Saturday, September 4, 2010

HM YVR Gluttony:Korean

I smell garlic. Lots of garlic. A frighteningly large bag of red chili powder lies open on the cutting board. From within a glass jar, labeled in an incomprehensible script, tiny, salted shrimps gaze sadly into nothingness with beady black eyes.

Soon Ja is the Korean Queen in Sanbiki's kitchen. Right now, she is standing with her hands on her hips, staring at the array in front of her. Perhaps in her mind's eye she is back in her mother's kitchen. Ordinarily she is fairly laid back, with a smile on her face. But it's kim chi time and she is all business.

Kim Chi is the King of "banchan"; the Korean side dishes that accompany virtually every meal in that corner of the world. Simply put, Kim Chi is a pickled veggie dish. However there are countless variations depending on where you happen to be in Korea and when. The most familiar to us Canadians is probably a mix of chinese cabbage, radish and green onions mixed with garlic, chili and teeny, tiny super-salty shrimp.

It was the first Korean dish I tried and is a familiar side offered on many Asian restaurant menus. You'll love it or hate it. At least everyone can agree it stinks. And so will you if you eat enough of it. Kind of like Caeser salad. But as I am learning, eating Korean is far more than spicy, smelly kim chi. There are rice bowls, hot pots, soups and do it yourself BBQ. Often spicy, sometimes mild; always an adventure.

Vancouver has countless excellent Asian restaurants and Korean cuisine is well represented. I arrived in Richmond late one night, checked in to the hotel and headed straight out again for dinner. Kim Ga Nae (near Aberdeen Centre; Cambie&#3Rd) was the first place I came across that was still open. Why not?

There was an AYCE (all-you-can eat) option for about $16 (late night special price) and an a la carte menu. Obviously popular with couples and post-bar snacking types, the other tables seemed to be going for AYCE BBQ. Dining solo, I decided to go with the a la carte. I over-ordered as usual, knowing the inevitable leftovers would be tomorrows lunch.

"Bindaeddeok" is a savoury seafood pancake often made with mung bean flour, green onion, and other veggies. We have had some success experimenting with this recipe at Sanbiki. We managed to get the outside crispy and served it with a spicy sesame oil dipping sauce. The one at Kim Ga Nae is a bit spongy for my taste. I like mine loaded with seafood and veggies and light on the batter.

The "banchan" (side dishes) were so-so. A sliced, pickled radish dish was slightly better than the kim chi and bean sprouts. But not much. I think Soon Ja has spoiled me with her home style Korean cooking. I may never be satified in a cheap Korean restaurant again, and I'm not sure I can affford the expensive ones.

The hot pot was as middle of the road as everything else. Lots of chewy potato noodles with a lot less overcooked seafood. It was served with one of those kerosene warmers which seemed a nice touch at first. Unfortunately it meant the already chewy seafood bits kept cooking, quickly taking on the consistency of rubber. I failed in my attempts to extinguish the burner; but came damn close to setting my table aflame. The server noticed my predicament but seemed far more interested in the wall-mount TV.

At least the beer was cold. Hite was the brand I tried. Cass and OB are two other popular Korean breweries. I only recently learned that Korean beer is usually brewed fom rice. This is different from Japanese beer which is usually made from wheat. Lagers are the most popular style of beer in both countries.

For better or worse, I had lots of leftovers for the next day. A botttle of previously untried "Bruised Garlic Chili Paste" from TNT Supermarket added enough kick to make lunch at least a little bit interesting. Hell, enough of a new chili sauce would make cardboard interesting. I definitely liked the new hot sauce more than the leftovers.

Back in Sanbiki's kitchen I am full of questions for Soon Ja. I know kalbi (or "galbi") is a popular Korean BBQ dish but is it usually pork or beef? Sweet or spicy? Apparently beef short ribs marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, sugar and occassionaly citrus juice is a staple kalbi recipe. Pork or beef may be used in spicy "Bulgogi" (literally; "fire meat") which, as the name suggests, is traditionally grilled over an open flame.

I've just started on my Korean food quest adventure. I can't wait to read and learn about (and (eat) more Korean dishes. For now, I should let Soon Ja get on with her kim chi making. But I cannot resist one last nagging question. You see I saw this show on the Food Network, and these guys were in a Korean restaurant and they were eating...well, I could be wrong...but it looked like they were baby octopus...

"Soon Ja, do you guys really eat live baby octopus?" She glances up from her kim chi making. There is a fiery glint in her eye and she lets out a laugh. A deep, dark laugh that makes me chilly. Did she just lick her lips, or are my eyes playing tricks? Yikes. And I though she was such a sweet girl....

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