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.
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:
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:
5/10. More culinary conclusions soon.