Several years ago, I was watching famous food personality Rachel Ray on her show "30 Minute Meals." On the episode, she was introducing kimchi to the American public. Mind you, she only had 30 minutes to make a Korean barbecue flank steak and kimchi, so she obviously had to make some short cuts. Also, she didn't have access to all the amazing Korean ingredients you might have now. Mrs. Ray's fast kimchi consisted of the following: shredded napa cabbage with half of a thinly sliced red pepper, seasoned with salt and stir-fried. Yes, you heard me correctly: you stir-fry the cabbage with red bell pepper and then drizzle two tablespoons of honey, 2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes, and 4 cloves of garlic, and mix with one cup of sauerkraut. That’s it: it is ready to be served. If you don't believe me, do an internet search for “Rachel Ray Korean Barbecue Flank Steak.”
The days when there was a lack of Korean ingredients are now gone. There are many Korean and Asian stores and internet options, so you can get authentically-sourced Korean ingredients and don't have to "hack" a Korean recipe like Mrs. Ray did. In the US, Korean supermarkets called H-mart are happy to deliver in 11 states. There are over 20 Korean grocery stores in the UK and 2 in Saudi Arabia. You can also order Korean ingredients online via Amazon, Oriental Mart, Ebay, Gmarket, and many more. There is a directory of Korean Grocery stores around the world at maangchi.com.
How to Obtain Korean Flavor: Jang
In order to add Korean flavor to your dishes with the least amount of money spent, use Korean fermented sauces, or jang. The essential sauces are gochujang (red chili paste), doenjang (fermented bean paste), jin-ganjang (dark soy sauce), and guk-ganjang (soup soy sauce). They are the secret to Korean flavor and once you have them, you can create most Korean dishes.
Korean ingredients have a more robust flavor than similar types produced in other countries. For example, Korean bean paste is made almost entirely of soy beans. In contrast, Japanese miso paste is usually mixed with buckwheat or regular wheat to cut the flavor. The same is true for soy sauces. Korean soy sauce uses more soy beans and less flour than other soy sauces. The roasting process for Korean sesame oil gives it a deeper and stronger roasted flavor profile than other comparable oils. Korean anchovy fish sauce is essential for salads and kimchi. Its flavor might be quite pungent, but it works best for making kimchi and side dishes. The last pair of essential ingredients you need to complete your Korean kitchen is roasted seaweed and sesame seeds to garnish your dishes. Plus, roasted seaweed is an excellent snack that is much healthier than potato chips. In short, having Korean ingredients will make your Korean dishes taste authentic.
Thoughts on a Westernized Korean Meal
Whenever I go home to America, my friends and family ask me to make a Korean meal for them. Of course their perceptions of a Korean meal are different from mine. They have been exposed to sound bites and minute clips of dishes being made. They know meat, kimchi, and side dishes. I have tried stews before, but they prefer sweeter or creamy soups instead of pungent and spicy Korean stews.
When I am cooking I focus on sides, meat, and lettuce wraps. Also, I tend to work on one plate creations instead of having many different sides. My guests like to transfer all the sides and meat onto their own plate instead of eating out of the same shared platter. Finally, certain local ingredients like cucumber, garlic, and meat are cheaper in western countries whereas "Asian" ingredients like napa cabbage, daikon radish, and pear are more expensive.
A Simple Korean Meal Made with Authentic Ingredients
It's all about workflow. I start with vegetables and work my way to meat which people would prefer to be served hot. To make a simple cucumber geotjeori, I take 4 cucumbers, remove their skin, and sprinkle about 4 teaspoons of salt while they sit in a colander. The salt will pull the water out for the next 10 minutes. Next, I make a simple sauce by mixing together about two tablespoons of Korean red pepper powder, 1 and a half tablespoon of fish sauce, 4 cloves of minced garlic, a ¼ teaspoon of minced ginger, a few shakes of sesame oil, and a quarter of an apple, minced (I try to avoid sugar whenever possible). Then, I rinse all the salt off the cucumbers and squeeze them to remove more water. I add the sauce to them, along with two chopped green onions.
Next on the list is my spinach side dish. This one is extremely simple, and I usually make a double batch since it is very popular. I take two bunches of spinach and blanch them in hot water. I then add 3 cloves of minced garlic, sesame oil, and salt to taste and garnish with sesame seeds.
Finally, for the meat, I make bulgogi and serve it with some homemade ssamjang sauce. Getting the bulgogi meat is the hardest part but luckily, Philadelphia steak sandwiches are popular around the country. I buy 2 pounds of thinly sliced ribeye for steak sandwiches from the freezer section and let it thaw in the fridge overnight. The next day, I marinate the meat with my bulgogi sauce. To make the sauce, I use about a half cup of Korean dark soy sauce, a half cup of water, 3 tablespoons of honey, 1 shot of vodka, 4 cloves of garlic, 3 tablespoons of sesame oil, 1 half apple grated, 1 half pear grated and a quarter kiwi grated. Along with the sauce, I toss the meat with 1 julienned carrot, 1 julienned onion, and 4 scallions, and leave to marinate for at least 2 hours. I would then simply sauté until cooked through and serve with fresh lettuce leaves or over rice. From my experience, people love to have bulgogi with ssamjang sauce, so I make the latter by mixing 2 parts bean paste with 1 part red chili paste and adding 1/2 garlic clove and some sesame oil. The sauce has become a major hit at my dinner parties and many people now make it themselves as a dip for cucumbers and carrots.
It is truly a great time to be a Korean foodie. You don't have to compromise on flavor anymore.
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