Why I love Korean food so much…

Korean food is one of the big loves of my life. While Nina and I were in Thailand, she kept informing me that for her, it is Thai food that beats any other food. When she looked at menus, she wanted to try everything on them…literally, everything. She loves the smells, she loves the flavors, and how everything comes together.

During our 28 hours in Seoul on our way back, I was immediately reminded that it is Korean food that does this for me. The city was full of food smells, and I was craving, craving, craving everything.

One of my favorite spots in Seoul: Doksugung, a palace opposite City Hall in the heart of Seoul.

One of my favorite spots in Seoul: Doksugung, a palace opposite City Hall in the heart of Seoul.

I went to Korea around this time of year 13 years ago for love, and fell in love with the country, its people, and its cuisine. There is a simplicity that is not boring, and an honesty in Korean food that I greatly appreciate. Many dishes just contain a few ingredients. The flavors are far from simple, because they are actually rather layered, but it is a modest approach (except for the insane heat in a lot of dishes). In East Asia, they have a saying that pretty much states that Japanese food is pretty, Chinese food tastes good, and Korean food fills your stomach…you get the idea. Korean meals are communicative, usually served family style with the senior party member ordering the food.

I was working at a consulting firm at the time, and the great thing about that was that I got to try all sorts of food, because we would always go for lunch in a group of people, and I was always the youngest member so had no real authority over what I was going to eat. I was exposed to soups and stews, for which Korean cuisine is rather famous: from the fermented cabbage based Kimchi jjigae to the the SPAM, ramen and hot dogs containing budae jjigae (literally “Army Soup”, invented after the Korean War – I am still a big fan). We would eat all kinds of grilled meats and fish, with dipping sauces, from the famous Bulgogi (marinated beef strips that are grilled at the table) to squid and steaks on the same grill. The possibilities were endless, and I got to try a lot of them.

Kimchi Jjigae (Photo credit: Wiki Commons)

Kimchi Jjigae (Photo credit: Wiki Commons)

Moving back to Germany, it was virtually impossible to get good Korean food. I actively sought out Korean restaurants in phone books, but when I went, they were usually Korean-run places that had a big generic Chinese food menu, with a half page in the back that read “Korean specialties”. It was frustrating and pathetic. I guess there never was a real market for real Korean food. Germans like to go to Chinese restaurants (which have nothing in common with actual Chinese food), but Korean? Way too exotic. No one would go because, as a German saying says: “The farmer doesn’t eat what he doesn’t know.” Whatever Korean food I was able to get in restaurants, was usually ok, but never really as mind-blowing as I was used to. There are a few exceptions in Germany, Frankfurt being one that offers decent Korean food (notably the restaurant “Shilla”). Berlin now has a trendy and hip and very delicious Korean restaurant called “Kimchi Princess”.

Luckily, I had and still have my dear friends ManSoo and his wife Hyekyung in Trier, where I was living. They kept my love for Korean food burning by inviting to dinners with all my favorite foods, bulgogi, japchae (a glassnoodle salad), spring rolls,  Kimbab (the Korean sushi roll) and more. These home cooked meals were highlights of my months. The coolest thing though was that since ManSoo always loved Mosel wines, he began pairing them with Korean food. That was an eye opener! These fruity Rieslings with residual sugar matched the strong and pungent flavors of fermented cabbage, fermented soy bean paste (those Koreans really like to ferment!), and the acidity cut through all the heat in some dishes. Just incredible. We would have elaborate Korean dinner parties with tons and tons of Riesling and it was just divine. Some of my best memories of my ten years in Trier are connected to these evenings and the friendship they expressed. They also provided the communal aspect to Korean food, which I had missed as well. The best thing about these dinners was that we combined my love for Riesling with my love for food. Just like with friends: Being able to make your two best friends really get along well is just awesome and furthers the bond.

So when I got back to Seoul, this time around, I had contacted the secretary at the firm I worked at in advance, and she was excited to see me (she did remember me!). We made plans for lunch. She also told me that I should contact the now retired partner in the firm that was my boss during my time there. He immediately replied that he wanted to take Nina and I out for dinner…I was really startled and humbled by them remembering me (I only worked there for 5 months) and wanting to meet up. I had told Nina a lot about true Korean food (we have been to Korean restaurants in the States, and while some deliver on flavor, it is still a different experience) and its customs and culture, so she was eager to try it out…

We met for lunch with Ms. Song (and her daughter, who was 7 when I was in Korea last!) at Sariwon, a group of several restaurants that are famous for their bulgogi. After hugs and a ton of excitement of seeing each other again, our table started to fill up. And that is one of the things I always loved most about Korean food. While you do get “main courses”, the restaurants always provide between 6 and 10 different little snacks, called banchan, from steamed spinach to kimchi to little dried fish to water radish kimchi to sweet potatoes in hot sauce…the number and range of different banchan is incredible. Best of all, there is free refills on all of these. If you are done, you just tell the waitress to bring more. They are provided for free by the restaurant! (This is the biggest difference to Korean restaurants abroad, where, if you are lucky, you get 4 to 6 banchan, but they are, if at all, only grudgingly refilled.) Ms. Song had also ordered bulgogi for all of us and a soup/stew for her and her daughter and two other dishes for Nina and I….it was a grand feast! Just what I had been missing for all these years…it was wonderful. The food tasted great, the company was wonderful, and time just flew.

THIS is what a table in a Korean restaurant should look like...at Sariwon.

THIS is what a table in a Korean restaurant should look like…at Sariwon.

For dinner with my former boss, we went to a very fancy restaurant called Yongsusan, a group of several highly acclaimed upscale Korean restaurants (they have one branch in Los Angeles San Francisco!!). This was a completely different, yet familiar ceremony for me. This menu contained 9 courses (I believe), and we sat in a private room of the restaurant. We drank traditional Korean rice wine (called makkoli, which only has 6% ABV) and enjoyed highly sophisticated dishes of ancient Korean royal cuisine. This was much more refined than anything I had tried before. Forget the heat, forget the pungent smells and flavors. This was all refinement and focused flavors. It was divine.

Most of all though, and these meetings in the city I love, brought one thing home. I love Korean food, and always will. And I need to go to Korea more often for my fix of it, because nowhere comes even close…

Post-lunch happiness at Sariwon.

Post-lunch happiness at Sariwon.

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44 thoughts on “Why I love Korean food so much…

  1. Hyosun Ro says:

    Oliver – It was so nice to meet you in person the other day! I was also very impressed with your deep love for Korean food and culture. I’m happy to read more about it here. This makes me want to visit Korea very soon. And, thanks for the mention of my blog in your comment above.

    BTW – We ate at Kimchi Princess in Berlin in 2009. I had my doubt going in, but the food was pretty good.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Hyosun!! I hope you’ll get to go to Korea this year.

      I had the same qualms about Kimchi Princess when I first read about it, but was also happy with their food. The bulgogi definitely is tasty and I do like the atmosphere.

      See you soon!! Enjoy your last day in A2.

  2. Oh snap – you just blogged about Korean food too! Brain waves! I want to sit at that table with 29 dishes. :)

  3. BargainWhine says:

    Wow. Incredible. I love going to all the (what I think are really good) Korean restaurants along a stretch of Telegraph Ave near me in Oakland, ones approved by my Korean friends and all, but it sounds like I’m still missing out. Maybe I will have to look up the restaurant you mentioned that has a branch in San Francisco. It would have thought that Korean food would have overpowered a Riesling, but now I will have to try it! Thanks and cheers!

    • Yeah, I always assume the West Coast (and NYC for that) should have some of the best Korean food in the US. I tried Little Korea in New York and it was really good.

      Pairing with Riesling I suggest a semi-sweet, simpler Riesling. What does it for us usually is a Dr. L Riesling. You can get those everywhere for between 9 and 13 bucks (Costco has it for 9 here). We always carry a bottle when we go to our Korean restaurant here in A2.

      Yongsusan, the restaurant in SF, makes very different Korean food, in the sense of very sophisticated and less spicy, way less spicy. I still loved it, and there a dry German Riesling or even an aged Spaetlese might have been phenomenal. Let me know how things go!!

  4. We may have to hit one of the 8000 Korean restaurants here in A2. I’ve like the food enough, but still don’t have a fraction of the appreciation you have for it. So maybe you can teach me a few things. My treat!

    • Are there really that many here?? I’ve heard of some, but the one we tend to go to with friends (who have a car) is at Bush’s down Plymouth, quite a bit away. They make some great stews, the bulgogi is meh. But the bibimbab is also quite nice…another one makes some of the best fried chicken I know…and kimchi fries. Pretty awesome.

      I’d love to go for Korean food with you – I always love a reason to go for Korean food. We can work something out. I’ve found that it is more approachable once you go with someone who has an idea what is what.

      But keep in mind that I am all into peasant food, and most Korean food, when done well, is just that. :) Not exactly hedonistic….;)))

      • I honestly believe that A2 has more Korean restaurants per capita than any city outside of Korea. I do like bulgogi and bibimbab a lot. There’s a place close to my new house – Arirang – that serves the Army Stew. I wasn’t a fan, but wasn’t sure if it was just a bad version of it. I’ve heard about that fried chicken place.

        And I think you’re confusing elitist with hedonist. Not liking peasant food makes is elitist. A hedonist loves just about everything. For me it’s Taco Bell and White Castles, which is pretty peasant-like!

        • You’re right, I did mess that up. Although Taco Bell and White Castle are not exactly food, right? So the they might be peasant, but not food…:)

          I know that there are a bunch of “Korean” restaurants in A2, something made me hold back all this time though. I have not heard of Arirang. I did read about Seoul Garden (?) in the past, also somewhere around Eisenhower and State.

          Army Soup is definitely weird, but it is also quite the art to find a place that makes good stews. The one on Plymouth delivers (usually, we’ve had a bad night where the wrong person was cooking). One needs to find the right place for the right kind of Korean food. Let’s have some soups together at the one at Bush’s. With Bulgogi it is even trickier, because you need to find a place that has good meat…and that can be a problem. Also, I want my bulgogi grilled in front of me at the table, not in the kitchen. Have not found a place here that does that…

          I am pretty free all next week. If you’d want to drive we could go to Bush’s for lunch or maybe get the missuses to go to dinner…

          • Seoul garden has the barbecue at each table. Is pretty good. Def want to go to that fried chicken place. Lets connect next wk

            • I am actually a bit bulgogi-ed out (we had it for lunch and as the main course for dinner in Seoul), so either the chicken place (it is somewhere off Plymouth but I don’t know where – we always eat it with friends who order it and have it delivered) or the one at Bush’s for some stews next week sounds good to me.

        • Oh, I have seen Arirang several times (it is where Jet’s is, right?)…always wanted to try it! I’d be down with going there.

      • Yo, let me get in on this Korean food road trip action!

  5. meltinggrape says:

    I love Korean food too! Sounds like a fabulous time.

    I was wondering if we could connect a bit more through email, I’d love to correspond about wine. I am taylor@meltinggrape.com if you would like to be in touch.


  6. foxress says:

    Welcome home, Oliver. Wonderful post. I love the connection you make between Riesling, Korean food and friendship…lovely.

    • Thank you, Linda. It just all came together so naturally, and was repeated in Seoul. Can you imagine, after 13 years? And we just talked and laughed and had a great time as if it had been yesterday. I am so fond of these people…

  7. You look refreshed! And sounds like you had a very tasty experience with many old friends. Lucky you!

  8. P.S. You look younger. Obviously your 2 month vacation was good for you!

  9. Stefano says:

    I think the title for this post should have been “The prodigal son returns”! ;-)
    That’s way cool, Oliver. And having people there remember you so fondly after all these years is a testament to who you are and what you left behind.
    The meals sounded exciting, plus now I know how to say tapas in Korean! :-)

  10. ksbeth says:

    this sounds wonderful )

  11. Do you have a Korean or Thai soup recipe? I’m collecting soup recipes for an upcoming blog about community and soup….

  12. Forgot to mention–we also do a mean Haemul Pajeon and japchae (of course), but not a lot of banchan (typically some pickled cucumber, celery root, and carrots, but that is about it–I could get some ojingeochae muchim, but we don’t actually make it).

    • I will be fine with anything you (or Tammy) make…no worries. I will not hold you to my high banchan standards. I find that in private homes banchan are usually limited, which I am fine with…:) Not a big fan of the haemul pajeon, but would definitely try it…ojingeochae muchim is definitely something I eat, but not necessary. Last thing I want is for you guys to be stressing out. The Galbi alone will be such a treat!

  13. What a great tale! As you know, my wife is Korean and can make a mean Galbi–will you have time in October for dinner? We could try to do some Korean BBQ (with German Riesling and maybe some Gewurz from Alsace…)!

    • Oh WOW, that does sound awesome, Jeff. I would love to try your wife’s galbi. Nina will most likely be very busy with meeting old friends (whom I have no desire to meet for various reasons, best explained in person) every evening, so we should just go ahead and plan without her. We’re arriving in town on October 3 at around 6pm, I am definitely free Friday night, October 4, we’re busy the night of October 5, and then I have all day and evening Sunday. We’re leaving Monday morning. I would naturally bring some bottles of German Riesling.

      • Great! I will talk to Tammy–perhaps Sunday would be the best since it takes a bunch of time to marinate… As for Friday, if you want/need an excuse to get away, we can certainly get together and drink some wine!

        • Awesome. Sunday means that Nina is likely to be able to join us, because most of her folks will have left already anyway…so that would actually best for all of us. I will keep you posted on Friday night. Might well need your shoulder to lean on. :)

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