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SEOUL FOOD : Olympics Spotlight Korean Dishes

Times Staff Writer

The 24th Summer Olympic Games opening Saturday in Seoul, South Korea, will draw attention to a culture and a cuisine that also play a strong role in Los Angeles.

About 500,000 Koreans now live in Southern California, according to Young S. Lee, president of the Korean Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles. Many are residents; others are posted here with the 250 or so Korean businesses that have branches in this area. As a result, Korean food and ingredients are becoming widely available. But aside from the ubiquitous barbecued meats and the spicy pickle, kimchi, the cuisine is not well known outside the Korean community.

Few Korean cookbooks are available in English. And Westerners may not recognize many of the ingredients in Korean supermarkets. Two examples in the produce department are minari, which could be loosely described as Korean watercress, and a feathery-leafed green called sukkat. Each has a distinctive flavor and many uses in Korean cookery.

The cakes, sweets and snacks produced by local Korean bakeries may seem novel to the Western taste. At the Western Rice Bakery, which opened recently on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, a salesgirl brought out an enormous structure of pink, green and white topped with prettily decorated small cakes in overlapping circles. Made from rice rather than wheat flour, this imposing item was a Korean birthday cake, she said.

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The bakery also sells yak wah, a deep-fried cookie imported from Korea, and produces a variety of rice-based cakes, dumplings and sweets. One of these is yak shi, a mixture of glutinous rice flavored with sesame oil and soy sauce and studded with chestnuts, pine nuts and dried red dates (jujubes). Koreans eat these foods as snacks rather than as a formal dessert at the end of a meal. In Korea, one would be more likely to finish with fresh fruit such as apples, Korean pears or watermelon.

A basic larder for Korean cooking would include soy sauce, sesame seeds, sesame oil, ginger, green onions, red pepper and garlic--lots of it. A veritable fleet of floating garlic cloves sailed over a soup I ordered in a Seoul coffee shop. At a barbecue restaurant, Korean companions showed me how to wrap roasted garlic cloves with grilled beef in lettuce and eat the bundle taco style.

Instead of tea, which is customary in Japan and China, Koreans drink a beverage brewed from roasted barley or corn. Or they make soong yoong-- rice tea-- by mixing hot water with the brown crust remaining at the bottom of a rice pot. The rice grains are then served in a bowl with the hot liquid. Or one might be treated to ginseng tea, garnished with pine nuts and sliced jujubes.

Basic condiments for Korean dishes are soy sauce, soy bean paste and red pepper paste. Traditionally, each family made its own, taking pride in the special flavor produced by time-tested formulas. Large earthenware jars containing these products were stored outside the house, their quantity indicating the prosperity of the family.

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Kimchi also is traditionally made in the home. In Los Angeles, Korean markets and bakeries sell it, and restaurants serve it as an accompaniment to meals. Americans think of kimchi as a fiery cabbage pickle, but other vegetables are also used, and there are variations such as water kimchi, which consists of clear, seasoned liquid embellished with a few pieces of vegetable. So important is kimchi in the diet that a young woman is expected to demonstrate her skill at making the pickle before her wedding, with her future mother-in-law as judge.

As exemplified by kimchi, Korean cuisine emphasizes vegetables. Tofu is much used and noodle dishes are popular. Beef is the favored meat, if meat is used, followed by pork and chicken.

Chung Hea Han, a leading cookery teacher in Seoul, pointed out that Americans are lucky to have beef that is better in quality and also cheaper than that available in Korea. It was interesting to see the variety of beef cuts displayed in the large market in the Lotte Department Store in Seoul. Some slices were oval-shaped, and there were thin strips intended for yuk whe, a dish of seasoned raw meat.

Korean food is gutsier than Japanese and not as artfully presented. But the two countries share some food customs. Toasted sheets of dried seaweed (nori) may be served at a Korean meal, to be eaten alone or wrapped around rice. And Koreans make a vegetable and rice roll wrapped in nori that looks like sushi.

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In Los Angeles, Korean restaurants often have a sushi counter and a Japanese menu, for despite the Japanese occupation of the country from 1910 to 1945, Japanese food has become popular with Koreans. One new cafe on West 3rd Street even advertises Korean sushi.

According to Sam Chung, president of the Korean Restaurant Assn. of Southern California, there are now 275 Korean restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange counties, ranging from small eateries to lavish dining houses.

They serve an impressive range of food. Restaurant Shilla in Gardena, for example, offers the singular experience of cooking meat on a hot stone, a procedure that protects it from the burning flames of a gas grill. For lunch there, we started with an assortment of little pancakes, one of them containing an oyster and green onions, another stuffed with ground beef, another a slice of fish in a light egg batter and still another made from ground rice.

Along with the grilled meats--thinly sliced beef and pork, beef rib meat and chicken--we had several types of kimchi and a number of side dishes. The kimchis included the standard nappa cabbage pickle, a cucumber kimchi that contained a few pine nuts, white daikon cubes dashed with red pepper and a brothy orange- colored vegetable mixture topped with slices of bright red chile.

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In between bites of the grilled meat, which we rolled in lettuce along with raw garlic cloves and hot bean paste, we sampled an array of side dishes. There were marinated soy bean sprouts and spinach; blocks of pale jelly made from mung bean flour; deep-fried tofu triangles; potato and carrot shreds coated with a mayonnaise-style dressing; mildly spicy shredded green onions and a combination of elephant clam (geoduck) slices, broccoli and onion.

We also had bowls of broth that contained meat-stuffed dumplings (mandu) and tried a bubbling casserole, a sort of Korean bouillabaisse called jongol. The extraordinary collection of ingredients in this casserole included shrimp, fish, imitation crab, cuttlefish, noodles, tofu, jujubes, chestnuts, zucchini, enoki and straw mushrooms, gingko nuts, bamboo shoots, carrot and onion, all of this in a seafood-flavored broth.

There also were bowls of sticky white rice enriched with beans and green peas and a platter of yam starch noodles mixed with vegetables and garnished with bits of pink and white fish cake. We had a choice of beverages: corn tea, OB and Crown beers imported from Korea and rice tea brewed in the big stone pot in which our rice had been steamed. This elaborate feast ended with a simple plate of orange segments and apple wedges.

The following recipes can serve as an introduction to Korean foods. In addition to the familiar barbecued beef, there is a side dish of minari and beef strips, adapted from “Lee Wade’s Korean Cookbook.” The late Lee Wade was an American woman living in Korea, where the book was published. Other dishes are Chap Chae, the noodle and vegetable combination, made here with bean threads, and marinated spinach and bean sprouts. The spinach recipe is from Chung Hea Han’s Book, “Korean Cooking,” published in Seoul.

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For a beginning meal, one could serve the barbecued beef accompanied by the marinated spinach and bean sprouts, kimchi purchased at a Korean market, steamed rice, beer or tea and fruit for dessert.

BUL KOGI (Barbecued Beef)

1 pound thinly sliced tender beef

Sugar

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2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon pounded toasted sesame seeds

2 green onions, finely sliced

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2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced

1 thin slice ginger, minced

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Sprinkle each meat slice lightly with sugar. Combine soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, green onions, garlic, ginger and pepper in bowl. Add meat slices to mixture one at a time. Coat each well with sauce, lift out and place in another container.

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Let stand at least 30 minutes before cooking. Broil meat over coals or in skillet lightly greased with sesame oil until well done. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Meat cut for teriyaki, available in Oriental markets, may be used for Bul Kogi.

LEE WADE’S MINARI AND BEEF

1 bunch minari

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1/2 cup fine strips beef

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons minced ginger root

2 teaspoons sugar

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1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon crushed, toasted sesame seeds

Dash black pepper

Cut enough minari leaves and stems into 1-inch pieces to measure 4 cups. Bring large saucepan water to boil. Add minari. As soon as water boils again, drain minari. Place in bowl. Combine soy sauce, ginger root, sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds and pepper. Add half the mixture to minari and combine. Heat remaining soy sauce mixture in small skillet. Add beef and cook and stir until done. Combine beef with minari. Makes 4 side dish servings.

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CHAP CHAE

1 pound very lean beef, cut in thin strips

1/2 cup soy sauce

3 green onions, chopped

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Sesame oil

1 tablespoon sugar

Dash garlic powder

1 bunch spinach

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4 or 5 Oriental dried mushrooms, soaked

1 (4-ounce) package bean threads

2 carrots, cut in very thin strips

Salt

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1 onion, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced

5 green onions cut in thin 1 1/2- to 2-inch strips

1/4 cup cloud ears, soaked in warm water and sliced

1 (5-ounce) can water chestnuts, thinly sliced

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1 tablespoon pounded toasted sesame seeds

Pine nuts

Marinate meat strips in mixture of soy sauce, 2 chopped green onions, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, sugar and garlic powder.

Wash spinach. Place leaves stem first in pan of boiling water and turn heat off immediately. Turn spinach to immerse leaf end, then drain at once. Drain mushrooms and cut in thin strips. Add bean threads to saucepan of boiling water and stir until softened. Drain and cut into 6- to 8-inch lengths.

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Heat skillet and coat lightly with sesame oil. Add carrots, sprinkle with salt and cook and stir until crisp-tender. Place in large bowl. Add more sesame oil to pan, then add onion and sliced green onions. Sprinkle with salt and cook and stir until crisp-tender. Add to carrots.

Add more sesame oil to skillet. Add sliced mushrooms and cloud ears. Sprinkle with salt and stir. Add water chestnuts, stir and add to carrots.

Drain meat, reserving marinade. Coat skillet again with sesame oil, then add meat and sprinkle with salt. Stir until meat is cooked, remove from skillet and set aside.

Add more sesame oil to skillet, then bean threads and half of cooked meat. Mix well. Add this mixture and remaining meat to vegetables and toss to mix. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Add about 1 tablespoon sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. Mix well. Garnish with omelet shreds, remaining chopped green onions and some pine nuts. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

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Omelet Shreds

1 egg yolk

Salt

Yellow food color

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Sesame Oil

Beat egg yolk with dash salt and enough food color to make vivid yellow. Coat small skillet lightly with sesame oil. Add egg yolk and spread quickly to form thin layer-like crepe. Cook over low heat until firm on bottom. Turn and cook other side. Remove egg pancake, roll up like jelly roll and cut crosswise into thin shreds.

KOREAN STYLE BEAN SPROUTS

1 pound bean sprouts

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1 green onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar

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1 teaspoon crushed toasted sesame seeds

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red chiles

1 teaspoon salt

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1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Drop bean sprouts into pan of boiling water and boil 3 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain again. Place in bowl.

Add green onion, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame seeds and oil, chiles, salt and pepper. Toss to mix well. Serve cold or at room temperature. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

CHUNG HEA HAN’S SEASONED SPINACH

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1 large bunch spinach (10 1/2 ounces)

Salt

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon finely chopped green onion

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1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed toasted sesame seeds

1 teaspoon sugar

Vinegar, optional

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Wash spinach carefully. Bring large pot salted water to boil. Add spinach, stem ends first, then leaves. Immerse only briefly to keep bright green color. Rinse immediately with cold water, then squeeze as much moisture as possible from spinach.

Cut into pieces about 2 inches long. Combine soy sauce, onion, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sugar. Mix into spinach with hands. Add dash vinegar. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


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