Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Savoring food from the land of ginseng

ALL kinds of local and most foreign food are available in major Indonesian cities, especially in Jakarta. This includes Korean food, and restaurants serving this food are usually located in areas with a large Korean population, such as Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta, and in Lippo Village, Tangerang.

Korean restaurants can also be found in malls, where people of all backgrounds can taste this delicious food from the land of ginseng, as Korea is popularly known here.

So, what is specific about Korean food? It includes food for kings that is complicated to prepare as well as traditional and modern culinary. These days, a lot of Korean dishes are well known in many parts of the world, such as kimchi, galbi, bulgogi, hoe, makchang and gobchang. Kimchi is pickled mustard greens and is more often than not served as an accompaniment to a meal.

The staples of Korean food are rice, noodles and tofu. Koreans also love to eat meat and vegetables (banchan) accompanied by soup. Korean food usually contains sesame oil, doenjang, soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger and chili sauce (gochujang). The Koreans are the world's largest consumers of garlic, and eat much more of it than the Chinese, Thais, Japanese, Spanish, Italians and Greeks.

Korean food differs according to the season. In winter, Koreans consume kimchi and various vegetables that are covered with salt and preserved in large earthenware bowls.

Meanwhile, traditional food that used to be served in the palace during the Joseon dynasty takes hours to prepare as it has to possess a harmony and a contrasting character between hot and cold, spicy and mild, hard and soft, solid and liquid as well as a balance in the colors.

Koreans eat their meal sitting cross legged on cushions at low tables. They use chopsticks and long spoons, both of which are called sujeo. Unlike chopstick users from other countries, the Koreans started using spoons in the fifth century.

When eating, unlike the Chinese or the Japanese, Koreans may not lift the soup or rice bowls from the table, and they eat using the spoons. Banchan, which is served in small bowls, is consumed with chopsticks. In public places, such as restaurants, Koreans drink water or barley tea. Another popular drink is soju, which is alcohol made from fermented rice or wheat or potatoes.

Of course, when eating a Korean meal, non-Koreans do not have to follow their eating customs rigidly. Some restaurants serve Korean food Western style, and some even sell fast food. In Muslim areas pork is not on the menu and beef is served instead. A very popular Korean dish is bibimbap, which is rice mixed with various vegetables, beef, egg and gochujang.

Another dish is yukhoe bibimbap, which is raw beef and raw egg bibimbap. There is another kind of bibimbap that is served on a hot stone griddle.

Koreans have many kinds of noodles. One of them is naengmyeon, which is a specific noodle of Pyeongyang that is consumed during summer. The noodles are mostly the thin type and served with beef, gravy, various spices, vegetables and boiled egg. This kind of naengmyeon is called mul naengmyeon or watery naengmyeon to differentiate from bibim naengmyeon, which has no gravy but is mixed with spicy gochujang and is cooked on sticks like satay. Meanwhile, mulhoe naengmyeon is seafood naengmyeon.

Ramyeon are Korean noodles that are slightly different from Japanese ramen. Ramyeon can also mean instant noodles sold in packets. It is usually cooked in spicy gravy with vegetables, meat or kimchi.

Meanwhile, the most popular soups or food with gravy are budae jjigae, doenjang jjigae, cheonggukjang jjigae, gamjatang, haejangguk, janchi guksu, jeongol, kimchi jjigae, samgyetang and seolleongtang.

Samgyetang is unique as this soup is made from a whole chicken stuffed with ginseng, hedysarum, sweet rice, jojoba, garlic and gingko nuts. It is served in summer.

Also unique is kimchi jjigae, which is soup containing kimchi, pork or beef. It is often served piping hot for lunch on a hot stone griddle.

Koreans also love meat. So in restaurants, including traditional ones, meat is grilled on the table and accompanied by various banchan. The meat is then cut into small pieces and wrapped in leaves with rice, slices of garlic and ssamjang, which is a mixture of gochujang and doenjang.

One of the popular grilled meat dishes is bulgogi, which literally means fire meat. This is made from beef that is grilled with sweet soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, onion and black pepper. Other meat used is pork (dwaeji-bulgogi), chicken or squid (ojingeo-bulgogi).

Galbi is spiced pork or beef ribs grilled with charcoal. It is cut thinner than bulgogi and is often referred to as the Korean barbecue. A chicken version is also available (dakgalbi) and jokbal, which is pork leg, and is served with a salty sauce.

Hoe is raw seafood that is dipped in hot chili sauce (gochujang) or savory soy sauce containing wasabi and served with salad leaves. The most favorite sannakji is live octopus, which is eaten raw and is still moving when served.

Makchang is grilled pork innards served like samgyeopsal and galbi. This dish is typical of Daegu and Gyeongsang provinces, while gobchang is the same as makchang, but the innards are from piglet or calf.

Enjoy your Korean dinner!

(Burhanuddin Abe)

The Jakarta Post, October 28, 2009

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