Korean capital serves a feast for the senses, and the palate.
The moment you tell people you are going to Seoul, heads nod and lips are pursed... You are told you will starve, as everything served there is practically inedible for non-Koreans. The more optimistic add, pointedly eyeing the straining belt, that at last you may be able to see your toes without the aid of a mirror.
Google search is infinitely more encouraging: Koreans, according to some Web sites, eat a variety of food, with a healthy dose of greens, rice and noodles. The stomach’s growls pipe down.
In Seoul, one is pleasantly surprised by the variety of food, gently cooked and tastefully served. So gently cooked, in fact, that during most of the meals we had over four days in the Korean capital, the courses kept coming and, yet, they sat lightly on the stomach.
Even more endearing — not for Koreans the exaggerated table manners of the West, where sounds are a strict no-no. Everyone at the table makes all the right noises when eating good food. They also quickly, and very efficiently, despatch the food served, with chop-sticks working faster than fingers.
Everyone is helpful, and they take pains to tell you what you are eating. According to our host, Korean food is all about balance — yin and yang. A meal is created with harmony in mind: A bit of sweet and salty, spicy and mild, hot and cold. There is also great variety — grains, grilled meats, salted seafood, vegetables sautéed in garlic, savoury flatcakes, cold noodles, hot-pots, porridges, salads, raw fish, sauces, simmered dishes, soups… Ask, slightly apologetically, about vegetarian food, and you are surprised by the enthusiasm and pride over their traditional green food that has Buddhist roots. According to them, many restaurants serve only vegetarian food, and temple food is also popular.
Just then, the diminutive waitress brings in bowls of rice. The host explains that meals are usually built around the cereal. Not indigenous to the peninsula, rice was once the food of royalty, but has since become the people’s staple. On occasion, noodles may take centre stage. Our host lists the side-dishes that will appear later — vegetables, meat and seafood cooked in different ways. Up to a dozen side-dishes may be served on formal occasions, but it is usually two on other days. They are served in small bowls. A bowl of soup or stew is also a regular. While the rice and soup/stew are served individually, the other dishes are placed in the middle of the table for everyone to dip into. Traditionally, food is served on low tables and the diners seated on the floor; a cushion being a concession to foreign visitors. Food is eaten with stainless steel chopsticks and a long spoon.
Korean cuisine is a product of its geography — proximity to China and Japan, and their influences. However, Koreans prefer more heavily seasoned food than the Japanese or Chinese; garlic, ginger, green onions, sesame, soy sauce, and red and black pepper are used generously. The Portuguese are credited with introducing chilli to Korea in the 17th century. Within a hundred years, chilli became a key ingredient of the cuisine.
More bowls arrive with something that looks familiar: Kimchi or marinated cabbage. However, going beyond the humble cabbage to include any number of pickled or fermented vegetables, there are nearly 200 varieties of kimchi. Borrowing from the Chinese way of pickling, Koreans improvised to make it the complex dish it is today. Before refrigerators, vegetables were preserved in large clay pots buried in the snow. Now, kimchi is made in glass jars, and stored in special fridges maintained at optimum temperature.
When the side-dishes arrive, it is, as promised, a feast of vegetables, meat and seafood — boiled, blanched, braised, pan-fried, and stir-fried. Salt is the main seasoning; pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, toasted and crushed sesame seeds, dried chilli powder, chilli paste, soyabean paste, sugar, vinegar, garlic, ginger, spring onion, salted shrimp sauce, salted anchovy extract, and mustard enhance the taste. The table goes silent as chopsticks get busy.
As you lean back, more bowls are brought in. Now, it is the cold noodle, a Korean speciality. According to the chef, there are two kinds — with cold soup, and spicy ‘dry’. The noodle is boiled and dipped into ice-cold water to make it chewy. What gives it flavour is the soup stock, and a non-spicy radish water kimchi. Toppings include slices of boiled, pressed meat, thin slices of pickled cucumber, radish and pear, and a halved hard-boiled egg. Vinegar and mustard are added for taste.
In summer, cold soups are also served. Cucumber, bean sprouts, lettuce, or eggplant are added to an iced stock made of water, vinegar and either salt or soya sauce. Cold soups are also made of soybean milk or sesame seed milk, and chicken stock.
Besides water, the food is washed down with soju, a harsh drink like vodka. Made from fermented potatoes, Koreans prefer to drink cold soju neat, though many mix it with Coke, lemonade or even beer. Served in porcelain or glass pots, the bite of the soju is softened by sliced julienne cucumber or lemon. As our hosts rightly warned, soju grows on you, but suddenly delivers a mulish kick.
A Korean meal usually ends with fresh fruit such as pear, melon, and clementine, but there are also sweet dishes such as green tea milk — sugar, double cream and green tea; a traditional dessert made from potatoes and sweet potatoes, covered in sugar syrup, called Mattang; or Hwachae, a sweet punch made from fruits and flower petals.
With all this, can anyone starve? This just goes to show how little is known about Korean cuisine in India — maybe because Korean restaurants are yet to make their presence felt, as Chinese or Japanese eateries have.
And if I have not added a few more inches to the waistline, praise be to the culinary techniques of the Koreans, rather than my restraint.