Monday, September 2, 2013

Best Korean Food: Part 1

I fell in love with Korean food when my Korean friend Lucy, first brought me to an authentic Korean restaurant here in Manila. We sat crosslegged on the restaurant's floor, as a veritable feast was laid out in front of us --  kimchi, potatoes, Korean pancake, toppoki, tossed spinach, beef brisket, fish cakes. 

You could say my fondness for Korean food is quite reactionary. Raised in the greasy, fried, heavily-smothered-in-thick-sauce of Filipino cuisine, Korea's relatively healthier fare was a welcome change. 

And so one thing I was greatly looking forward to for our Korea trip last  year was the food. And the country did not disappoint. From street stalls, to 24-hour eateries, to market restaurants, Korean food is just so amazing -- (mostly) healthy, delicious, flavorful, and just so inventive. 

I want to write about them all, but decided to concentrate on a dozen or so. Here's the first five: 

1. Hoddeok (sugar nut pancake)

Let's Eat Alley's hoddeok or sugar nut pancake which is so warm and toasty is the perfect autumn snack.

During the weekends the square where the Busan International Film Festival takes place, transforms. It becomes "Let's Eat" alley, and it is crammed with stalls selling all sorts of street food, such as barbecued chicken, kimbap, cold noodles, dried squid and others.

We spent two nights here during our Busan trip. Not only was it a convenient 15-minute walk from our hostel, it was quite cheap compared to the fare offered at Jagalchi Fish market.

On our first night in Let's Eat alley, one of the stalls had such a long line, that -- in true usisero fashion -- we drew closer for a look. We watched an assembly line of sorts -- where one person kneaded wet and sticky dough into round shapes, one quickly fried these in slabs of butter, another coated them with sugar and still another stuffed them with more sugar and some nuts.

We got in line out of sheer curiosity and after a 20-minute wait, we found out what the fuss was all about. The dough pockets were yeasty, crispy and buttery on the outside, and soft and warm with cinammon, and nuts on the inside.

Later on we found out that they were called sugar nut pancakes or hoddeok. We lined up two or three more times for hoddeok, and loved how warm and homey and comforting it was -- so perfect during our cold autumn night's stroll in Busan.  

2. Yubuchobap (seasoned tofu pockets stuffed with rice)

Yubuchobap at the Lotte World Department Store, Busan 

At the international school where I taught for several years, we always had a Business Week organized by the Social Studies Department. Our students were tasked to come up with a business plan, and then run this business for one whole week in school.

Most of the businesses sold food. Our students would prepare their country's best-loved dishes and sell them in their stalls. For one week, it would be a virtual world food expo as we teachers sampled food from Japan, Burma, Maldives, India, New Zealand, and of course, Korea.

It was during one such Business Week that I first tasted yubuchobap. Of course, I didn't know what it was called then. But definitely, these little rice pockets left such an impression on me that years later, we decided to make it a mission, to hunt them down when we visit Korea.

But they were not to be found in any restaurant or street stall anywhere we looked. You know where we finally saw them? In the food court of a Lotte Department store.

Yubuchobap is apparently a popular baon (lunch box) or picnic food in Korea.  The triangular shaped rice pockets are made of sweet, deep-fried tofu which are stuffed with rice that has been seasoned with sesame seeds, vinegar, and whatever other fillings you prefer.

You can actually buy yubuchobap "kits" in your neighborhood Korean grocery, and assemble them yourself.

3. Bibimbap (beef and mixed vegetable rice)

The real deal : authentic breakfast bibimbap in Busan

I love bibimbap. I love, love, love bibimbap. I often have it for lunch or dinner, and my favorite bibimbap is from this small, unassuming eatery in The Fort Strip called Seoul Express -- which looks and feels like an authentic, streetside Korean restaurant.

When we were in Busan, we got so hungry before our tour of the UN Cemetery grounds, that we dropped by a restaurant  for breakfast. Their bibimbap was amazing. 

Bibimbap is a mixed rice meal, made up of white rice, vegetables (lettuce, cucumber, carrots, radish), beef, and a whole egg. A red chili pepper paste (gochujang) is served on the side, which you mix in yourself, so that you can decide just how spicy you want your bibimbap to be.

You just mix the entire thing together, and what results is  a wonderful medley of flavors and textures in your mouth -- sweet, spicy, salty, sticky, soft, crispy. It's so wonderfully filling too, I often can't eat the entire bowl just by myself.

4. Sashimi Hweh

Jotham's parents enjoying sashimi hweh in  the market area of Busan's Haeundae Beach.

My Korean friend Lucy Hong was the one who introduced me to sashimi hweh. She brought me to Seafood Bada restaurant in Ortigas, which she said served the best Korean food in Manila (closer to how Korean dishes are supposed to taste, unlike other restaurants that have tweaked their dishes to please the Filipino tongue).

Sashimi hweh is thinly sliced raw fish that is dipped in sauce and wrapped in vegetable leaf. When we were in the food/market area of Haeundae Beach, we had two dinners in two separate restaurants. In dinner # 1, we sampled sashimi hweh.

Since we were on the coast, the fish were fresh, and delicate-tasting. It's a dish that you eat for its nuanced flavor, but if you're looking for something more filling, then eat a second dinner like we did.

5. Samgyupsal (grilled pork strips)

Ahh samgyupsal... such a manly meal -- thick pork strips that are cooked on a grill with mushroom, garlic, onions, and served with white rice.  When we were in Korea, this was the second dinner that we had because the flimsy, sashimi meal we had earlier was not quite enough to satisfy the appetite of two, grown men.

Samgyupsal, like sashimi hweh is eaten by wrapping the pork inside a leafy vegetable, with some yummy maacjang (processed soybean paste mixed with red pepper paste and garlic). The result is heavenly -- the crisp freshness of the lettuce leaf provides the perfect foil for the smoky taste of the pork, and the salty-sweet dab of maacjang. Needless to say, the boys were very, very happy.  

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