Thursday, December 13, 2007
Korean noodle hot pot--so hot, so good
My friend Diane has a brother who is even more obsessed with food than I am. A couple of years ago, we were talking about the essays he was writing for business school applications, including one on the biggest dilemma he had ever faced. He said he was having trouble because in all honesty, the biggest dilemma he had ever faced was on a Singapore Airlines first-class flight to Hong Kong, when he was served a beautiful, truly gourmet meal, and he had to decide whether he would eat it, or forego it to save room for the astonishing food that would be waiting for him as soon as he landed.
During that same conversation, we began talking about “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia.” This was a running list Michael kept in his head. He told me that Numbers 1 through 3 were clear to him, but he had been going back and forth trying to settle in his own mind what dishes occupied 4 and 5. If I remember correctly, one through three were pho, ramen, and soba, and four was some Chinese noodle dish, maybe chow fun. In any case, nothing in the Top Five was Korean; in fact, he said to me in horror, “Can you believe some people say 잡채, chapchae?” (Michael is Korean.) I admit I am also horrified that some people would consider that slippery, simpering glass noodle dish to belong in the pantheon of “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia,” but a recent meal at 한우리, Hanwoori, has made me decide that among my personal top five, I would have to include 국수전걸, guksujungol, or Korean noodle hot pot.
(I can hear my sister protesting, “What about 냉면, naengmyun?”, which is her second-favorite Korean food in the world after braised short ribs, but that is another blog post.)
Hanwoori is one of those restaurants that’s been around forever. Several stories high, it serves traditional Korean food that’s famous for its clean, uncluttered flavors. Our family has always been particularly fond of the kimchi, the shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot), and noodle hot pot. It’s not cheap, but it’s so good, especially when my parents are paying for it.
If you have never had hot pot, Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, you should run out and try it. It’s good party food, where people who don’t know each other have to get comfortable fast, since they’re circling a big pot of broth in which, depending on where you are, thinly sliced beef, strong Asian greens, meaty mushrooms, and assorted fish and fishballs cook lightly and quickly. I wonder why it’s not more popular among the ethnic-hipster-foodie set—it’s just as DIY as Korean barbecue without being as smelly. And the legends are fun—all about hordes of invading Mongols having to cook their food quickly on the march.
The Korean noodle hot pot at Hanwoori isn’t quite DIY, but the principle is the same. A big shiny pot of broth is placed on the burner set into the table. It’s an anchovy-broth, and Hanwoori’s epitomizes all that anchovy broth can be, clear and clean, not meaty and yet full in flavor. (If you think anchovy-broth sounds gross, it’s similar to Japanese dashi broth, which you’ll find in every bowl of miso soup.)
Once the broth starts to boil, the waitress slides into the broth a platter of sliced vegetables—napa cabbage, mushrooms, green onions, and firm greens that hold up well in boiling broth; very thinly sliced beef; and a big pile of toothsome noodles. The broth is then flavored at the table with plenty of minced garlic (this is what makes it Korean!), Korean red pepper flakes, and salt.
After 10 minutes or so, the pot is ready. The noodles have released some of their starches, the meat and vegetables have added another dimension to the broth, and so now the broth is thicker, almost more like stew than soup. The noodles are soft but not mushy, the beef still has the kind of chewy texture I love, and the greens clean your palate. It’s a wonderful one-bowl meal.
This kind of food doesn’t need much accompaniment. Rather than a spread of 반찬, banchan, Hanwoori sticks to a few dishes, meant to provide some light, pickled contrast to the bowl of hot noodles in front of you. There’s spicy cabbage kimchi, of course, some sweet and spicy dried squid, some non-spicy cabbage kimchi, and then individual bowls of white kimchi, again napa cabbage that hasn’t been spiked with red peppers and instead is served in its own light, slightly sour juice.
If I were to really raise Korean noodle hot pot to Michael as a serious contender for one of “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia,” I think he would shoot me down. To be completely honest, it doesn’t have the complexity of pho or the almost mysterious flavor of soba. It’s simple food, where each component announces itself and nothing more, but this is why it’s so satisfying.