Cheap Eats:
Seekumche Kuk
  (Spinach with Pork)

I haven’t 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" aren’t, 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 it’s easy to get this in instant form at Asian markets, or chicken broth with some sliced scallions could be served, if you’re doing this at home. Then a bowl of plain, white rice is brought out with the main course.

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 you’re 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 you’re 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. Don’t be concerned — most dishes aren’t going to hurt you — just believe them if someone tells you something is hot, at least until you’re familiar with the heat-rating system of a specific restaurant or brand name. Of course, if you like pain, you’ll love Korea’s version of hot stuff.

If you’re 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 isn’t 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 you’ll need to add is a pot of tea, especially ginseng tea, and a sliced orange or other fruit for dessert.

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 you’re 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 heat through.

Transfer the mixture to a warmed serving dish and sprinkle over the roasted sesame seeds before serving.

Serves 2-3.

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