We may chat on Samsung phones and drive Hyundai motors, but, unlike the cuisines of nearby Japan and China, Korean food has not yet entered the Western culinary mainstream.
What an omission. Kimchi – fermented, seasoned vegetables, most often cabbage, which features in every sit-down meal here – is South Korea’s national dish and arguably the only one widely known outside the country. But South Korea has much more to offer.
From charcoal-roasted octopus tentacle and mung bean pancakes to julienned lotus root and mool naengmyun – cold noodle soup, served with a big pair of scissors to cut through the clumped al dente mass of noodles – the range of this country’s food is as exciting as it is vast. And best of all, you are unlikely to recognize many of the tastes between your metal chopsticks.
“They are metal because we eat so much red pepper paste,” says 22-year-old student, Han. “The paste stains wooden chopsticks.”
Han, his friend Bae, and I are having dinner in one of Seoul’s many barbecue restaurants where customers cook their own meat and still-wriggling crustaceans on charcoal griddles set into the middle of a table. When his small chunk of steak is ready, Han rolls it in a sesame leaf, adds a couple of the copious side dishes called banchan crammed onto the table, and pops the whole thing in his mouth.
I follow suit but choose the wrong banchan. “What is it?” I ask, pointing to the white substance while trying to swallow my bitter portion with a shot of soju, Korean’s national tipple. “Mountain root, you’ve eaten mountain root,” says Han. Doreji is similar to ginseng but has a much sourer taste. I smile demurely.