Massida! Pt. 1 – Tonkatsu

Food in Korea is great.  It’s cheap, it’s nourishing, it’s healthy and if it’s made for you, it’s usually pretty fantastic.  So the bar for what constitutes a good meal in Korea has slowly been raised since my arrival – I’ve had a few culinary clangers of course, but for the most part it’s been pretty fingerlickin’ whenever I’ve eaten out.  And that is what this latest of my series is about: eating out in Korea.

Prior to arriving here, I expected the food of Korea to be delicious, but I was not prepared for the incredible diversity of meals and the variety of formats in which food is served.  Most of all, I was not prepared for the level of importance that food has in Korean society.  It’s not that food has to be fancy, or that it has to be organic or that it has to be the best: I think the best way to put it is to say that it’s just very important to Koreans to be well-fed.  It’s as simple and as complex as that I’m afraid!

So, the time has come for me to write about Korean food, in earnest.  My own culinary efforts at this point hardly exemplify what the country has to offer, so for now they will not feature.  Instead, I will show you the staples: the mixed grills, the fish and chips and the hot-pots of South Korea, in a series called ‘Massida!’, the Korean word that means ‘delicious’.

First off: tonkatsu (돈까스), pronounced like don-cass-ugh.

Tonkatsu

This was served up at one of the many places to eat in Dunjeon.  It’s a small place – the Korean equivalent of a ‘caff’.  It’s run by a couple of women who are very attentive, particularly when your kimchi or rice is running low (they kindly replace either for free).

I’d better explain the image above. On the left, you can see the edge of a metal sheet.  This is actually a tray that is embedded into the table itself and that stores chopsticks and spoons for the customer’s use.  This feature is very common in Korean eateries.  The knife and fork are provided especially: mainly because it’s tonkatsu, which needs to be cut and sliced.

On the big plate: the white stuff is boiled rice with some sesame seeds sprinkled on top.  Needless to say, they do a good rice in Korea.  Moving anti-clockwise, there is a cabbage salad with thousand island sauce (again, quite common).  There’s not much scope for making this side dish badly.  The yellow semi-circles (‘danmooji’) are slices of pickled radish and are perhaps the most common side dish in Korea.  This will have been bought in a supermarket in bulk and there is very little variation when it comes to danmooji.

This brings us to the star of the show, the tonkatsu.  Tonkatsu refers mostly to the method of preparation, rather than the meat itself.  It’s essentially a chicken kiev, but made with pork in this case: the meat is thinned, filled, breaded and fried.  A special tonkatsu sauce is then drizzled over it.  You can get different fillings for the tonkatsu – I ordered a cheese filled donkatsu (cheese in Korean is ‘cheese’, except it’s pronounced ‘cheege-UGH‘, which is a bit of a warning sign when it comes to Korea’s abilities with cheese), but I got one filled with sweet potato instead.  It’s very popular to fill things with sweet potato in South Korea, including otherwise delicious looking pastries and pizza crusts.

To be honest, tonkatsu’s perhaps the worst possible place to start with this culinary journey.  If Bird’s Eye ever start doing a Korean line, you can GUARANTEE tonkatsu will be there.  It’s basically a big fancy fish finger made out of pork and stuffed with something.  The sauce, which was sweet and sour essentially, complimented it well.  Perhaps there’s a gourmet tonkatsu out there, but so far I haven’t encountered it, it’s just a meal that’s satisfying in a very simple way.

Now, the other parts of the meal.  You will notice a white cup on the right of the photo.  This is a broth.  I have no idea what is in it, but it has a sediment that half-floats, half-settles.  It has a meaty taste, but also tastes a bit like honey.  It compliments the meal really well and is pretty tasty in itself – it’s very normal for meals to be served with a hot broth of some kind.

The final part is the kimchi, and this deserves its own photo:

Kimchi

Again, I must emphasise that there are countless varieties of kimchi.  It really is the cornerstone of Korean cuisine and I could devote an entire blog to it.  I’m not ready to do that just yet, so instead here’s a brief description of what you see:

The one on the right is the bread and butter of the kimchi world.  It’s pickled, spiced cabbage and I think it’s called ‘kaktugi’ (깍두기).  The quality of this tends to be the litmus test for the quality of the place where you’re eating.  In this case, it was fairly average.  It’s always satisfying, but sometimes it’s really full of flavour and delicious in its own right.

The one in the bottom left was basically kimchi’d green beans.  The texture was pleasing, nice and crunchy, and the flavour was nice enough, but nothing to write home about (although that’s essentially what I’m actually doing).  The one in the top left was very similar to the kimchi’d green beans – very crunchy texture, and more flavour than the beans.  No idea what the constituent vegetable was.  Of all the kimchis on the day, this was my favourite, although again, it was by no means exceptional.

All in all, a satisfying Friday night meal.  The cost was 6500 ₩, which equates to roughly £3.25.  Above all, Korean food tends to be healthy – kimchi is always there and is a fantastic nourishment for the body.  So I left feeling heartily fed, but not uncomfortably stuffed.  Here’s a photo of the establishment itself:

The Local Caff

5/10.  More culinary conclusions soon.

About castrouroboros

Grievous Sense Of Humour
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2 Responses to Massida! Pt. 1 – Tonkatsu

  1. Dan says:

    I might have said this in a previous comment, but I ate a bit of Korean in Cambridge, and there’s a new place in Manchester opened that got a terrible review in Metro (that seemed to be more about the obscurity of the menu and pricing system) though nonetheless I still want to go. I got way into bulgogi and always ordered a decent array of kimchee. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert here, but I have a working theory that I’m working toward in the next paragraph. The two places we went to seemed to be operating in the lower end of the mid-priced market, which was fine by me, but I’d like a few more places that bring the street prices along with the down-home Korean vibe.

    But yeah, now I’m on a bit of a health kick (4st lost now) I’ve just been thinking about how fucking awful and antiquated the British diet is. Sure, once upon a time we were all yeomen in the field and needed cheap and bulky food to carb it through the day, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve moved on much at all, hence the mega proliferation of Greggs. Today my dad asked me if I wanted pizza and chips for tea. I declined. Just thinking about eating chips and carbs made me feel gray. So when some friends (from, let’s face it, more wealthy backgrounds than me) introduce me to something that can be delivered as cheaply as you say – and therefore isn’t that ‘special’ – that has a bit of a ritual about it – then I just feel pathetically grateful. Then again, I think about how the British managed to British-up the curry, Turkish, and the Chinese, so maybe I’d be better travelling abroad or going upmarket for some proper Korean.

    • Bulgogi is terrific, it’s so popular too, EVERYONE loves it. Which kimchis did you try and which did you like the best by the way?

      Well done on the weight loss man, that’s a terrific effort – I’m fluctuating a bit at the moment (after the Christmas holiday etc), hoping to trim it down some more in the coming weeks. The British diet IS pretty rubbish – I truly love it, but it’s a crying shame when you go to pretty much any other country it seems and find that GOOD fruit and vegetables are way cheaper and that the meat is generally of a higher quality…

      Agreed about the moving on thing, moderation is definitely essential at this point. I feel really grateful about the new food experience too I guess, it’s just amazing to me that good quality food can cost so little, and like you say, have that extra zest of ritual to it. Really looking forward to trying more food of this kind in Korea; from other cultures too actually. I hear that there’s a terrific Bulgarian restaurant in Itaewon, Seoul. It’s the kind of place where the menu is just a sheet of A3 that says ‘MEAT’ apparently, so I’m really looking forward to giving that a shot.

      Korean food is definitely ripe for Britishing-up, because it’s fairly unfussy food to begin with. Bulgogi for example, would just slot right in with all your other chip accompaniments, and there’s loads of other Korean dishes that you could do that with (tonkatsu is another one that would be ideal). On the Britishing-up of Korean restaurant food: it’s a Catch-22 really, because Korean food is very much not upmarket by nature – the idea of a snooty Korean restaurant just seems weird really! I’d probably favour the cheaper places in a way, for a more genuine experience, but I suppose it’s hard to say what constitutes a “genuine” experience… In any case, it’s safe to say that if you’re ever in the vicinity of Korea you should definitely visit because honestly it’s some of the most nourishing, satisfying and delicious food I’ve ever had.

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