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Korean Essential Eats: Rice

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So Many Varieties and Ways to Eat

 

Whenever I ask visitors to Korea what they think is the most important dish at the Korean table, they will usually first reply, “the barbecue.” When I tell them this is incorrect, they will then say, “kimchi.” I will also tell them this is wrong, and they will then list different side dishes before getting to “rice.” For Koreans, the rice is the main part of the meal, and this reverence for a simple bowl of grains has been the driving force behind the economy and the reason for, and the cause of, revolutions and social change. It is also the main reason that Korean food culture has developed the way it has.

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The Flavor of Korean Rice


When Korea tried to open up trade agreements with other countries, rice was a battle cry for farmers to protest the agreements. Ultimately, they were able to put restrictions on the amount of foreign imports allowed. Plus, the agreements maintained the Korean perception that Korean rice is unique and preferable to the rice of other nations. Korean rice is a short grained rice that is sticky. It seems stickier and has a poppy bite compared to the rice of other nations that I have tried. It definitely has more bite than a jasmine, basmati, or Chinese long grain rice. I would say it has a chew that is similar to risotto.
The flavor of the rice is bright, and it has a clean aroma. The rice goes very well with Korean foods such as kimchi and soups like soybean paste stews because of the contrasts in flavor. Koreans like newly harvested and polished rice called baek-mi. They prefer rice that is picked within the year. If the rice is old, it tends to be mushy and doesn’t have that poppy bite that Koreans prefer. Also, the rice should have a pearly luster. Old rice doesn’t usually have that glow. If I am going too far into detail about rice, it is because it is the most important aspect of the meal for Koreans. If the rice is not cooked properly or doesn’t taste right, then diners may never return to a restaurant.

The Different Types of Rice


Many have the belief that if the rice is good, it is a good indicator that the rest of the food will be good as well. Good rice means that the restaurant is willing to pay a bit more and take the time to make good rice. The rice cooker is also very important. To create that fresh aroma and the desired pop, many places will use a pressure cooker instead of a standard rice cooker. The crispy bits on the bottom of the pot will be eaten as a snack called nurungji. The nurungji can also be mixed with hot water to make a subtle yet sweet rice porridge. The taste of nurungji is so popular they even make candies with that flavor.
Koreans have always been focused on health, and these days, it is popular for younger people to eat brown rice, or hyeon-mi. However, some people of the older generation, like my mother, don’t like the taste of brown rice as it reminds them of when they were poor.
If you find a rice with a very pure white color, it is probably glutinous rice. It is often used to make very sticky rice cakes or in samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup). It is also used in sweet snacks called gangjeong and sauces such as red chili paste, or gochujang (red pepper paste). This type of rice is grown on dry land instead of wet rice patties like regular rice.
Koreans like to mix grains of rice such as adding some black rice, or heuk-mi, to white rice which will turn it a beautiful purple color. Black rice was called the “king’s rice” for it is very nutritious and rare. It can also be mixed with yellow millet, red rice, beans, barley, and more. A special mix of these different grains is called yeongyang-sotbap (a hot pot made with cooked rice).
Rice is the centerpiece of the meal in Korea so cherish it. Also, Koreans have a belief that you should finish all your rice as a sign of respect to the community farmers that worked so hard to bring it to the table. Oh, and eat Korean rice with a spoon so you can enjoy each nourishing bite. And one final note, you don’t just eat rice as a meal. That would make you babo, or a stupid person. It means a person that only eats rice without realizing they should eat it with other side dishes, soups, and proteins.

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Gimbap: Korean Rice Rolls

 

Gimbap is for Koreans like peanut butter and jelly for Americans, fish ‘n’ chips for the British. Gimbap is a simple dish. It is just rice seasoned with some roasted sesame oil and placed on a sheet of seaweed stuffed with various vegetables and other ingredients like meat, yellow egg, orange carrots, white cucumbers, green spinach, pink ham, brown burdock, and yellow turnips. They would have to wrapped carefully, yet firmly, brushed with some more sesame oil (to prevent the seaweed from ripping), and then sliced into rainbow disks that taste best when eaten with the fingers. Variations of gimbap are boundless. They can be stuffed with tuna and mayonnaise, kimchi, shrimp, crab, cheese, and even crispy, tiny anchovies. Nobody knows who made the first gimbap but some historians say that it is associated with the Korean dish bossam, which is poached pork belly topped with kimchi and wrapped in brined cabbage leaf. A popular variation of this dish is Chungmu-gimbap, which is simply rice wrapped with seaweed and served with a side of turnip kimchi and braised squid or other seafood. They say that the fishing town of Chungmu had to come up with a lunch food that would not spoil when fishermen would be out on the hot seas all day. By separating the stuffing and meat from the rice rolls and serving it with fermented side dishes, the fishermen could have a hearty meal out at sea. Another variation comes from the popular Gwangjang Market in Seoul’s Jongno area. Mayak gimbap translates to “narcotic gimbap.” The story goes that these small, cigar-shaped rice rolls were as addictive as drugs and caused people to line up by the dozens to get packages of these rice rolls for themselves and their families. The dish is simple to make. But instead of having a big sheet of seaweed it starts with a small rectangle about the size of your palm. It is topped with rice, sesame seeds, carrots, and turnips and wrapped and squeezed to make a rice roll about the size of an adult’s index finger. The most important part of this dish is the sauce, which is made of piquant mustard and vinegar. I think it is the sauce that makes this gimbap so addictive. Gimbap is a must-try dish in Korea. I hope you will visit Korea soon for the delicious rice and gimbap.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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