Ethnic Eating 101: Korean, Part 2
As promised, today's edition of Ethnic Eating 101 concentrates on the two temperature extremes in Korean food: soon tofu, which is served literally boiling hot, and naengmyeon, which is served literally ice cold. No matter what the weather, there is a Korean dish perfect for it.
Before we start, a word about Korean tableware. Koreans use spoons at every meal and they are the only Asian culture which consistently uses metal chopsticks (usually stainless steel). If you're new to the art of chopstickery, you are going to be one frustrated diner after trying to pick up food with heavy metal chopsticks. They usually have raised bumps or grooves near the tips to assist with traction, but that's no guarantee of success.
Fortunately, Koreans don't use chopsticks for quite as many tasks as other Asians; rice, for example, is normally eaten with a spoon (or dumped into a pot of stew and then eaten with the spoon--this is not the etiquette horror it might be elsewhere), so the chopsticks are really only used for non-soupy, non-rice foods, which tend to be easier to eat with slippery metal. As long as you can eat it neatly with a spoon, you are OK manners-wise.
Why metal, incidentally? There's no canonical answer to the question; one of the more plausible theories seems to be that of the servers at Beverly Tofu House in L.A.'s Koreatown: Koreans use metal chopsticks because Koreans use metal spoons and Koreans like their utensils to match. This would explain the use of metal soup bowls and metal rice bowls as well. Soon tofu
Soon tofu (properly sundubu jjigae, literally "uncurdled tofu stew") is a cauldron of boiling, roiling stew containing your choice of protein, broth, an impressive amount of gochujang (a chile paste made with rice powder and fermented soybeans), vegetables (always including green onions) and a big dollop of soft tofu. The dish is served in a dolsot (stone pot) while it is still boiling.
What protein you get is entirely up to you. Vegetarians can choose to skip the meat (but ensure that there is no meat broth in the stew); beef, chicken and shrimp are very common, but be aware that the shrimp will likely come in the same shape it was fished out of the ocean, antennae and all. My favorite is clams; there's some magic reaction between the stew and the clamshell that lends a very, very faint, almost metallic tang to the broth. The clams open when the stew is poured over, and by the time they cool enough to eat they're perfectly cooked, tender and not chewy at all.
Soon tofu is served with chopsticks and spoons. Don't let anyone fool you; if you try to eat soon tofu with chopsticks you will fail miserably and probably burn yourself in the process. The chopsticks are for the banchan; the spoon is for the stew and rice.
You may notice that the server gives you a small bowl of eggs. These are raw eggs; crack one on the table (so you don't get shell fragments in your food) and open it into the dolsot as soon as you get it. Stir a bit with the spoon. The boiling heat will cook the egg and lend a creamy, rich taste to the stew.
Soon tofu is eaten with rice; if you've ordered it very spicy, you will want the rice to cut the chile heat. As with other meals, you may get rice in a dolsot or just in an individual, lidded metal bowl. BCD, for example, serves dolsot rice; Kaju serves metal-bowl rice. Feel free to put some rice in the stew; Koreans do it all the time.
The perfect accompaniment to soon tofu is an ice-cold glass of poricha (barley tea). Some places bring it out by default, but you may need to ask for it. While it takes a few sips to get used to, you'll find that nothing else quenches the thirst brought on by salty, spicy food as well as poricha. If you've still got a mouth full of chile heat, most soon tofu places either have dispensers of sticky sweet fruit ice near the door (with small cups, help yourself) or they'll simmer ginger and water and a little sugar in your rice pot to calm your stomach.
Where to get this: Kaju Tofu (8895 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; 5408 Walnut Ave., Irvine; 7922 Valley View, Buena Park) is the local favorite. BCD Tofu House (9520 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; 11818 South St., Cerritos) is not as well-loved but is open 24 hours a day. South Countians can also head for Kaya (14120 Culver Dr., Irvine), where you can have p'ajeon (scallion pancake) as one of your banchan. Naengmyeon
While soon tofu is a hearty, comforting dish in winter (as evidenced by the lines when it's cold and dreary), September and its parched dry heat pushed out by relentless Santa Ana winds call for a different Korean solution, the iced noodles called naengmyeon.
Bizarrely, naengmyeon (literally "cold noodles") was traditionally a winter dish in North Korea, which is not exactly known for its pleasant beach weather in January. It has jumped the DMZ over the last few decades and South Koreans slurp it up by the bowlful in summer. You may see signs advertising "Pyongyang-style" or "Hamhung-style" naengmyeon, just like seeing signs advertising "New York-style" pizza.
The most common version of naengmyeon, and the one that makes any hundred-plus degree day bearable, is called mul naengmyeon (remember, "mul" means "water"). Mul naengmyeon is a bowl of noodles (nearly always buckwheat, but occasionally kudzu starch) topped with half a hard-boiled egg, raw vegetables including cucumber and carrot, a couple of small slices of beef and a thin slice or two of Korean pear. This pile of goodness is topped with ice-cold beef broth. Ice cold, incidentally, is not an exaggeration: you may have to move the ice out of the way to get the solid food out.
You'll be given squeeze bottles with your mul naengmyeon; one contains sinus-clearing mustard (called gyeoja) and the other contains tangy rice-wine vinegar (called shikcho). Add a little bit of both to your broth and stir. They lend interest to what would otherwise just be a giant cold bowl of soup. Eat mul naengmyeon using your chopsticks for the solid food and your spoon for the broth.
The best mul naengmyeon has stock that has gelled very slightly; this means it was made properly, with roasted beef bones simmered for hours in water and allowed to cool. The slightly jellied texture is because bones contain gelatin, which dissolves into the flavored water and then re-forms slightly.
The other principal kind of naengmyeon is called bibim naengmyeon (literally, "mixed cold noodles"). This is most of the same ingredients as mul naengmyeon, but served cold with a squeeze bottle of gochujang (hot pepper paste). You mix the noodles and gochujang and eat it as-is. When you encounter bibim naengmyeon, it may be served with a side bowl of the same ice-cold stock as mul naengmyeon; if not, feel free to ask for it, as well as vinegar and mustard; it is very refreshing.
When being served naengmyeon, you may be asked if you want your noodles cut. Buckwheat noodles are famously chewy and it can be an impolite scene to gnaw off the noodles. These are not Chinese longevity noodles, and you won't be cutting your life short (even superstitiously) if you let the server cut your noodles with clean scissors.
Look around at people eating naengmyeon and you will see bottles of fizzy Korean beer, usually Hite or O.B. brand; it is a very popular accompaniment. Incidentally, most places do not serve banchan (other than perhaps a small plate of kimchi) with naengmyeon; it's meant to be a light meal, as though anything served in such huge portions could ever be called "light".
Where to get it? Despite its self-identification as a barbecue restaurant, Shik Do Rak (9691 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; 14775 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine) serves an excellent version of mul naengmyeon. Morangak (9651 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove) also has a decent version. For bibim naengmyeon, however, the stone-cold (sorry) winner is Ham-Hung Restaurant (10031 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove)--look for the wooden door. You can have your bibim naengmyeon with cold skate, or with cold beef.
Next week, it's time for the licorice-all-sorts of Korean food, a mixed rice dish with as many as ten toppings; Korean fried chicken; and the silent-but-deadly liquor soju and the dishes that go with it.
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