The Bountiful <i> Chongsik</i>
Once only royalty and the very rich could hope to eat a chongsik meal. Chongsik-- it means meal of many dishes--may have up to 100 plates of food. Even nowadays, most Koreans reserve chongsik (pronounced han-jong-shick) for special occasions: a 60th birthday, a wedding dinner or important business parties. But here in Los Angeles there are a few restaurants that make chongsik accessible.
At Nam Kang restaurant the regular $8.95 Korean barbecue dinner is an opulent affair. Before the waitress even lights the grill, she brings a huge oval tray covered with little dishes and sets them on the table. There are raw oysters in chili sauce, squares of pancake flecked with vegetables, hard-cooked quail eggs and 13 other items that barely leave table space for the main dish, rice, soup and tea that will follow. But while this spread is one of Koreatown’s most bountiful, it pales in comparison to the formal chongsik dinners that the restaurant also serves for $18 and $28 per person. (Arrangements must be made at least one day in advance, and there’s a two-person minimum.)
For my first chongsik meal, I brought along a Korean-food expert and some friends. We met in the parking area and found that Nam Kang shares mini-mall space with a market, a Laundromat, a doughnut shop and a burrito stand that serves birria (goat)--not exactly a foretoken of a sumptuous banquet, though there is a parking attendant. But once inside the dining room, with its light pinewood partitions separating sleek natural wood tables and private rooms, visions of the parking lot were quickly dismissed.
We had barely settled in when waitresses began pouring bowls of chilled barley tea. Without a pause, three women ferried in a parade of little dishes called panch’an (or side dishes). Everyone got a cool, creamy soup called chuk , made from ground pine nuts and boiled rice. Its bland flavor offset some of the spicier items that followed: tiny squid in a mouth-torching sauce or blanched green onions tied into festive knots and garnished with a chili-vinegar mixture. Only a few of the dishes were spicy. The contents of the many bowls (20 for the “A” dinner and 18 for the “B” dinner) ranged from a sweet lotus root cooked in caramelized soy sauce or salty translucent strips of paper-thin dried cod, to mild blanched spinach and bean sprouts.
The procession continued with a series of light courses: large, meaty clams, which were chopped and baked and served sauced and bubbling in their shells; chapch’ae, a stir fry of clear noodles with ribbons of beef and vegetables; saengsonjon, tender patties of sliced white fish fried in an eggy batter; and sanjok, thin beef strips layered between bands of green onion and carrot that resemble slices of a vegetable terrine. These specialties, as well as a plate of assorted stuffed vegetables, are included in both the A and B dinners. In addition, the fancier A dinner includes the elegant and seldom seen kujolpan, a stack of thin rice pancakes in the center of a special dish surrounded by various fillings. An abalone, thinly sliced and perfectly sauteed with garlic and served in its shell, was among the other A-dinner supplements.
“Don’t eat too much of these,” Mrs. Kim, my Korean food mentor counseled, “the main dishes haven’t been served yet.” Soon after, a procession of larger courses in heavy stoneware bowls began to stream in. The bowls are designed to keep food hot for hours. Mrs. Kim explained that everything is customarily served at once; then everyone can just relax and eat what they want.
Maeunt’ang, a sort of Korean gumbo was my favorite of the main dishes; it’s included on both dinners. The sumptuous chili-hot broth is laden with unshelled shrimp, sections of crab, tiny clams and chunks of various fish. But the dish that won the most raves came only on the A-dinner. Kalbitchim, a rich stew of beef short ribs in a soy-based broth, is cooked with Asian dates, which impart a subtle, luxurious sweetness.
The panorama of dishes and their rainbow-colored contents dwarfed our small, covered rice bowls. But because rice is considered the mainstay of any Korean meal, the waitresses continually offer more.
There are a number of abbreviated chongsik around town that don’t have to be ordered in advance. At Ham Hung restaurant you’ll find Northern-style cooking, which is reputedly milder than the more available Southern-style food. And Ham Hung’s jovial proprietor, Daniel Oh, is usually on hand with ready answers to any questions.
The large, two-story restaurant is divided by wood screens to simultaneously provide intimacy and a perfect vantage point for observing the comings and goings of businessmen and parties of Korean women dressed to the nines.
Ham Hung’s chongsik may be abbreviated, but you won’t go hungry and the kitchen has a masterful hand with certain specialties. The side dishes here might include Korean fresh green peppers sauteed with tiny anchovies or a mild eggplant relish. My favorite main dish is kejang, a whole marinated blue crab in a mild chili sauce. The crab isn’t cooked so it turns out rather like a Korean-style ceviche . And Ham Hung’s mildly sweet chili marinade allows the briny flavor of the crab meat to come through. I’ve had this elsewhere but often the crabs are so small that one can barely extract the meat and the marinade frequently obliterates the crustacean’s flavor. Another dish Ham Hung excels at is whole salted and char-grilled king fish, which is crispy with a moist interior. In other restaurants this preparation has seemed much too salty and dry.
Neither the familiar grilled beef nor typical toenjang-tchige-- a meat-vegetable-tofu stew in a rich, thick bean paste sauce--are spicy hot. On the other hand, a dish of skate wing marinated until it is as tender as skate wing gets and mixed with fresh Asian pear and chili, vies only with the spiciness of kajamisikhye, strips of raw sole, pickled with radish in a chili garlic paste, to provide the final scalding touch.
Oh points out that all chongsik menus are designed to graduate from bland to the very hottest flavors though they are not necessarily eaten in that order. And even if you can’t eat half of this meal, it is a remarkable piece of dining entertainment for $15.
Nam Kang restaurant, 3055 W. 7th St., (213) 380-6606 (Miss Kim coordinates the chongsik dinners). Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.
Ham Hung, 809 S. Ardmore Ave. (8th and Ardmore) (213) 381-1520 or 381-1856. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Other restaurants offering chongsik:
Goomi restaurant, 1101 S. Vermont Ave ., No. 104 (at 12th), (213) 386-8393. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.
Shilla restaurant 16944 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (213) 770-3858. Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.