Food is the great equaliser. It has the power to transcend geographical barriers, caste and racial divides. Today, shrinking distances have brought to the table cuisines that were once exotic. Every nation boasts culinary marvels that are served best on that soil. However, that should not refrain us from trying out such cuisines, to savour those unique culinary marvels in our own homes.
I have always said food unites the world into one large family because none can rule the tastebuds except good food .
Having traveled extensively in search of unique , exotic dishes, I am dedicating next few columns to celebrating world cuisine—I will call it World on My Palate. I hope you enjoy this culinary journey of mine which will cross many continents, regions, tribes, cultures and race. This week we will travel to Korea.
During my last trip to Dubai I was invited by a Korean friend settled there for a meal.It was one of most interesting meals I have had in a long time. Although simple, it was so fresh and alive, the mere thought of that dinner still makes my mouth water.
I was served kimchi, which in Korea is made with fermented vegetables—Korean radish and napa cabbage fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions, and chili pepper. Traditionally Koreans make enough kimchi salad to last the whole winter as fermented food can be stored for a long time. In olden days, the kimchi was stored in earthen pots. Now, special kimchi refrigerators are being used to store the salad. Kimchi aids digestion and an average Korean consumes 40 pounds of the stuff per annum .
Unlike other cultures, in Korea, soup is served as part of the main course rather than at the beginning or the end of the meal, as an accompaniment to rice along with other side dishes called Banchan, like grills (meat, sea food or vegetables). Soups known as Guk are often made with meats, shellfish and vegetables. Soups can be made more formal—known as tang—and served as the main dish. I was served the famous Korean Tteokguk—a rice cake soup. Tteok is the rice cake and I learnt they come in many varieties and flavours in Korea. The soup had finely diced vegetables and mushrooms. Since the soup is the main dish, they served many small side dishes, which reminded me of the Spanish Tapas. Gui in Korea means grilled. In most traditional restaurants, the food is grilled on a charcoal grill placed at the centre of the table. The cooked meat is then cut into small pieces and wrapped with fresh lettuce leaves, with rice, thinly sliced garlic and other seasonings. The taste of freshly grilled vegetables in Korean spices was just mind blowing. Along with this we ate Jeon (or Buchimgae) which are savoury pancakes. Chopped kimchi or seafood is mixed into a wheat flour-based batter, and then pan fried. This dish tastes best when it is dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and red pepper powder.
Then came the Japchae which was a kind of noodle dish made with marinated chicken and vegetables in soy sauce and sesame oil. One can use beef or meat instead of chicken.
For dessert I was served Tteok again but this time it was covered with sweetened red bean paste and raisins and a platter of Korean confectionery called Hahngwa which is made of mixed grains, rice, honey etc. To sum up, came a pot of freshly brewed Jasmine tea to help digest the great food.
I was lucky to get a special recipe for a dish called Bibimbap which I am going to share today. It’s made of warm mixed rice, topped with local vegetables, spicy red chilli paste, soya strips or beef strips and raw eggs that cook and crisps against the side of the steaming serving bowl.
■ 2 cups medium-grain Korean (or Japanese) rice
■ 1 large cucumber, sliced into thin strips
■ 1.5 cups bean sprouts, parboiled and squeezed of excess water
■ 1.5 cups spinach, parboiled and squeezed of excess water (3/4 lb before cooking)
■ 2 carrots, julienned
■ 4 shitake mushrooms
■ 1 zucchini, sliced into thin strips
■ 1/2 lb meat (optional) I prefer with soya bean paneer
■ Fried egg as a topping (optional)
■ 1/2 cup sesame oil
Sesame seeds Method
■ Cook rice in rice cooker or on the stove.
■ Dip cucumber strips in a bowl of salt water for 20 minutes and then drain.
■ Season spinach with 3tsp sesame oil, 1 tsp salt and a dash of sesame seeds.
■ Season bean sprouts with 2 tsp sesame oil, 1 tsp salt, and a dash of sesame seeds.
■ Sauté carrots, mushrooms, zuchinni with a pinch of salt in a pan in sesame oil
■ Place cooked rice in large bowl and arrange vegetables on top.
■ If desired, soya paneer strips or egg can be placed in the centre.
■ Serve each with small bowls of red pepper paste (kochujang) and sesame oil.
■ To eat, add a small amount of oil and desired amount of red pepper paste to your bowl and mix everything together with a spoon.