Korean food in a word? AWESOME!
In a second word? dangerous.
First, the awesome.
To state the obvious, Korean food in Korea is everything you’d expect, only better. Miyeokguk, seolleontang, toboki, doenjangjjiegae, bibimbap, and all the different banchan you can imagine, only not loaded with salt or polluted with corn syrup and other processed foods. There are thousands of little restaurants specializing in one or two dishes (it’s not uncommon to see seating for ten to fifteen, a miniature kitchenette smaller than some camp sites or food trucks, and a menu with less then four items), run by mom and pop (and now grandma and grandpa) proprietors for decades. Even Korean barbeque (you’d think in Korea, it would just be called “barbeque,” but the sign on every restaurant we went to, even the non-tourist ones, said otherwise), had meat marinated in crushed Korean pears (you’d think it would just be “pears”) instead of corn syrup and roasted over actual charcoal where you can still see the wood grains of the sapling. This isn’t the gas burners or even the flavorless brickettes common in Korean barbeques in America. Here, you can smell and taste the wood smoke, with the meat melting like butter underneath the slightest crisp of that hint of char.
Cookie, you finished an entire 16 oz platter of Galbi by yourself. As a dad, I couldn’t be prouder.
Second, the danger.
In many American recipes, there’s a phrase to add black pepper to taste to adjust the proper level of spiciness. If you’re one of those people, you may starve in Korea amidst the bountiful culinary awesomeness of Korean cuisine. The non-spicy dishes are often filled with black pepper. While not all places are spicy, the spicy dishes…
The below dinner is a great example of the perils of Korean cooking.*
At the top of the picture is a bowl of ramen that was turned by this particular restaurant into a bowl of fire. At the bottom of the picture is a bowl of toboki served by this establishment as a bowl of hell. You’d think that the bowl of hell is hotter from that deep red color, but from a pure Scoville perspective, the bowl of fire is actually hotter: it will melt your stomach, torch every square inch of your intestines, and set the toilet on fire afterwards. It’s not a coincidence that Koreans adopted bidets with a national gusto. With that in mind, you’d be tempted to think that the bowl of fire is worse than the bowl of hell. That’s a fatal mistake.
The bowl of hell, while not as blindingly hot as the bowl of hell, doesn’t wash off. Yeah, that bears repeating. Once the inferno starts in your mouth and tongue, that red, sticky, pasty stuff torturing every fiber of your being DOES. NOT. COME. OFF. Do not be fooled into thinking the canned and bland gochujang you had in the states bears any resemblance to the napalm concocted in some of these kitchens by the deceptively kind, old grandmothers in the kitchen.
Which brings me to the second part of the warning: Koreans are not big on drinking water with meals.** Most places will have a water cooler or a water dispenser in the corner. Larger places will have little, emphasis on little, 4 ounce steel cups in a little sterilizer cabinet. Many places will have smaller paper cups, or worse, a paper envelope that will hold maybe 2 ounces of water if you’re lucky. Secure ample water ahead of time (bring your own bottle) before sampling local dishes, as you never know when you might stumble upon that one restaurant summoned from the sixth level of damnation serving hellfire with a side of torture. Trying to put out the five alarm fire from the bowl of hell in slow, 2-ounces increments with water slowly dribbling out of an empty and obviously neglected water cooler into a flimsy envelope that wont stay open is quite painful.
Envelope and cups next to a standard 8 ounce can for scale.
You’ve been warned.
* As a matter of perspective, I’m not some bland Midwesterner who can’t handle his heat. Jalapenos? Might as well be bell peppers. Texas chili? Tasty. As you know, Cookie, Grandma grows habaneros in the front yard, and these… are far worse than habaneros.
** Is this ability to tolerate and enjoy heat genetic? Mommy is perfectly fine with this stuff. Even you, at 3, aren’t too bothered. I’ve turned into a fire breathing dragon in need of the paramedics.