Add the traditions of the Korean family table to your repertoire
A few months ago, Roy Myung, a Korean culture enthusiast, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in learning about Korean food...
Special to the Seattle Times
A few months ago, Roy Myung, a Korean culture enthusiast, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in learning about Korean food; I replied with an eager "You bet!"
About 100,000 Korean Americans live in Washington state, with the Seattle metro area home to a sizable community. Living in the Northwest for most of my life, I have been exposed to many types of Asian cuisine and culture — but surprisingly little Korean food. I knew only that kim chee, a pickled-cabbage condiment, is ubiquitous.
We decided on foods for the Korean New Year's celebration, with this year's festivities on Jan. 29.
For starters, soup
Roy arrived at my studios with his wife, Connie, and his friend Mike Kim to help translate. But, as always, food proved to be an international language, so not much translation was actually needed as we chopped, stirred and cooked our way through a fun day together sharing centuries-old recipes.
Connie, whose Korean name is Heejung Kim, was the official cook. While she prepares most of the family's meals, the New Year's Day meal is prepared with the other women in the family and friends. The methods are passed down from their moms; the younger generation learns to make the time-honored dishes by taste and look — no measuring or written recipes.
To start the New Year, the traditional dish is a rice-cake soup called Tteokguk. Made with clear beef broth, shredded slow-simmered flank steak and slices of rice-cake pasta and garnished with green onions and julienned egg, this soup is eaten at breakfast. According to custom, one must eat Tteokguk at New Year's to turn a year older.
Where to shop
Among the many area outlets that sell products for Korean recipes are:
Uwajimaya, 600 Fifth Ave. S., Seattle, 206-624-3215; 15555 N.E. 24th St. and Bel-Red Road, Bellevue, 424-747-9012
Central Market, 15505 Westminster Way N., Shoreline, 206-363-9226
Aurora Oriental Market, 15202 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline, 206-362-5575
Boohan Market, 22618 Highway 99, Edmonds, 425-778-7400
I was delighted that a dish was going to include sliced rice cakes. I had seen these at Central Market in Shoreline and was smitten with their lovely little oval shapes — shown off so nicely in form-fitting "vacu-paks." Now, at last, I know what to do with them.
Another of my favorites was a mung bean pancake, Nokdu-bindaetteok. Connie made the "batter" for these with soaked green mung beans that she puréed in a blender then mixed with glutinous rice flour, ground pork, sliced kim chee, bean sprouts, green onions and garlic. The pancakes were griddled like traditional American pancakes but with strips of pork belly and green onion cooked into one surface, making for a beautiful design. Nokdu-bindaetteok is served with a soy sauce-based drizzle.
One of the most labor-intensive dishes was Oiseon (Stuffed Cucumbers). The cucumbers are peeled and cut then lightly sautéed to glaze them. Each of three cuts in each piece is stuffed with a different julienned garnish: one, a mixture of beef and marinated mushrooms; another, egg yolk; and the last, egg white. The cucumbers are drizzled with a sweet-and-salty rice vinegar sauce before serving. This special dish is usually reserved for royalty. Mike even remarked that this was the first time he had tasted the dish.
Oiseon requires exacting cuts and preparation, so I deemed this recipe a bit too complicated. I stuck to writing up dishes that would be simpler for most American home cooks. And, unfortunately, due to space limitations we have also omitted the pancake recipe.
A recipe we thought would be an excellent introduction to Korean cooking is Japchae (Clear Noodles Stir-fried with Vegetables), delicious eaten either hot or at room temperature. Clear yam noodles — with a great texture and ability to absorb other flavors — are used for this dish. The noodles are tossed with colorful goodies such as shiitake and wood ear mushrooms, carrots and spinach and seasoned with sesame oil, toasted sesame seed, soy sauce and Korean sea salt.
One dish Connie prepared is something I had eaten before: Bulgogi Beef (Korean Barbecue). In the opinion of my chef teachers and guests, most bulgogi found in restaurants is misprepared — it should not be marinated for long periods. A brief soak to season the beef allows more meat flavor to come through. Connie's recipe includes purée of Asian pear, an intriguing use of a fruit I love. Thin slices of rib eye were marinated for only 30 minutes then cooked quickly over a special table-top burner with a curved grill designed to prevent flare-ups. When making bulgogi at home, you can cook it in a grill pan.
Having had bulgogi beef at other times, I can tell you this was the best I have ever had.
Serve bulgogi with plain steamed rice to soak up all the tasty juices and accompany your Korean meal with an assortment of purchased kim chee.
Rather than being served in courses, all the tasty dishes I described are laid out on the table to share. When the family gathers for New Year's, there is ceremonial bowing in remembrance of their ancestors, and the children bow to their parents and older relatives. The children receive "lucky money," and family and friends play traditional Korean games such as the board game yut-nori.
For a sweet ending, Yaksik (Sweet Rice with Nuts and Jujubes) is enjoyed.
Chef Kathy Casey is a food, beverage and restaurant concept consultant and food writer. She owns Kathy Casey Food Studios®. Her "Dishing" column appears the first Wednesday of the month in the Seattle Times.
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