Any time I talk about our impending move to Korea, the subject invariably turns to food. What do they eat over there? Will I like it? What makes it different from Japanese or Chinese food? I didn’t really know myself, but if kimchi was any indication, I’d be living on soggy vegetables, possibly fermented underground in a clay pot. A friend’s emphatic warning didn’t do much to whet my appetite. Oddly, whether they’ve tried it or not, nearly everyone tells me the same thing: Koreans have great barbecue.
While I can’t yet speak of the barbecue, my firend, Pete, invited me over for a traditional Korean meal cooked by his native wife, Oh Im Ok (“Im” for short). Now I’m eager to get there and start gorging myself on tempura and yaki man du.
When I got there, there was some food already on the table. After sitting down, however, it became clear that Im had prepared a feast. The table was soon covered with enough different dishes for a modest Thanksgiving dinner, but after the white rice and kimchi, there wasn’t much else I recognized as edible. Pete already had his chopsticks in hand, sampling tapas-style from each dish. Surveying the table, I picked up my own chopsticks but couldn’t decide where to start.
There were fried tempura strips, fried tofu (spiced and un-spiced), soy bean sprouts (cong na mul), fish roe covered in sauce, miso soup, pickled leaves of some sort, Korean-style wontons (yaki man du), and strips of beef still on the bone (kal bi). I also noticed a bowl full of seaweed and cucumbers, but it wasn’t the finely shredded seaweed you get at the sushi bar. It looked more like the big green lasagna-noodles that wash up at the beach. The only thing wrong with it was the cucumbers. Of course, I feel this way about anything involving cucumbers.
I probably left something out – my notes are a bit sparse – but there was only one thing I didn’t really care for and I’d still be willing to try it again: Mau lu chi, a pile of tiny, dried fish that looked like it would make a great salad topping. I gamely crunched down a couple of them, but decided they weren’t for me.
After the good company, the best part of my lunch was how there were red peppers or sesame seeds on just about everything. This meal was the opposite of that bland offal they serve down in the Low Country, where the only spices they’ve ever heard of are table salt and paprika. Im warned me about some dishes, but if anything they weren’t hot enough. She says because I like tofu, seaweed and hot foods, I’ll fit in just fine.
If everyone in Korea cooks as well as she does, I have no doubts.