Archive for the ‘Kimbap’ Category

The philosophy of Korean food

July 27, 2009


See this kimbap?  It’s been very badly rolled.  I know because I rolled it myself.  The ingredients shouldn’t be spilling into each other.  The shredded carrot, for example, is all over the place, when it should be grouped together, distinct, and sharp in contrast to the other ingredients.

But you can still see the effect that’s desired—a bright show of colors.  Black in the roasted seaweed, white in the rice, yellow in the pickled daikon and cooked eggs, orange (or red) in the sautéed carrots, and green in the spinach.  The five colors, elements, or phases of Korean (and Chinese) cooking.

(There’s also the brown of the cooked meat and the sautéed burdock root, but I will conveniently ignore that for now.)

The five elements, though, are more than colors.  They represent material elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water.  They represent emotions, from rage to fear to contemplation.  They are associated with organs in the body and with five essential flavors, sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and salty.

No one element is best or right.  What’s important is balance.

Korean philosophy is deeply rooted in the Taoist concept of yin yang, or eum yang in Korean.  (Hence, the prominent red and blue taegeuk in the middle of the South Korean flag.)  Yin and yang are forces that are both opposing and complementary; together, they govern the universe.  As yin and yang should ideally be balanced, the five elements should also be present and in balance with each other.

It all sounds very mystical and “Oriental,” but ultimately, it’s a very pragmatic way of looking at life.  (Check out the Taoist concept of sexuality—it’s pretty awesome, especially if Wikipedia can be trusted.  No abstinence-only education for Taoists!)

Honestly, I don’t know much about this stuff.  But as applied to food, it seems like a healthy way to make sure you eat right.  Each food has a different property, and depending on the season and your temperament, there are certain foods that are better and worse for you.  One person should perhaps eat more apples and fewer melons, another should eat more fish than meat.  At the same time, no one food is fetishized or demonized.  Modern Koreans love food trends, including diet trends, but traditional Korean food culture is resistant to the kind of absolutism we know so well in modern American food culture.  It may be why people who sell fried dough stuffed with sugar can claim they are “well-being hotteok”!

Photo by Diane Choo

Photo by Diane Choo

Best of all, when the concepts of the five elements and yin yang are applied to food, the results are delicious.  Gujeolpan, or “Nine Delicacies,” invites you to put a little bit of each ingredient in the little white crepe, and then dab on some spicy mustard that makes the flavors of each ingredient even sharper.  Grilled meats, with their juices and their fat, are supposed to be paired with fresh greens and sharp, earthy doenjang, or soybean paste.  Bibimbap, at its best, is a careful balance of colors and ingredients, as is bibimnaengmyeon and anything else with the concept of “bibim” of “mixed” at its core.  Pork belly and cabbage kimchi; soothing, rich, beefy broths with sour, spicy kkakdugi radish cubes; even plain white rice and salty, sweet banchan.  The list of opposing yet complementary pairings goes on and on.

Flavors aren’t necessarily melded together, other than in the intensely complex and deep flavors of the jang, or sauces, like fermented soy bean paste and red pepper paste.  What’s important is that separate flavors and textures come together.  In almost every dish, each ingredient is supposed to be chopped and cooked separately before being mixed together at the end.  If you’re going to cook Korean food for any length of time, you will learn knife skills and you will wash a ridiculous number of plates.

Growing up, whenever my father preached moderation at me, I thought it sounded boring and dull.  I wanted a life full of extremes!  Intensity!  Super-spicy and super-rich!  Now I know, at least with regards to food, moderation means I can just have it all.


Chungmu kimbap, now and forever

March 19, 2009


This was my last meal in Korea.  It’s something I loved as a teenager, so it made sense to me to be eating it in Myeongdong, a noisy neighborhood of shops and cafes that I am really too old to be hanging out in any more.  But the beauty of food is that you’re really never too old to be eating something.  You might be too old to be at that club, or to be dressing in those clothes, but eating chungmu kimbap?  You can do that forever.


충무 김밥, or chungmu kimbap, are rolls made of seaweed stuffed with rice, and served with a little pile of spicy but sweet cubes of lightly pickled Korean radish and another pile of equally spicy but sweet strips of boiled squid.  The rolls are always made a little skinny and cut a little long, more cylindrical than classic kimbap.  More importantly, the rolls are nothing but rice and toasted seaweed—no vinegar, no salt, no sesame oil.  But the very plainness of the rolls, the almost dry-sticky feeling of the toasted seaweed on your tongue as you eat them is the kind of extremeness in food that’s so appealing with you’re young.  And the intense heat of the kimchi and squid are at the opposite extreme.  Together, the dish is explosive, a very fun and easy bite to eat when toting shopping bags.


But I was a little embarrassed to be eating it alone.  For some reason, it’s always served with toothpicks rather than real cutlery, which to me means that I’m supposed to be sharing one plate with Leslie or another friend from high school, spearing the rolls while we talk.  Koreans hate eating alone, and I could feel the ahjummas by the window eyeing me even as they made change and spoke to other customers.  It was Sunday, too, which meant Myeongdong was packed.  Every street food vendor was out, ready to sell potato sticks, skewered fish cake, and fried dough to the crowds.  I even saw some Turkish men selling doner kebabs, the first time I’ve ever seen non-Korean street food vendors in Seoul.  I loved what I was eating, but I ate as quickly as I could, finished shopping for gifts, and left.

When I got home, I told my mom what I ate, and she told me that chungmu kimbap is actually a regional specialty, from the city of Chungmu which is now called Geoje-si.  Geoje-si is in South Gyeongsan Province, in the southeast corner of the peninsula, which would explain the deep red of the kimchi and the prominent role of squid in the dish.  A little Googling showed me I’m not the only one who loves this dish; it even shows up on the Official Site of Korea Tourism, with a famous restaurant in Geoje-si.  (In classic, plain-spoken Korean fashion, the name of the restaurant is, you guessed it, Chungmu Grandmother Kimbap.)

It comforted me, somehow, to know this dish I associate so much with my teenage years has a much longer history.  And when I got back to Brooklyn and found a recipe for it in one of my Korean cookbooks, I was even happier.  The next time Leslie comes to visit, I’ll make it for her.

Kimbab is my favorite food in the entire world

December 11, 2007

My favorite food in the entire world is 김밥, kimbab. Kimbab is rice, meat, and vegetables wrapped up in seaweed, and then sliced to form neat, round, colorful cross-sections. The meat is traditionally beef marinated in the ubiquitous Korean bulgogi marinade, salty and sweet, and when combined with ribbons of egg, pickled daikon radish, sautéed spinach, and julienned carrots, it’s a very happy looking dish. Now, it’s become trendy to replace the beef with canned tuna, to add processed American cheese, which makes me ill, and other modern ingredients. It’s Korean picnic food, the kind of food that kids love, which is why you’ll never see it on the menu of a big Korean restaurant. I love it intensely.

Unfortunately, I only get to eat it a couple of times of year, in the few compressed weeks that I’m at home with my parents in Korea. It’s simple food, with no sophisticated searing or deglazing. But it’s the kind of food that in Korean is literally called a “handful.” The rice has to be good, each grain distinguishable and yet sticky, and carefully seasoned with salt, a little vinegar, and sesame seeds. The unsalted seaweed is easy enough to buy. But the carrots have to be sliced and slivered and sautéed in oil. The spinach needs to be blanched, squeezed of excess water, and dressed with sesame seeds and sesame oil. The pickled radish, even though it comes packaged, still needs to be cut into neat long strips. The eggs have to be beaten, salted, and cooked into thin pancakes that are carefully sliced, also into neat long strips. If you are my mom, you will also have to julienne and sautée burdock root, which adds a wonderful slightly sweet, chewy element. And this is all pre-assembly.

To assemble, you need a clean bamboo roll, on which you place a sheet of seaweed, spread some rice, and then lay out the rest of the fillings. It’s not difficult work, but it takes a little practice knowing how much rice and various fillings you can comfortably stuff into a neat seaweed roll, and my rolls always come out sort of square. If you’re going to go to all this trouble, you might as well make ten or twelve rolls, which means you can spend all morning making kimbab. In other words, I rarely make kimbab for myself. So when I come home, one of the first questions my mother asks me is, “How many times do you want to eat kimbab?” And she always makes sure it is on the menu at least two times while I am at home, little caring that it’s kiddie food to my dad.

Growing up, I ate kimbab all the time. It was a frequent lunch that I took to school, that my mother carefully packed for me. My sister and I left for school at 7:30 a.m., which meant she got up at 6 to make my favorite food, after prepping the night before. I didn’t even know what this meant until I was in law school, five years after I had left home for college, when I decided to make kimbab myself for a party. It wasn’t right, the rice wasn’t right, the rolls weren’t round. My back ached from standing, chopping, rolling for so long. I had no idea. It really is the most delicious food in the world.