Samui Wining & Dining
What Makes it Unique?

Discovering the secrets of Korean cuisine.

 

4Korean food? Well it’s really hot’n spicy. And it’s all got funny names. Oh – and it’s full of pickled cabbage. That’s it! Korean food’s all pickled cabbage. It’s a bit like Thai food – but with lots of cabbage.

      Erm … well … no, actually. But if you’ve never eaten Korean food, then this may well be your vague impression of what it’s all about. Korea summons images that have something to do with the ‘38th parallel’, of a city called Seoul, and memories of the dark and brooding humour of a TV series called M*A*S*H. Oh. And pickled cabbage. But let’s take a closer look …

      The people of Korea are descendants of the Mongolians. And in 1910, Korea became a Japanese Protectorate. As a result, it would be true to describe the way that Korean food has evolved as a blend of Chinese and Japanese cooking techniques. But where it differs from both, is the fondness of the Koreans for their chillies – hence the spiciness of many of the dishes.

      It’s also a land surrounded on four sides by water – so it’s hardly surprising that seafood figures prominently in the traditional cuisine. Korean markets overflow with fish, shrimps, crabs, clams, oysters, squid, and octopus. And when it comes to the cooking of these, there’s no shortage of innovation. They’re eaten dried, pickled, crushed into paste or sauces, stewed, steamed, and grilled. The fish is even stirred into a universally-enjoyed breakfast porridge.

      Like all Asian countries, the Korean staple diet is built around rice. Koreans eat a medium-grain ‘sticky’ rice – as distinguished from the glutinous sort – which is also common to Japan. And you’ll often find that the rice is mixed with barley or soybeans to vary the texture and flavour. Rice is also often made into noodles, which play a central role in Korean cooking. Soups, which come in a wondrous variety, are often noodle-based, in much the same way as you find in Thailand.

       But it’s not all ‘fish and rice’. The Koreans also love their meat and poultry. And you’ll find an enthusiastic selection of beef, pork and chicken – all cooked with a similar ingenuity and diversity to the seafood mentioned above. In fact, there’s no real Korean ‘national dish’, as such.

      Except for the pickled ‘cabbage’, that is! But it’s not just the cabbage – it’s all the vegetables. And this is undoubtedly the most unusual and distinctive element of Korean cuisine. If you’ve never eaten Korean and know nothing about the food, then it’s certain that you’ll at least have heard about their kimchi. This side-dish of fermented vegetables continues to be an essential part of any Korean meal. Once upon a time, kimchi dishes were relatively mild, and spiced with fermented anchovies, ginger, garlic, and green onions. Koreans still use these ingredients today, but the predominant spice used has been upgraded to red chilli powder. And there are more than 200 types of kimchi, each created by the fermentation of cabbage, radishes, bean sprouts, pumpkins – pause for breath – mushrooms, pears, water chestnuts, cucumbers, aubergines, jujubes – you name it, and the Koreans will already have slapped it in a pickle jar before you’ve got your hat and coat off.

       Actually, kimchi is outstandingly good for you. It contains garlic and onions, which have powerful anti-oxidant properties. The oil of garlic is 60% allicin. This prevents high cholesterol and triglyceride levels – the major cause of heart attacks and strokes. Experiments have proved that eating kimchi along with a quarter-pound of butter actually reduces cholesterol levels – amazingly the kimchi actually negates the effects of eating the butter.

         And it’s not just the kimchi that’s good for you – it’s the entire cuisine. It’s very low-calorie. There’s virtually no fat in Korean dishes, and the use of the meat or fish is carefully blended so they don’t dominate the meal, but complement it. At the same time, Korean food is wholesome, and full of protein, minerals and vitamins.

         A typical Korean meal (pekpan) consists of rice, soup and a great many side dishes (banchan). Banchan dishes are intended to be finished at each meal, so they’ll be small in proportion. The sweet, sticky rice accompanies every meal and you’ll probably find soup on the table also. The prominent feature of a Korean table setting is that all dishes are served at the same time, and table arrangements can vary depending on the main dish served. The food will be arranged beautifully on the table, and each person will get an individual serving of all of the dishes – and this can be sometimes as many as 15-20. Then you simply help yourself from each dish, using chopsticks or a spoon.

         However, one of the most popular forms of Korean cuisine that you’ll come across is the Korean barbecue. Here, you’ll find your meat being cooked on the table, in front of you. And the chances are that you’ll have your own personal waiter, who’ll not only look after you, and help you with choices from the menu, but will be your personal table-cook too.

         So, if the fancy inclines you to something a bit different, go Korean. After all, some might say that it’s the original ‘Seoul food’!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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