By Phyllis Louise Harris
If mandoo, bindaeduk, bulgogi, chapchae, banchan, and dolsot bibimbap with gochujang make your mouth water then Korean food is no mystery to you. If not, then you are missing some of the best food on the planet.
My introduction to Korean cuisine came about twenty-five years ago when a Korean co-worker and I went to dinner at Shilla on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. Created by Korean native Won J. Cho, the restaurant was one of the earliest places for Minnesotans to try Korean food. Many of the flavors were new and wonderful while others reminded me of my grandmother’s cooking from her Iowa farm. Short ribs, cabbage, stew, pancakes and noodles are equally at home in Korea and Iowa, and all are on my list of favorites regardless of what they are called or how they are seasoned.
Food columnist and Korean native Mary Lee Vance reminded me of the wonders of Korean cuisine in the 2015 spring edition of Korean Quarterly. While she has lived in northern Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana and California (among other places), Mary Lee has always found a way to cook the food of her homeland and share it with others. But, now at Berkeley with its multitude of Korean restaurants nearby she continues to promote Korean cuisine by taking friends to some of her favorite haunts. In her current column Mary Lee takes the mystery out of the Korean menu and we are happy to bring some of her tips to you. For her complete “short course” see the current Korean Quarterly.
Mandoo are simply wonderful, meat or vegetable filled dumplings served with a soy sauce dipping sauce. They can be fried or steamed and are often considered appetizers on Western menus. Add a little vinegar or chili oil to the sauce and the dumplings take on more startling flavors. I like to combine them with a bowl of steaming soup for a wonderful, satisfying meal.
Another starter course could be bindaeduk, a mung bean pancake fried with a crisp outer crust. “Main courses” can include bulgogi, marinated beef, or the better known kalbi, seasoned beef ribs.
One of my favorites is dolsot bibimopab, a large, hot, sizzling stone bowl of vegetables and rice topped with a fried egg. It comes to the table absolutely crackling with wonderful sounds and aromas. Digging down through the layers of flavorful ingredients to the crisp rice at the bottom of the bowl is the best part of all. Add as much hot sauce or soy sauce as you like and combine bites with a variety of banchan (side dishes including kimchee) served in small bowls around the table. In this area, Sole Café on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul has one of the best bibimopabs served sizzling hot in its big stone bowl making the rice at the bottom a wonderful blend of crunchy, charcoaled, tender bites.
And then there are noodles. Chapchae made with sweet potato noodles and vegetables is a salad served at room temperature and a great introduction to Korean cooking. And, while many dishes can be made vegetarian, favorites include tieokbokki, rice cakes made with a spicy sauce and pajeon, green onion pancakes.
There are also seafood dishes on many Korean menus including squid (ojingo) or fish fillets. And, let’s not forget chicken. Sangyetang is a chicken stew served in a hot stone bowl with a whole Cornish hen stuffed with sweet rice, ginseng, jujubes, ginseng root, garlic and green onions.
Mary Lee recommends ordering a variety of dishes for a group of diners so that everyone can taste a little of each. What a great way to sample the cuisine of Korea and expand your culinary horizons. Search the web for a Korean restaurant near you. Or if you are feeling adventurous, go to Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesotans since 1875 and turn to the chapter on Korea to cook a few dishes at home. There are a variety of Korean food markets in the area that carry everything you will need.
Read more about Asian food in Minnesota and try more than 160 recipes in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, now in bookstores and on amazon.com.
Buy online: Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875
Watch the EMMY® award winning “Asian Flavors” television show based on the book on tpt MN. Check local TV listings for broadcast times or view the show streaming online at: http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=24552&select_index=0&popup=yes#0