I love Korean food and hadn’t had any for a couple of months. When my son and I decided to go out for dinner I suggested a Korean restaurant, Kim Ho Jeung. Usually, we wind up ordering one barbecue type dish and one casserole which together with the ban chan is plenty enough. This time my eye was caught by a sign offering ‘set dinners”.On enquiry we were told that it was prix fixe dinner of 11 courses for two people for $ 40. That sounded like a tasting menu and it would enable us to sample dishes which we would otherwise never order. Besides, at $ 40 for two , it was a real bargain. We decided to go for it.
The first surprise was that it included ban chan , those little appetizers that start off an a la carte Korean meal. I would have thought that with 11 courses to come , there would be no ban chan. Not so. The ban chan arrived and we tried to only nibble at them , mindful of all the food that was to follow. It was not difficult as the other dishes started arriving almost immediately.Before we knew it the table was completely covered with little plates of food. I can’t remember all the dishes but there was a little crock of kalbi, another of bulgogi; a piping hot bowl of tofu and vegetables, an excellent noodle dish, a small seafood pancake , vegetable fritters and a little plate of sashimi. As a cross section of the menu it was very representative of Korean restaurant food and ,at that price, it was a real steal . However, I don’t think I’d go for the set dinner again.
One reason is that there was too much food. Try as we did, we left a quarter of the food on the table ; mostly because we were full, partly because we didn’t care for some of the dishes. Another reason was that with so many dishes being served in short order a) they had to be pre-cooked and b) by the time we got to them , some of them were not piping hot. This was a problem particularly with the kalbi and the bulgogi. Next time I know I’ll stick to the a la carte menu.
The Los Angeles Times reports there is a move afoot by the Korean government to popularise Korean food and make it one of the Top Five cuisines in the world by 2017. The first part of this is understandable since popularising the cuisine will be a boost to tourism and restaurant revenues. It is the second part ( making it a top five cuisine) that I think is inexplicable and unrealistic. The top three cuisines in the world are , in no particular order, Italian, French and Chinese. After that there are a bunch of others including Indian, Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese and Spanish.Much as I love Korean food,I have to admit that there are drawbacks to widening its appeal. Many people find it pungent and far too spicy. While people’s taste buds have become more accustomed to spices, it will be a long while ,if ever,before they become accustomed to kimchi and other strong tastes.Besides, Korean cuisine is rather limited since it does not have the range of vegetables and other ingredients that other cuisines such as French or Italian can offer. And how do you judge when a cuisine becomes a “Top Five ” cuisine? There are no popularity polls ; nor are there any world championships for cuisines. I once read a Brazilian cookbook which had an introduction beginning with the words” The top three cuisines in the world are French, Italian and Brazilian. Perhaps in 2017 we will read a similar claim about Korean cuisine ?
Which brings me to kimchi.
Kimchi or pickled cabbage could well be called the national dish of Korea. It came into being over a thousand years ago as a way of making food last. Chinese Cabbage harvested in the fall was bottled with chili , garlic and ginger thus pickling it and enabling it to last over the winter and be available year round. It is a pungent smelling , spicy tasting dish that Koreans have developed a taste for just as Greeks developed a taste for retsina. Kimchi is served with practically every meal and is a staple of Korean cuisine. Many Korean homes have separate kimchi refrigerators where the kimchi is storde separately so that the smell will not permeate the other foods stored in the ‘regular’ refrigerator. Kimchi can be too much of a good thing !
The article in the L.A. Times told of a Korean woman, Kim Soon Ja ( 56), who has come up with odorless kimchi. Ms. Ja runs Han Sung Foods in suburban Seoul and , in 2007, was designated Korea’s first Kimchi Master.Somehow, she has been able to make a freeze dried cabbage kimchi that does not smell. This new product should appeal to foreigners and picky Korean eaters and the government hopes that it will aid in it’s plans for popularising Korean cuisine worldwide. Perhaps it will but ,is kimchi without the smell still kimchi ? It seems to many , including me, that the smell is an integral part of kimchi. Without the smell you might as well be eating tofu.