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 email@example.com.