Two tastes of the Aegean (sort of) in HongdaeMousaka, gyros and kebab have entered the collegiate vocabulary in Korea.
In the two years since John Chun opened the country’s first Greek restaurant, near Ewha Womans University in northern Seoul, a small but steady following has developed for gyros (pronounced “YEE-ros”), the spicy bundles of meat, sauce and veggies in pita bread that are perhaps Greece’s best-known contribution to street food.
Recently, Mr. Chun moved his restaurant, Greek Joy, to the bustling neighborhood of eateries near Hongik University. This clean, simple restaurant, featuring blue-and-white striped tablecloths, friendly waiters in matching striped shirts and a large mural of a peaceful Mediterranean vista, houses a small, open kitchen and 10 tables on the second floor of a commercial buiding.
Mr. Chun, who was wearing a saiilor’s cap when we visited, used to run a gyro joint in downtown Toronto a few years ago. “Cab drivers in Toronto knew the Asian man who sold tasty gyros to them,” he recalls.
Consider Greek Joy a beginner’s course in Greek food ― though, as we’ll see, it’s a bit lacking even in the basics. It serves elementary fare, including gyros, mousaka (moo-sah-KAH), pastitsio (pash-STI-tsyo) and souvlas (SOU-vlas). None of the capari salata, koutsomoures tiganites or octopdi krasato you’ve no doubt tried in Athens and Sifnos.
The best-seller here is the gyro, at 3,900 won ($3.30), which is meat that’s been cooking on a vertical rotisserie (souvlaki) served in egg-based yellow pita bread with vegetables and sadziki (sahd-ZEE-key), a sauce made from yogurt, cucumber and garlic.
Gyros are usually made with lamb and/or pork, but the only version offered at Greek Joy is chicken. It’s lightly seasoned with balsamic vinegar and soaked in sadziki. Greek Joy’s version includes the customary tomato and onion, plus iceberg lettuce and a pickle.
It’s tasty, as is the souvlas (5,900 won), or chicken shish kebab, consisting of chunks of meat on two metal skewers, served with bread, yogurt sauce and green salad. The meat is marinated overnight in red wine and what Mr. Chun calls his “magic powder.” Displaying an herbal mixture in a bowl, he explains, “My ‘magic powder’ has nine herbs in it: paprika, parsley, black pepper, oregano, and... others.” He says he uses herbs common to Middle Eastern cooking, but not coriander, which he claims Koreans find distasteful.
The menu includes two oven-baked dishes made with beef: pastitsio (8,500 won), a kind of Greek lasagna, and moussaka (8,900 won), an eggplant casserole. Both are delicious. With ground beef sauteed in red wine and herbs, sliced potato, zucchini, eggplant and yogurt sauce, the moussaka tastes lean but filling.
The “Greek salad” (4,900 won) is a disappointment. Don’t expect big chunks of feta cheese or huge, glistening olives in a pool of aromatic olive oil. This salad consists mostly of iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes and bell peppers, topped with an oil-based dressing. The feta was so small and sparse that we almost had to hunt for it, and there were only a few small olives.
Mr. Chun says he’s expecting a shipment of feta and olives, which he says will improve the salad. But for a Greek restaurant not to offer lamb or pork in its gyros, and then to say that the feta cheese and olives are still in the mail, is rather like an Italian restaurant trying to get by with no garlic and a couple of tomatoes. In lieu of the Greek liqueur ouzo, which is also supposed to be arriving in that shipment, Mr. Chun recommends a glass of California red wine (4,000 won).
Fortunately, they do have Greek coffee (2,500 won), which should come at the end of every Greek meal. It’s black, strong, served in a thick cup and comes with sludgy sediment at the bottom. Don’t drink the sediment.
Across the street from Greek Joy, appropriately enough, is a Turkish kebab establishment, called Turkiye (TOO-ru-ki-ye) Kebab Original Cuisine. Whereas Greek Joy is a comfortable sit-down restaurant, Turkiye Kebab Original Cuisine serves fastfood-style pita sandwiches, with seating for about 10.
Kim Yong-jin, one of the two brothers who own the restaurant, says they sell as many as 130 sandwiches a day, and that the number is increasing. “Most young Koreans already know what kebab is; many have tried it while backpacking in Europe, and they recognize what they saw or tried abroad and buy it again,” Mr. Kim says. “So we opened our stores in university areas.” There are two other branches, near Ewha Womans University and near Konkuk University.
Turkiye Kebab Original Cuisine has a clean, modern and stylish interior (“It’s by a celebrity interior designer,” older brother Kim Yong-wook says, pointing at the logo emblazoned on a red “column” that doesn’t actually reach the floor).
In the window, visible from the street, a Turkish souvlaki cook slices meat off the rotisserie and packs take-out sandwiches. The cook, Can (pronounced “John”) Yildiz, a native of Istanbul, is perhaps the reason the souvlaki tastes authentic and delicious.
The menu is very simple: chicken and lamb. The chicken kebab (3,000 won) is more popular than the lamb (3,500 won), but orders of lamb are on the increase. The meat is not served in pita bread, but wrapped in what seems to be a tortilla. To cater to Koreans, the spicy sauce is not yogurt- but tomato-based.
As at most fast-food chains, set meals are available; with French fries and a soft drink, the chicken kebab set costs 4,500 won and the lamb kebab 5,000 won.
“I’m a dedicated, long-term, happy customer of Greek Joy who loves John’s gyros,” said Alan Date, a Yonsei University English instructor and former Cyprus resident, who said he’d been coming to both restaurants since they opened. “For me, the difference [between the two] is hard to tell.”
by Ines Cho
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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