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Pushing the boundaries of Korean cuisine

‘It is hard to give a simple answer when asked to define what makes the essence of Korea food.’
June 20,2016
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NEW YORK - What defines Korean food is a question still in search of an answer.

Many people outside Korea become familiar with Korean cuisine by hearing about kimchi and gochujang (hot pepper paste), and then further increase their love for Korean food by trying bulgogi (marinated beef), bibimbap (rice with mixed vegetables and meat) and Korean barbecue, and even dare to try spicier tteokbokki, or rice cakes in red pepper sauce.

But rarely do they get a chance to be exposed to the many other dishes popular in Korea or more high-end dishes, even at restaurants in Koreatowns across the world.

To expand the boundaries of what is considered Korean food, five Korean chefs headed to New York to show that Korean food can be versatile, during the events surrounding the World’s 50 Best Restaurant announcement, which ended last week. The chefs incorporated various ingredients while using a Korean style of cooking.

This first attempt by a group of chefs from Korea to promote different aspects of Korean food abroad may not expand the perimeter right away, but many food experts have shown their gratitude for the effort to bring new character to New York’s melting pot dining scene.

Chef Yim Jung-sik of Jung Sik Dang in Seoul and Jungsik in New York; Kang Min-goo of Mingles in Seoul; Choi Hyun-seok of Seoul’s Elbon the Table; Tony Yoo of 24 Seasons in Seoul; and Jang Jin-mo of the recently closed A&ND Dining gathered together to present new interpretations of Korean food to gourmands in New York.

The annual gastronomy event, which names the 50 best restaurants in the world each year, arranged a series of events called KoreaNYC Dinners where Koreans chefs served food in collaboration with local New York chefs, while also taking part in 50 Best Talk, a seminar that invites international chefs to discuss their cooking styles.

This year’s theme for the 50 Best Talk was fermentation, and chef Kang of Mingles, which serves modern-style Korean food in Seoul, explained how Korean food includes many vegetables, especially those that are fermented, alongside a presentation by Andre Chiang of the restaurant Andre in Singapore and Yannick Alleno of the Michelin-starred Pavilion Ledoyen in France.

Besides showing a video describing how Korea developed many versatile uses for vegetables thanks to its abundant mountain landscapes that make up over 70 percent of the country’s territory, Kang prepared samples of fermented vegetables so that the chefs and food industry experts present at the seminar could have a taste.

He also served his rendition of ravioli filled with a variety of fermented vegetables in broth, also made with fermented veggies.

“It is hard to give a simple answer when asked to define what makes the essence of Korean food, but I think I can say using fermented vegetables in cooking can be one part that makes the essence,” Kang said during the presentation.

When Kang showed fermented vegetables tied with straw to the crowd of internationally renowned chefs, including Dominique Crenn, and explained how straw adds a unique flavor during the fermentation process, many in the audience were inspired to snap photos with their phones.

“I’m an amateur in this [type of fermentation],” Crenn, who was honored as the best female chef at this year’s event, told the Korea JoongAng Daily after the seminar. “But I taste levels of complexity [in the ravioli and broth].”

She added that she is interested in visiting Korea’s mountains and learning more about the uses of different types of vegetables.

To provide more examples of different styles of Korean food and show how the key ingredients that define Korean dishes can be recreated in more elaborate dishes at modern restaurants, the chefs worked together to serve meals at local restaurants.

Four of the chefs, not including Yim, split into two groups to cook at the Italian restaurant Blanca in Brooklyn and the restaurant Blue Hill in Manhattan, which serves farm-to-table-style cuisine.

Then the five chefs gathered to put together the final gala dinner to end their successful run in the international food capital with support from La Main, a Korean food and restaurant magazine that worked with the chefs and the organizing team of World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

At the gala dinner at Jungsik, the chefs introduced grilled octopus accompanied with gochujang aioli sauce, fried foie gras and cheese covered with crushed gim, a type of seaweed, soy sauce ice cream powder, dumplings made with fermented vegetables, and ssamjang, fermented bean and red pepper paste, alongside pork steamed in lotus leaves.

Here, the chefs tried to incorporate ingredients that are often used in Korean dishes and are also possible to purchase in the United States so that local chefs and diners could be inspired to cook something Korean using the same ingredients in their own ways.

Some of the dishes may have been too foreign for diners, but they appreciated the chefs’ attempts to introduce new tastes.

“Sometimes concepts succeed and sometimes they fail,” said Matt Rodbard, the author of the New York Times best-seller “Koreatown,” “but the point was more of an exploration of modern Korean cooking, which was a big success.

“The dishes were eclectic and adventurous - and really represented the direction Korean food is heading in America … [and] this dinner represented the start of a movement of sorts that modern Korean chefs can go toe-to-toe with the best in Europe and Japan.”

Some chefs took a more subtle approach to including Korean flavors in their dishes. Chef Jang, while collaborating with chef Carlo Mirarchi of Blanca, created a variation of miyeokguk (seaweed soup), which Koreans eat on their birthdays, combining it with sea urchin, a popular food in Jeju.

Instead of using rice, Jang dipped a piece of bread into the soup and finished the dish by placing the sea urchin on top. The end result seemed nothing like miyeokguk, but the taste still delivered.

“It seemed like we had fallen short in showing diversity in Korean food, and that’s how us cooking in New York was meaningful in that we tried showing what was never introduced as Korean food,” Jang said.

To help keep the momentum going a bit longer, some of the Korean chefs decided to stay in the U.S. for a few more days to continue working with other chefs and spreading the word on Korean food.

Among them, chef Yoo decided to spend more time with chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The two worked together to serve a Korean-style dinner at the Manhattan branch of the chef’s restaurant.


BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]