Making room for Asia’s other flavorsFood trends come and go. A few years ago, restaurants in Seoul’s upscale neighborhoods couldn’t put up a sign without the word “fusion” on it. “Ethnic food,” a term practically unheard in Korea until the late ’90s, is now settling in as mainstream dining. These restaurants decorate their interiors with traditional designs and adjust menus to local tastes to attract a broad clientele.
In Korea, “ethnic food” usually refers to the cuisine of southeast Asia, mainly Indian, Thai and Vietnamese. Its popularity here is rather easy to understand: Most dishes are high in fiber and low in calories, using lots of vegetables and piquant spices and herbs. Recipes are surprisingly simple, too. Many of the dishes we order at local ethnic restaurants are foods sold at street stalls in Thailand and Cambodia. Some of the latest ethnic dishes to hit the peninsula’s shores are introduced here.
The basics: meat, fire and a skewer
I try not to lose myself in the place I’m visiting. That’s one of the cardinal rules I set when I began traveling.
I broke that promise for the first time in Turkey, while standing on the shores of the Black Sea one bright day. My mind had fragmented to pieces after seeing the Blue Mosque, Cappadocia and the Aegean Sea.
Then there was the Turkish food. A cuisine I couldn’t forget, its taste fell somewhere between Europe and Asia. Along with Chinese and French cuisine, many gourmets consider Turkish cuisine one of the world’s three best.
In Turkish, kebab simply means “grill.” The term dates back to the age of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, when Turks would lay a huge spread of meat out on a concave stone and grill it over a bed of charcoal.
I was on my way to Pamukkale when I stepped into a smoke-filled kebab restaurant. I stood at the garden, watching the chef slice meat into thin pieces. The meat was so tender, it was as if the chef was peeling vegetable skins.
“We marinate the meat overnight, roll it on a stick and grill it,” the chef said, noting that controlling the fire is essential to keep the meat from burning.
There are over 300 types of kebab, he said, “but shish [stick] kebab is the best.” Among locals, shish kebab is also a perennial favorite. He gave me a sample of lamb. The meat was surprisingly tender and didn’t smell like lamb at all.
I’ve since returned to my Seoul apartment. As I open the window, I smell the flowery scent of spring. The aroma in my apartment will soon change, however; I am inviting friends over for a kebab dinner tonight.
Recommended kebab houses:
Merhaba (02-794-3182, Hannam-dong) ― Run by a chef from Urfa, a region of Turkey that’s well-known for its kebab.
Pasha (02-593-8484, Gangam) ― This place has a lunch set from 12 to 3 p.m., offering a variety of kebabs.
Smorgasbord of seafood in a pot
There are several advantages to being an early bird, especially when traveling. One of my favorite experiences during a trip to Thailand is to wake up before sunrise and head to a local market on a cyclo. Open markets are one of Thailand’s greatest attractions.
My mind gets busy as I gaze at the seafood on display. Mostly I buy some prawns and herbs for tom yam kung. Sometimes I think of stir-frying a mix of morning glory and clams. Fresh crabs are another delicacy. But whenever I get lazy about doing serious cooking, I just go the easy route. For me, one alternative is to make a large pot of suki, which is the Thai version of Japanese shabu shabu, Singaporean steamboat or Swedish fondue. Essentially, it’s a hot pot full of vegetables, meats, seafood, eggs and clear noodles. A separate sauce, normally chili paste or peanut sauce, is used for dipping. Restaurants specializing in suki landed in Thailand in the 1950s, where it was eaten mostly by Chinese settlers. But the dish eventually joined Thailand’s traditional menu.
Thai suki tends to be a lavish pot full of seafood ― shrimp, oysters, squid and fish balls. But the ingredients that go into it vary depending on which restaurant you visit.
The procedure is rather simple. Simply dip some vegetables and seafood into the boiling fish broth. After a few seconds, remove them from the broth and, a moment later, dip them into your sauce. If you’ve ordered beef, stir it twice in the broth before eating. After finishing the main course, you can make rice porridge with the broth. When the rice gets thick and smooth, mix in an egg. You may think you’re too full to finish it, but there’s always room left for porridge at the end of Thai suki.
Recommended suki places:
Thai Suki (02-792-9740, Itaewon) ― Dinner set menus for suki start at 40,000 won ($35) for two. The meal includes an appetizer, seafood, vegetables and dessert.
Sala Thai (02-555-4236, Gangnam) ― Under the same ownership as Thai Suki, this new restaurant also offers dinner set menus.
A sweet, sour, spicy shrimp soup
I had my first tom yam kung 10 years ago at an airport restaurant in Bangkok. I couldn’t imagine how this soup would taste before I sampled it. After I did, I found the taste simply indescribable. It was a tongue-awakening experience. At once, I understood why this was considered one of the world’s yummiest soups. It had a little bit of every flavor ― sweet, sour, spicy and even a slightly bitter aftertaste.
In Thai, tom means “to boil,” yam means “sour and spicy” and kung is “shrimp.” That translates into sour, spicy shrimp soup. A plethora of ingredients and herbs go into tom yam kung to create that taste ― ginger, cilantro and lemongrass, to name a few.
Lemongrass is an herb that’s often used for tea, as it has a strong lemony flavor. Cilantro is used in Thai food the way green onions are in Korean food. Nam plat is a kind of fish sauce that creates a deep flavor, which is also added to tom yam kung. In Bangkok restaurants, a bowl of tom yam kung costs around 120 baht, or just over 3,000 won. The price is only half as much at food courts or from street vendors.
Recommended tom yam kung places:
Thai Orchid (02-792-8836, Itaewon) ― Decorated in a Thai-styled interior. Service is good. Recommended for newcomers to Thai food.
Little Thai (02-3783-0770, Seoul Finance Center) ― Uses traditional Thai-style dishes and presentation.
After the Rain (02-3446-9375, Cheongdam-dong) ― The standards of taste have been modified for Koreans. The cooks use just the right amount of herbs for a milder soup.
The medicinal properties of rib soup
“Healthy eating is better than medicine” is an old Korean proverb. One of the foods to which that saying applies is bakkuteh, or Chinese pork rib broth. This delicacy, which can be ordered at just about any food court in Malaysia and Singapore, tempts hungry tourists in shopping malls and on the streets. Bakkuteh, which is boiled in a large pot containing pork, soy sauce and various oriental herbs, is known for its medicinal scent. Once the meat and bones are removed, the soup is enjoyed with rice.
Some Malaysians prefer to add fried tofu, fried dough, bean sauce or red chili pepper to the concoction. In traditional Malaysian restaurants, bakkuteh is boiled with up to 10 different ingredients, including medicinal herbs, and put into a large fabric bundle. Chefs are known to add bacon, pork sirloin and intestines and boil them down until the meat becomes soft and tender. Among locals, the soup is a popular as a late-night snack, and offers relief from a hangover.
A curry for (almost) every country
Part of the daily ritual of many women in India involves getting dressed in immaculate clothes in the morning to make masala. The women crush a mix of fruits and seeds in a large mortar, then sprinkle some herbs, plant stems, flowers and leaves. In India these spices not only serve as flavorings, they keep food from going bad. During the summer, they work like a charm to boost appetite and ease indigestion.
Masala is a basic sauce for many Indian foods. Depending on what or how many ingredients have been put in, they are used to make an array of foods with different flavors, as well as for traditional medicine.
More than 10 herbs are used in making masala. Like soybean paste in Korea, masala’s taste varies by region and by homemaker. Some are so spicy they could burn your stomach. Others are sweet, or leave a bitter aftertaste. The taste of masala is often described by food experts as being very mysterious.
In India, meat and vegetables are boiled down with masala, which forms the basis for curry. It’s then mixed with rice, or used as a dip with breads. Lamb and seafood are among the most popular meats, but vegetarians prefer sabzi and dal, which are made with vegetables and beans.
Depending on the amount of ginger and red pepper, there are curries for mild, regular and spicy tastes. Northern Indians eat a milder curry. But as the temperature rises in the southern parts of the subcontinent, locals gravitate to spicier curries.
Curry is a typical example of a food that’s changed a great deal upon arriving in foreign lands, such as Britain and Japan. The Japanese modified curry’s strong taste by adding flour. They also sweetened the original flavor by mixing in apple or pineapple extracts. In Japan, curry is eaten with rice as an entree.
To balance the sometimes fiery taste of curry, in India it is often eaten alongside sweet pickles, like mango chutney, or drink a yogurt beverage before or during the meal.
If you ever tire of choosing between authentic curry and the Japanese instant variety, try creating your own recipe. Use lamb, seafood, beef or vegetables, whatever you can get at the supermarket. Curry seems to go very well with white fish. Almost any kind of vegetable mixes well with curry, but spinach, eggplant, potatoes, carrots and peas are among the best. Add curry paste with sprinkles of laurel leaves.
Recommended curry places:
Swagat (02-511-0207, Gangnam district) ― For milder taste, try paneer makhanee, green lentils or chicken makhanee. Kadia paneer has a refreshing, spicy flavor to boost your energy.
Ganga (02-2112-2967, Yeoksam-dong) ― Try spinach paneer, or chicken makhanee. If you order a tali set, you will get three kinds of curry on one plate.
County house (031-494-9471, Asan, Gyeonggi) ― This place is found at the final stop on subway Line 4. A set of chicken kebabs, vegetable curry and roti is a satisfying meal.
by Baek Ji-won
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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