Friday, August 06, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Korean Food in America, and Rice

One of the most common questions that the Korean receives is: Can the Korean recommend any good Korean restaurant in [area]? This may sound like a simple enough question, but it is very difficult for the Korean -- because he thinks vast majority of Korean restaurants in America are terrible.

The Korean is not a picky eater; one does not get to be 6' 1" and 190 lbs by refusing a lot of food. Instead, he is a judgmental eater. While the Korean rarely refuses to eat any food, he nonetheless has a discriminating taste about Korean food and avoids going to bad Korean restaurants (or bad restaurants in general.) And by "bad Korean restaurants," the Korean means "every Korean restaurant in a given metropolitan area except for two or three, at most five."

And it is difficult to describe why the majority of Korean restaurants are so bad, because there are so many things are wrong with them. For many of them, it is as if the Korean asked for a dry-aged porterhouse and what comes out is a stale Big Mac. When the ignorant masses eat the stale Big Mac and praise it as if it is the most perfect dry-aged porterhouse (see, for example, David Chang and his fraudulent franchise,) the Korean is at a loss for words.

(An aside: lest there should be any confusion, the Korean also thinks that vast majority of Korean restaurants in Korea are also terrible, although obviously there are many more good Korean restaurants in Korea. But that's a topic for another day.)

Part of the difficulty is the fact that most Americans -- Korean Americans included -- have no exposure to what an excellent Korean dish is supposed to look like and taste. The Korean's new favorite food blog, 악식가의 미식일기 ("Epicurean Diary of an Anti-Gourmand") written by a food columnist Hwang Gyo-Ik, gave the Korean a possible way to break into the subject by discussing the most common Korean food -- rice.

"Rice? How special could rice be?" you might ask. If you think that, please read the translation below.


What is Delicious Rice?

Cooked rice is the most important thing in Korean cuisine. It is the same with bread in Western cuisine -- no matter how tasty the dish, the restaurant could never score high if the bread quality is poor. In Korean cuisine, no matter what the food is, the rice has to be delicious.

Rice was introduced to Korean Peninsula over 4,000 years ago, but it took considerable amount of time for rice to take the place as the staple. Until then, Koreans generally ate mixed grains. Even in the Three Kingdoms era [TK: from BCE 37 through A.D. 562], rice was reserved for the noblemen. Also, the means of cooking grains -- whether rice or mixed grains -- was not the same as today.

At the National Central Folk Museum, one of the most common artifacts of the Three Kingdoms era is a steamer. The ancient steamers show that generally, grains were either ground into powder or taken as whole, and steamed. Samgukyusa [TK: ancient history book chronicling the Three Kingdoms era] also features a story about a rice cake before one about cooked rice. The story goes that in 17 A.D., when King Namhae passed away, Norye and Talhae yielded the throne to each other. Talhae then suggests that each bite into a rice cake, because it is said that a wise man has more teeth.

It was about 1,300 years since our ancestors turned rice grains into cooked rice and consumed it as an everyday food. In other words, for over 2,000 years since the introduction of rice, our ancestors either made porridge or rice cakes. While the advancement of pot-making and grain-hulling technology must have been connected to the reason why it took such a long time between cultivating rice stalks and making cooked rice, I believe that the accumulation of knowledge about how to cook the rice also played a factor.

Rice is a dish that requires a truly sophisticated skill. But nowadays, people do not understand this -- because of electric rice cookers. Worse, there are so many people who cannot make decent rice even with an electric cooker. I think this is because the current trend is such that while people care about how the food tastes, they are generally apathetic about how the rice should taste.

There are a number of hanjeongsik [TK: grand course meal that features dozens of side dishes] that charge anywhere between $10 to $50~60 per person. [TK: assumming $1 = KRW 1,000] It is very difficult to make an assessment at a restaurant like this, because there are so many different kinds of food involved. It is generally a series of dishes that I alternately like and do not like. In such a case, I just focus on one thing to judge the level of food at the restaurant. That thing is none other than rice.

Korean food is divided into rice and banchan. [TK: side dishes.] The flavor is only complete after the two mixes in the mouth. The reason why the side dishes such as kimchi, jang'ajji [TK: pickled vegetables] and jeotgal [TK: fermented seafood] are generally salty or have intense flavor is because they are made in consideration of the harmony with rice, which tastes as if it has no flavor. In other words, the rice subdues the intensity of banchan's flavor and extracts the deeper flavor that those banchans hold. Thus, if the rice is not tasty, the true flavor of the side dishes cannot be enjoyed no matter how many dozens of them appear on the table.

This is what delicious rice is like: it is freshly made, with a shiny glint and moisture. It is savory and sweet; once in the mouth, each grain should feel alive individually. When the tongue wraps individual grains of rice, the saliva adds to the sweet flavor. It should neither be too soft or too hard, but cause a delightful friction between the teeth.

Unfortunately, the chances of meeting rice like this is low. Instead, there is rice that smells like the rice husk because it was not washed properly; rice whose grains are in tatters because it was soaked in the water for too long; yellowish rice because the rice was sitting in the pot for a whole day after being cooked; rice with beans that smell like uncooked beans because the beans were not soaked in the water; rice that tastes undercooked because it was not finished properly.

The problem does not only lie in the restaurant owners who shamelessly present these kinds of rice; it also lies with the customers who simply eat them without sending them back. Rice is the most important thing in Korean cuisine; how can people be so generous with the flavor of rice? Is it that difficult to make delicious rice? Let us give some thought about how to make delicious. People generally do not have traditional  kitchens anymore, so let's suppose we are cooking with an electric cooker that everyone has.

First, the rice has to be washed to take out any remaining husk and dirt on the rice. The rice has to be washed correctly -- it needs to be rinsed quickly. If one takes too much time, the smell of the husk seeps into the water and the rice ends up smelling like the husk. Pour clean water into the rice, quickly mix two or three times, and drain the water within 10 seconds. Repeat until the drained water comes out clear. Once washed, soak the rice in water -- delicious rice requires the presence of water inside each grain before it goes on the fire. Soak around 1-2 hours in winter, about 30 minutes in summer.

After the rice boils and the rice cooker switches from "Cook" to "Warm", finish the rice by letting it sit for about 10 to 15 minutes. If you let it sit too long, the rice becomes sticky and watery. Once the rice is finished, get a spatula and quickly mix the rice along the edge of the pot. This is done to evaporate the excess water, to maintain the shape of the grain without mangling them and to make the flavor uniform within the pot. If you apply too much pressure mixing the rice, the rice will be caked.

Now, try the rice. The flavor of rice is determined by the shine, aroma, flavor, consistency and texture. Feel the rice not just with your tongue, but with all five of your senses. First take a look at the white, shiny rice; then smell the aroma; then feel the consistency, texture and the slightly sweet flavor; then finally feel the tactile sensation going over the throat.

Thanks to electric rice cooker, this much skill is enough to cook delicious rice. In the old days when the rice was cooked in a cast-iron pot on a wood-burning stove, delicious rice required a near godlike eye for the fire. If the water looks like it will boil over, it needs to be subdued by pouring water on top of the lid; kill the fire just at the right time to finish the rice; and most importantly, one must know just the right time to finally open the lid.

This should confirm that making delicious rice is a sophisticated endeavor. One might think that the sophistication requires one to be more forgiving, but for the owner and the cook for a hanjeongsik restaurant,  it is their natural duty to pay attention to each detail, because missing even one detail ruins the taste.

Speaking of hanjeongsik restaurants, recently the way they serve their food is becoming strange. At some point, there was an argument that Korean food should be served in courses instead of on a single table with the excuse that doing so will globalize Korean food. Apparently, some restaurants accepted this argument and considers course-serving to contribute toward Korean food's globalization and advancement toward haute cuisine. Of course, there are Korean dishes that can be developed into a stand-alone dish, and there are Korean foods that have a potential to be appropriately served in a course. But seeing the way hanjeongsik places serve their food in courses, only the form is set, not the flavor. Korean dishes that used to be paired with rice should have been cooked such that they can be enjoyed by themselves, but that has not happened. (I will expand on this later.)

But the bigger problem at these hanjeongsik places is rice. After a few stand-alone dishes appear in courses, the rice and other side dishes are laid out on the table. At this instance, white rice is rare. The most common one instead is the black rice. Black rice has strong aroma and sweet flavor, which only serves to conflict Korean side dishes that are salty, spicy and aromatic. Worse is a restaurant that serves rice mixed with all kinds of things like beans, chestnut, ginseng, date, ginko, aromatic rice, black rice, etc. I really question what they were thinking -- do they really think this saccharine rice full of different aromas will pair well with Korean side dishes?

But most people who receive this absurd table simply eat without complaint. I wonder if they think that since they paid that much, they must finish the course with something unusual, like an uncommon bowl of rice. I wonder if this happens because people eat their food not with their mouth, but with their money.

맛있는 밥이란 [악식가의 미식일기]

Having read this, please do not tell the Korean about your favorite Korean restaurant experience anymore. He hates ruining people's memories.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. TK,

    While I agree that rice serves as a vital food in Korean cuisine, I think its way too much to classify it as the most important dish. IMHO, rice is just a staple where it may supplement and/or complement other dishes that are served. Because of my sophisticated palates I have developed, especially towards Korean food, I am concerned with banchans and meat or fish dish that is being served.

  2. I cannot agree more with the TK. For this reason Koreans have a seperate word for cooked rice which also means food. In my house we only use a heavy cast iron pot instead of electric and the rice taste 100 times better.

  3. So true! When rice is cooked properly, it is something that is delicious in itself, that needs almost no accompaniment, the same as good bread.

    Oh, the pleasure of good rice! Thank you for this post.

  4. I have to disagree with your stance on non-white rice. White rice is actually processed so that most of the nutrients are stripped away. It's kind of like white bread. It tastes like it does because of the lack of nutrients. Non-white rice generally has more nutrients and contains an essential mineral (I forget what though). The non-white rice also has a unique flavor if cooked right will rival the blander white rice.

  5. You know my dad goes on about rice all the time, apparently he can tell the variations between the expensive fragrant rice and ordinary rice.... rice is rice to me and my uncultured ways.

    Though my dad is a freak in that he still GROWS his own rice (some of it anyway) and manages to do this in Hong Kong, then again his water is free and he's got nowt to do.

    Its also strange that when ever his friends come to his house they always end up eating a lot of rice compared to the stuff on the plates. A cheapo method is apparently to mix in 20% fragrant rice with ordinary rice which makes it smell the same.

    My utterly destroyed taste buds from western food beer vodka and such like still can't tell any difference.

    Even though you said don't tell me of your favourite Korean meal experience I shall tell you. The BEST Korean resturant I ate in was not in Korea North or South yes been to both.

    Was in Mongolia, behind the state department store in UB, follow the street to the right of it with your back to the Russian compound. It is about 400 metres. And there is a fantastic Korean restaurant which served Hamjeoungsik to us for 20,000TG. Seriously it was better than the stuff in Seoul this might be due to the enormous presence of Koreans in Mongolia.

  6. Hold on wait a sec..... how can you actually taste the food? When people like me spend 99% of the time thinking ferk me this is rather spicy. It's like eating lava in Korea everywhere from simple burgers to rice stick thingies.

  7. You don't like David Chang?
    If not, how come?

  8. I love the episode of 대장금 where they have the rice cook-off and 한상궁 distributes the rice according to individual preferences of the other 상궁, explaining the difference textures of the rice within the same pot.

  9. MC, the Korean also thinks that "most important" might be a bit of an overstatement, but there is no question that it should be done correctly.

    micpuc, it is not the Korean's stance -- he did not write this post, only translated. But the Korean does agree with Hwang that the unique flavor of non-white rice gets in the way of enjoying banchan.

    TCG, it is possible to taste. Just needs training.

    Joshua, please read the questions policy on the right.

  10. I actually have to agree with the part of the article that describes the use of white rice to create a balance of taste with the main dish/banchan. I never understood how people could eat some of the banchan or a strong jigae straight without rice in their mouths.

    That said, I've switched to brown rice for health and dietary purposes and, as a result, modified the way I cook the banchan to accomodate. Interestingly enough, cutting back on oil, sugars, salts and chili peppers actually helps the brown rice/banchan complement each other better so the overall effect is a more balanced taste and a healthier overall meal.

    I'm less picky with how well my white rice is cooked, but it's really easy to make brown rice too dry or too rough (or bloated), so it requires even more careful attention while cooking. Brown rice might not be "traditional" Korean food, but, then again, I never really cared much for tradition. =)

  11. I totally understand the importance of rice. In every restaurant, I focus immediately on the rice and my enjoyment of the meal lessens greatly if the rice is not of good quality. Makes me sound so snobbish, but it's true...

    And I like this line: "The Korean is not a picky eater...Instead, he is a judgmental eater."

    I think I'll use it after some spiteful comments about my eating habits.

  12. every Korean restaurant in a given metropolitan area except for two or three, at most five.

    So...can't you enumerate at least two or three, if only for really major cities like NYC, DC, maybe LA or SF? If good Korean food is as rare as you say, you'd be doing a really vital service to the internet at large. I myself always thought I'd hated Korean food, but now I'm wondering if I just haven't happened upon a decent place. Please?

    There is a place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan called Le Chien that gets raves, but seems overpriced....

  13. aw mang i hope you repost that pipi band one

  14. Best rice in the world comes from Niigata, Japan.

    So so so good.

    At first when people told me that, I was like... it's rice, there's no difference between good rice and bad rice, it has no taste.


    It's as if a ray of heaven came down and blessed your tongue when you have good rice which is made properly.

  15. Okay, I've got a cool Korean restaurant story. Once my sister was in Yaiban Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Manchuria, China. She was at a Korean restaurant there and next to the word "bulgogi" was a picture of a plate of beef. Next to "dak gogi" was a plate of chicken, next to japchae was a plate of sauteed glass noodles, so on and so forth. Next to "boshingtang" was a picture of a living golden retriever puppy, in a cute pose, with a rubber red ball in it's mouth.


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