Good-bye to greasy egg rolls

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Good-bye to greasy egg rolls

In Seoul's dynamic and ever-developing neighborhoods, shops of all kinds come and go like yesterday's news. What happened to that cute gift shop downtown that was supposed to open more branches? What about that fancy restaurant that used to serve crabmeat stir-fried in Indo-Malaysian curry sauce? Not too long ago the hip crowd used to rush to "in" places such as these. Where did everyone go? Trends are transitory. But is there a style that guarantees success? Yes, if you listen to businessmen. They say, "If nothing else works, open a Chinese restaurant."

Chinese food has been part of Korean culture for ages. Accordingly, Seoul has innumerable Chinese restaurants, from ethnic Chinese-run take-out joints to the high-end eateries that take Chinese food to an art form. Most Chinese food you get in Korea has been "Koreanized," though some restaurants specialize in food from a specific Chinese region. The exception is Shanghai, even though you'll see restaurants named Shanghai and meet chefs from Shanghai. A chef at Shanghai, a restaurant in Seoul's downtown Lotte Hotel, explained that Shanghai-style requires exotic seafoods, such as crab roe, which you can't get in Korea.

But because of the evolving tastes of Koreans, who are eager to go beyond Koreanized Chinese fare, diversified and distinct Chinese cuisine from different regions are becoming more popular. Here are some of the recommendations by the food experts at the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition:



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Xingkai




Cooking Style: Mostly Cantonese, with some Northern, Szechuan and fusion

Location: Downtown, in the basement of the Seoul Finance Center

Telephone: 02-3783-0000

Hours: Noon-2:30 p.m., 6-10 p.m.

Price range: Lunch set menu starts from 40,000 won ($30) per person; dinner set menu between 45,000-290,000 won. Prices are before 10 percent tax and 10 percent service charge.



If you're looking for an impeccably chic restaurant to take your multinational company client, this is the place. Even if your guest is a New York art critic, he'll be impressed.

The esthetic atmosphere is an ultramodern interpretation of ancient Ming and Joseon dynasty styles. Between the Chinese-style red wallpaper and the Korean-style wooden latticework are replicas of antique blackwood cabinets, mah-jongg tables and classic Ming chairs. The effect is an Asian theme for the jet-set crowd.

The design of the restaurant is one of the best creations by the Korean architect Min Kyung-sik, who spent more than a decade working as an architect in New York City. Mr. Min says he wanted to bring out the elegance of the Shanghai of the '30s. The architect has also designed three other restaurants inside the Seoul Finance Center.

Despite Mr. Min's vision, the majority of the food is Cantonese. The specialities of Xingkai, which means "star way," are fresh seafood, such as steamed abalone in "chiew chow" style, taken from the aquarium. The set menus are tempting and the dishes are served in a timely manner and at the right temperature, making the dining at Seoul's most beautiful Chinese restaurant a delightful experience.



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Ho Lee Chow




Cooking Style: Mostly Szechuan

Location: Behind the Samsonite shop on Itaewon's main avenue

Telephone: 02-793-0802

Hours: Noon-11 p.m. Closed Mondays

Price range: Between 8,000-30,000 won per dish



Ho Lee Chow is popular with both Koreans and expatriates. The restaurant serves just about everything besides the Korean favorites (which, incidentally, are noodles with black bean sauce, sweet and sour chicken and spicy noodles with seafood).

Inside this sparsely but tastefully decorated eatery that resembles a casual cafe in America you can choose from a selection of Chinese dishes that are popular in the United States. The prices on the menu won't scare you away, either.

You can start with sweet and sour soup, followed by light and crisp spring rolls. The manager, Park Ji-yeon, will recommend Ho Lee's Hot Plates, like beef, chicken or shrimp sizzlers with black bean sauce served on a hot stone grill. Try them with fried rice.

Another delectable choice is the lemon chicken; the tender, boneless white meat is dipped in batter, fried, then seasoned with a sweet and sour lemon sauce. The result is light and delicious. Ho Lee Chow also serves a good American-style chow mein; the pan-fried noodles are topped with generous seafood morsels in gravy sauce. It's served hot and tastes superb.

You can specify either mild or spicy when you order to tailor the seasoning to your taste. Jasmine tea is complimentary, but try Ko Lian Chiew, a potent Chinese liquor known as goryangju in Korea, or the Chinese beer Tsing Tao to complement the meal.

A new Ho Lee Chow branch opened April 1 in Apgujeong-dong. For reservations, call 02-514-1730.



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Jinbukgyeong




Cooking Style: Northern

Location: Five-minute walk from Woojung Sports Center/Wedding Hall in Yeonhui-dong

Telephone: 02-338-7688

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Price range: A bowl of noodles with black bean sauce costs 4,000 won. The restaurant is good for big groups. The set menus start from about 45,000 won for 2 persons and go as high as 600,000 won for 10 persons.



This restaurant is the mammoth of all Chinese restaurants, and is in the Yeonhui-dong area, which has become something of Seoul's Chinatown. It is a must-stop on the itinerary of most Chinese tourists.

The seven-story building that houses the restaurant also has three large Chinese-style banquet halls. Everyone in the building, it seems, is Chinese. According to the manager, Wang Yungkeo, who hails from China's Shangdong province, the restaurant serves an average of 500 Chinese tourists per day. It was publicized on Chinese national television after it opened a year ago, and now Chinese tourists head straight for it.

The specialty is Jinbukgyeong's Peking Duck. "It is superb," Mr. Wang said in fluent Korean with a melodic Chinese accent. "It is baked for a full 45 minutes in a fire made from fragrant fruit-tree branches." Chinese food buffs can find the "real" Chinese taste here.



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Lulu




Cooking Style: Taiwanese

Location: The second floor of Youngpyung Building opposite Woojung Sports Center in Yeonhui-dong

Telephone: 02-333-3865

Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Price range: A simple meal starts from 4,000 won. Set menus for five persons are from 40,000 won to 100,000 won.



This is about the only restaurant in Seoul that specializes in Taiwanese cuisine. Traditional Taiwanese foods are influenced by Chinese and Japanese cuisine and have distinctive flavors. Most dishes come with a creamy Chinese-style sauce, which tends to be sweet and oily. Seafoods and tender meat are usually seasoned with pork lard and ginger.

The restaurant is three years old, but got a new owner last November in Wang Fungyi, who comes from China's Chingtao city.

The most famous Taiwanese delicacies are rice with pork, rice with bean sauce and beef noodles. They are delicious and affordable, setting you back only about 5,000 won. The Chinese-Korean floor manager, Pu Chaohsiang, is proud of Lulu's reputation. "Koreans who used to study in Taiwan come look us up," she said. "Actually, both Koreans and expatriates come here and get hooked on our noodles."

The best part of a meal here is the soup, which is concocted from various dried herbs brought from Taiwan and a dark green vegetable topping called suansai, which is a kind of pickled spinach. Other choices include steamed pork belly (16,000 won) and shark's fin with crabmeat topped with eggwhites (39,000 won). To complement the dishes, try a shot of sophisticated Confucius Family Liquor (about 35,000 won) or the more affordable Ko Lian Chiew. Don't miss the two delicious side dishes, chasai, a pickled vegetable, and seasoned cabbage. And fried sweet corn desserts are free.



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China Moon




Cooking Style: Cantonese and Northern

Location: Second floor of the Chungbu Building behind the Prada shop in Cheongdam-dong

Telephone: 02-512-8980, 8986

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10:30 p.m.

Price range: Lunch sets cost 25,000-45,000 won; dinner sets cost 50,000-150,000 won. Value-added tax of 10 percent is tacked on.



Going to a fancy, clean and modern Chinese restaurant has become the fashionable thing to do for Seoul's upscale crowd. But Lee Ye-rin (above), the pop singer-turned-restaurateur who opened China Moon in February, says that, "In food, style is not everything."

Ms. Lee is a strong advocate of wholesome eating, and the salutary arrangement of Chinese foods served at her restaurant distinguishes China Moon from the rest of the Chinese restaurants popping up in the posh neighborhood. "You can still take care of your health by eating Chinese foods, even though they tend to be heavier than other types of food," she says.

Instead of noodles made from just white flour, China Moon's special "jade noodles" are made from green tea, then are boiled and covered with black bean sauce. All the vegetables served in the restaurant come from organic farms. Ms. Lee adamantly opposes using monosodium glutamate, or MSG, the seasoning commonly added to Chinese food.

The manager, Richard Cho, who speaks fluent English, recommends sweet and sour silkworms served with fruit sauce. "In Asia, the medicinal effects of silkworms to treat diabetes and high blood pressure are known facts," he claims. "Instead of taking it in a powder or pill form, we wanted to make a recipe using it." He says China Moon is Asia's first restaurant to introduce silkworms into Chinese-style dishes. So what does a silkworm taste like? "Cheetos!" he said.

To keep up the exotic momentum, try hamayu for dessert: It's toad's eggs served hot with honey and 20 natural herbs. It's expensive -- 30,000 won a serving -- but it's good for you, especially if you're a guy.



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Other Recommendations




On The Rock Fusion Cheongdam-dong 02-544-1840

Hyangwon Mixed Yeonnam-dong 02-336-3421

Marie Cantonese, Northern, Szechuan Cheongdam-dong 02-542-6092

Mr. Loong Szechuan Sinsa-dong 02-549-0664/5

Dongcheonhong Northern, Szechuan Sinsa-dong 02-548-8887

Waeraehyang Mixed Sinsa-dong 02-518-4891

De Marie Szechuan Sinsa-dong 02-512-0830

Yi Ning Cantonese, Szechuan Cheongdam-dong 02-547-7444

Donghwabanjeom Szechuan Eulji-ro 6-ga 02-2265-9224

Myeongwon Northern, Szechuan Sunhwa-dong 02-777-4054



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A regional guide to Chinese cooking

Northern Cuisine

The Chinese emperors who ruled during the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties enjoyed Northern-style cooking. The Northern region covers Beijing and Shandong province and south of Beijing along the eastern seaboard. Wheat serves as the basic grain for the flour products, like noodles, steamed breads, pancakes and dumplings. Seafood is emphasized, including sea cucumbers, scallops, oysters, conches and, especially, shark's fin. Mongolian and Muslim influences infused a taste for mutton and strong seasonings such as vinegar, garlic, coriander and leeks. The most famous dish from this region is Peking duck, a fatty and succulent meat that is prepared by glazing and roasting. It is served finely sliced, then eaten by wrapping in a think pancake topped with with scallions and plum sauce.



Szechuan Cuisine

Szechuan is an isolated province in southwest China, and is surrounded by mountains. The region has a number of ethnic groups. Its dishes are spiced with various seasonings: red pepper, sesame paste, fermented black beans, scallions, ginger, garlic, wine and soy sauce. The most famous Szechuan fare includes chicken with peanuts and hot sauce, tea-smoked duck, bangbang chicken (finely diced chicken served cold, topped with spicy sesame paste) and ma po bean curd.

Cantonese Cuisine

Cantonese-style Chinese food comes from China's southern province, Guangdong. It is best known outside of China. Famous for its fertile land, the region is known for its fresh food that maintains its natural flavors, textures and colors.

The Cantonese invented stir-frying in order to avoid overcooking, as well as to save fuel. Tasty sauces -- like oyster sauce, plum sauce and shrimp paste -- along with dim sum are some of the traditional Cantonese foods, most of which are also famous in Hong Kong. Cantonese are also notorious for eating all manner of exotic animals, such as snakes, bear paws, weasels, rabbits, turtles, dogs and cats.

Eastern Cuisine

Eastern-style cooking reflects the Yangzhou or Shanghai traditions which come from the Yangtze River environs near the eastern coastline. The particularly fertile land inspired various vegetarian dishes, and incorporates fruits and seafood into its fare.

Yangtze chefs use stir-frying, steaming and stewing with soy sauce, wine and sugar and are skillful in making beautiful presentations of their food.

The typical dishes from the Eastern region are dumplings filled with pork, crabmeat and roe, steamed mandarin fish in vinegar sauce, "lion's head" meatballs flavored with crab roe, deep-fried whitebait and boiled shreds of pressed bean curd.

by Inēs Cho

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