I havent been to Korea — yet — but I have certainly
enjoyed a significant amount of Korean cooking. From the growing number
of restaurants to the take-out counters at many Asian grocery stores,
Korean food is becoming more readily available here in the Midwest.
This flavorful cuisine — of strong, often spicy character —
borrows elements from neighbors, yet remains distinctive.
Probably the single most widely known Korean food item is kim chee
(most people remember its being a plot element in an episode of
M*A*S*H, if nothing else). This savory pickled cabbage, which can range
from mild to blindingly hot, is only one of a wide range of
"pickles" served with Korean meals. While kim chee is
actually pickled, many of the things called "pickle"
arent, with dishes like spinach with garlic, bean sprouts tossed
in sesame oil, shredded white radish, tofu with chili, or marinated
fish cake included in this category. In Korean restaurants, a variety
of "pickle" simply comes with meals, and it is always great
fun to see what you get (kim chee is a given, but there will
usually be from 2 to 4 additional "pickles," sometimes more).
A table in Korea is commonly set with stainless steel chop sticks and
a large spoon. After the pickle course has been spread before you (with
a different little dish for each variety of pickle), a bowl of simple
soup is customarily served — miso broth is a good choice, and
its easy to get this in instant form at Asian markets, or chicken
broth with some sliced scallions could be served, if youre doing
this at home. Then a bowl of plain, white rice is brought out with the
Beef bulgogi (or bulkokee — the Korean alphabet is being
transliterated on the menu, so spelling can vary widely on all dishes)
is so popular, it is virtually the national dish of Korea. Strips of
lean beef are marinated in a flavorful mixture of soy sauce, garlic,
onions, sesame oil, and brown sugar before being grilled over charcoal.
Chop chae is another favorite of mine — cellophane noodles with
meat, veggies, mushrooms, and usually garlic. Bi bim bop is almost as
much fun to say as it is to eat. A bowl of vegetables, meat, and rice
is topped with a fried egg, then hot chili paste and fish sauce are
added and the whole thing is mixed together (in some restaurants, if
youre obviously new to the dish, your waiter will offer to do
this for you). Short ribs of beef (kulbi), also common on Korean menus,
are truly delicious, though very rich. If the menu goes into detail on
what a dish contains, you can experiment and discover your own
favorites — but at least this list will get you started, if
youre new to Korean food.
One word of warning — this is a cuisine where hot usually means
really hot, so take that into consideration before you dig into a big
serving of anything actually identified as hot or spicy. Of the items
listed above, only kim chee, or possibly one of the other
pickles, is likely to be spicy, with its spiciness generally indicated
by the obvious presence of lots of red chili. Dont be concerned
— most dishes arent going to hurt you — just believe
them if someone tells you something is hot, at least until youre
familiar with the heat-rating system of a specific restaurant or brand
name. Of course, if you like pain, youll love Koreas
version of hot stuff.
If youre preparing Korean food at home, you can easily obtain a
wide range of "pickle" at the increasing number of Asian
markets in the area (often there is a "salad bar," with a
good selection of items), and even my corner grocer can be counted on
for a jar of kim chee. If there isnt an Asian grocer near
you, just serve kim chee, plus some chilled, cooked bean sprouts
or spinach tossed with a little sesame oil, garlic, chopped scallion,
and maybe some chili powder. All youll need to add is a pot of
tea, especially ginseng tea, and a sliced orange or other fruit for
The dish below is one of the lighter, more frugal Korean recipes.
When preparing it, you can use lean beef instead of pork, if you
prefer. Make sure you cut the meat into relatively small, uniform
pieces, since youre stir-frying the dish, and you want the meat
to cook evenly. Before adding them to this dish, I heat/toast my sesame
seeds in a pan for about half a minute, to bring out their fragrance.
Seekumche Kuk (Spinach with Pork)
2 10 oz. packages frozen, chopped spinach
3 Tbs. vegetable oil
8 oz. pork tenderloin, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 garlic cloves, sliced
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
3-4 scallions, sliced
2 Tbs. soy sauce
½ tsp. sugar
2 Tbs. roasted sesame seeds
Heat the spinach in the smallest amount of water
possible until thawed and just heated through. Drain any excess water
(into a cup, if you wish — lots of vitamins in that cooking
liquid) and set aside.
In a wok or large frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add
the pork pieces and garlic to the hot oil and stir-fry for 2 minutes.
Stir in the cayenne, scallions, soy sauce, and sugar and continue to
stir-fry for an additional 2 minutes. Stir in the chopped spinach and
Transfer the mixture to a warmed serving dish and sprinkle over the
roasted sesame seeds before serving.
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