koreans must have kimchee, not all of them must have kimchee. The mother of my Korean son in law made him homemade kimchee, and he left it in the fridge and let it go bad. He says he likes spicy things, but he really doesn’t like the fermented aspect of kimchee. Now that we are in America, he usually doesn’t bother with kimchee, but occasionally, he does. In our fridge now, there is a very small jar of kimchee. He eats it sometimes, but just isn’t so gung ho as many other Koreans are about kimchee. The young people in Korea have different attitudes about food than the older ones, and I will tell you about that in another blog about Korean food.