March 5, 2007
THE KOREAN CONNECTION INSIDE SWEET HOME CHICAGO'S KITCHEN
Confucius says in Chinese but in my house, its Simon Says in Korean. The proverb he penned above goes like this : Two friends are eating when one drops dead. The other doesn't take notice of his passing and continues to eat. Further explanation needed ? Now you know why the old adage " East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet " was coined. Believe it or not ( and it's hard to sometimes ) this is how a Korean might compliment the great food of his host or hostess. He is savoring the tasty food so much he notices little else.
Down South and other places in between this would be called a " left-handed compliment. " Koreans are quirky that way. I know, I'm married to one, and he has a lot of quirks. But then, so do I. He thought he knew English until he heard me say " Cut out the light. " And I never thought I'd marry someone whose people actually eat and drink Kudzu.
So in my kitchen you can find such dishes as Kimchee Chigae, Bibimbap, Bulgogi, Kalbi, Chicken and Dumplings, Brunswick Stew , Gumbo and by all means, Grits.
Speaking of Grits, I happened upon the blog of a displaced Southerner in South Korea one evening. His blog had a post on his craving for Grits , something he thought he'd never miss. He created a "fusion " recipe in which he combined grits with Korean condiments and labeled it Korean redneck Grits. Fusing Southern with Korean, now there's a recipe I've gotta try.
Most Americans are mystified by Korean food and think its a mixture of Chinese and Japanese. Couldn't be further from the truth. Korean food is very complex and tickles the taste buds with its pungent, sweet, hot, salty, bitter and sometimes nutty flavors. Next to downhome comfort foods, it's my fave and like Epicurious Magazine, I think it will soon get the long overdue attention it deserves.
But, I must say that I learned to make Korean food from the best - my mother-in-law who was a terrific cook. Didn't speak much English but sure knew how to gesture and demonstrate by doing . I was her only non-Korean daughter-in-law and she liked me best. Why ? For a good reason - most married women aren't going to listen to their mothers-in-law tell them how to cook, but, since I didn't know anything about Korean cuisine and was eager to learn , it was "monkey see, monkey do. " She'd pat me on the back in front of her Korean daughters-in-law and say "She so nice, she listen to me. " Didn't win me any favors with the sisters-in-law, but hey, we all knew who was in charge.
In addition to learning from the master ( she had no recipes, it was always a little of this or that ) having a good cookbook helps. My personal favorite is Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen by Hisoo Shin Hepinstall. Her book was named as one 2001's best by People Magazine and it is just a delight to read . It's not just a recipe cookbook but one that is filled with the writer's poignant memories of her childhood in Korea. My dear Korean friend and gourmand Mia tasted one of my Korean concoctions from Mrs. Hepinstall's book and was amazed because she had never had the dish before and she loved it.
Epicurious.com has a very interesting special on Korean food and cookbooks, one of which is the aforementioned.
One drawback about cooking so many good Korean dishes is that my Seoul mate no longer wants to go out to eat at Korean restaurants. I've created a monster. But when we do, it's usually to the one we consider the best in Chicago and it's been in business for nearly 30 years : Cho Sun Ok, 4200 N. Lincoln Ave. at Berteau. DO not go on the weekends because its jam packed, but if you must, parties of 3 will get in faster. It's not fancy but the food is terrific. You can have the famous Korean BBQ right at your table. Y-u-m-m-y ! Hey, there's another Southern connection -BBQ!