Monday, December 10, 2007
Koreans love pork
There are a few things from my past that I am deeply embarrassed about. One is that as a teenager, long, long ago, when I didn’t know much about anything, I was a big fan of New Kids on the Block. The other is that also when I was a teenager, long, long ago, when I didn’t know much about anything, I spent most of my time eating out at TGI Friday’s. At least with my bad taste in music, there wasn’t much lost other than my dignity. But with my bad taste in food, while growing up in Seoul, Korea, I lost a thousand and one opportunities to eat a meal as delicious as the one I had last night.
Last night, my cousin Young and I went to 사월에보리밥 , or Sawhuleh Boleebap, which translates into something like “Barley Rice in April.” The fact that it has a name that sounds sissy in English is a hiccup of cultural translation; it doesn’t say anything about the food, which is as simple and assertive as the best Korean food has to offer.
Koreans love pork. We love it so much some people have convinced themselves it prevents hypertension and eliminates toxins. It’s true that 보쌈, bossam, one of the best manifestations of Korean pork, has a surprisingly clean flavor. It’s simply boiled, sliced pork, with nothing on it or under it or in it, not even salt. I think it also tastes purer than it deserves to because of the way we eat it. Like many Asian cuisines, Korean food values a contrasting balance of flavors and textures. If you’re eating a tender hunk of pork with glistening lumps of fat, you’re not supposed to douse it in gravy and eat it with potatoes. You’re supposed to place it in a crisp piece of napa cabbage or spry shiso leaf or even just a very fresh piece of red-leaf lettuce with a good piece of spicy bossam kimchi. Some people might even add a small piece of hot green pepper or raw garlic, or raw oysters dressed in spicy sauce, or just a bit of soy sauce to add some acidic saltiness. In any case, the raw, bright, fresh flavors in your mouth make that fatty pork taste almost as virtuous as salad. And it may even make your skin glossy!
While we ate our pile of pork, we also cleansed our systems with bowls of barley rice, into which we mixed various sautéed vegetables and red pepper sauce, a variation on the bibimbap many Americans know. I loved the nutty flavor of the barley, especially combined with the slightly bitter greens, the bean sprouts, and the chewy root vegetables.
And since Koreans rarely eat rice without soup or stew, there was also a very good bowl of hot 된장찌개, daenjang jjigae, a stew made from Korean fermented soybeans, filled with potatoes, squash, and cubes of firm tofu. Daenjang is a good example of a Korean food with the fifth flavor of umami, beyond salty, sour, sweet, and bitter, the unmistakable sense that a food tastes full.
We washed it all down with a comically large jug of 동동주, dongdongju, a creamy, sweet liquor made out of rice. My cousin, like the good Korean she is, had most of it.
I have so much lost time to make up for! I gained 10 pounds in Spain. I may just have to gain another ten here.