Vegetarian fare introduced to a new audienceKorean meals may contribute to a healthful diet adopted by modern diners, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that restaurants cater to the needs of vegetarians. In Korea, serious vegetarians are often limited to steamed rice topped with assorted vegetables, or bibimbap ― but hold the beef please.
But when Ho Kyung Jeon, an upscale Chinese restaurant at the Westin Chosun Hotel, invited a Taiwanese chef, Chen-Kuen Chang, to showcase sophisticated vegetarian meals, it was an indication that the fast-evolving Korean dining scene is finally embracing a global movement.
“In Korea, a change in the trend usually starts with a small number of opinion leaders,” Kim Yoon-jung, the hotel’s assistant food and beverage manager, said.
Mr. Chang, 44, has worked at Kuan Shih Yin Vegetarian Restaurant in Taipei since he was 19, when he converted to vegetarianism. He has developed more than 300 dishes catering to non-meat eaters whose diet includes dairy products, such as eggs and milk.
When he came to Seoul last week to prepare his specialties, though, he had a hard time finding all the right ingredients in local markets. Spices were different, for example, and various ready-made meat substitutes were nowhere to be found. There were relatively few varieties of mushrooms, a primary ingredient used in vegetarian cooking to simulate a meat-like texture and flavor. He also found that the monkey’s head mushroom (commonly called hedgehog fungus in English), one of the important delicacies in Chinese cooking, is considered a “grotesque” food here because of its appearance and thus is available only in cans.
Ethnic Chinese chefs working in the Ho Kyung Jeon kitchen say they learned a lot about vegetarian cooking. “The number of ingredients is definitely smaller than in regular cooking, but the preparation to make the dishes as delicious as non-vegetarian ones is quite complex,” said Cheng-Kuo Chen, who worked closely with Mr. Chang.
The Taiwanese vegetarian food promotion prepared by Mr. Chang includes some of the best-selling dishes at the Taipei restaurant: vegetarian shark’s fin soup, deep-fried golden needle mushrooms (popularly known as enokitake) and fried monkey’s head mushrooms.
The shark’s fin soup made with a starch substitute tastes rich and savory, just like the real thing. Both mushroom dishes coated in a sauce were bursting with delicate and delicious herbal flavors, and the taste and texture were more like those of marinated white meat.
Mr. Chang says he has enjoyed the healthy benefits of a vegetarian diet, especially a good balance of nutrients from dairy products and the calming effect of vegetables. “By offering delicious meals made with special recipes, I wanted to spread the vegetarian lifestyle in Korea,” he said.
The Taiwanese Vegetarian Meal promotion will run until the end of this month. Ho Kyung Jeon is located on the 30th floor of the Westin Chosun Hotel in downtown Seoul. A la carte dishes start at 20,000 won ($20), plus 10 percent VAT and 10 percent service charge. A six-course lunch costs 70,000 won; a seven-course dinner 100,000 won. For reservations, call 02-317-0494.
Chef Chen-Kuen Chang’s Recipe to Cook Deep-fried Golden Needle Mushrooms
Ingredients: Two 100-gram packs enokitake mushrooms, 1 egg white, 30 grams chopped celery, 300 grams potato starch (for batter), 1/2 red bell pepper, 1/2 green bell pepper, 1/4 medium-sized ginger cube thinly sliced*, 1 bamboo shoot, 2 tablespoons stock*, 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon soy oil, 10 grams starch (for sauce), dash of salt and black pepper.
1. Cut the mushrooms into short, thick chunks, the size of a thumb. Using stems of uncut mushroom, tie them into small bundles.
2. In a bowl, mix egg white and potato starch to make the batter. Gently coat the mushrooms with the batter.
3. Preheat a frying pan and add oil. When the oil is hot, add the mushroom bundles and fry until they are light brown. Drain excess oil from the mushrooms by placing them on paper towels.
4. In a hot frying pan, stir-fry ginger and add celery, bell pepper and bamboo shoot and cook for 2-3 minutes.
5. Add the stock, followed by sugar, soy sauce, starch, salt and pepper.
6. When the sauce boils, add the fried mushrooms. When the bundles are generously coated with the sauce, serve immediately. Serves 2-3 people.
*The recipe was modified to suit Korean palates as ginger was added, and either beef or chicken stock can replace vegetable stock. Mr. Chang’s original vegetarian stock is made by boiling cabbage, sea kelp, corn and radishes.
by Ines Cho