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Yin and Yang

What makes Korean food special?

 

Chef Rachel Yang left Korea for the United States when she was just 15 years old. Years later, after graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City and working at French restaurants such as Alain Ducasse, also in New York City, she still feels most comfortable cooking and eating Korean food. Her devotion to Korea’s unique methods and ingredients blended with a few western accents have made Yang’s restaurant, Joule, which she founded with chef-husband Seif Chirchi, a standout in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle.

            The couple named the 40-seat enclave after a basic unit of energy. Yang, a woman with a knack for perpetual motion, beams, “Food is the basis of energy, and we wanted the restaurant to always be full of energy.” As guests enter, they see jars of traditional ingredients—yuzu marmalade and several varieties of kimchi—lined up next to the open kitchen. These are just a hint of what’s to come.

                       

Meant to Ferment

Fermented sauces and pastes have served as a cornerstone of Korean cooking from the earliest times. Fermenting preserves ingredients and gives dishes a distinctive flavor and, Yang adds, “It makes Korean food so different from other cuisines.” Key seasonings that distinguish Korean food are doenjang (fermented soybean paste), gochujang (fermented red pepper paste), ganjang (fermented soy sauce), and salt-fermented seafoods. With all the grinding necessary for the sauces, Yang says, “the mortar and pestle has become my favorite tool to mix flavors. It’s very rustic but somehow makes things perfect.” Yang’s Chilled Seafood Salad with Sweet Chili Vinaigrette ($11) includes gochujang and draws on her memories of fresh fish dipping sauces found at the markets in Korea.

            Among the many fermented dishes in the culture, kimchi, a side dish made of pickled spicy cabbage, may be Korea’s most iconic. “Koreans can’t think of having a meal without kimchi!” Yang emphasizes. Winter kimchi is stronger, because it is fermented longer, “giving a bit of warmth when you eat it.” Summer versions are quicker and lighter. Every region has a different take on this pickled food. The differences depend on the ingredients, brining process, fermentation, and storage methods. “Pickles are such an amazing contrast to our food. Adding a bit of that sour, tangy, crunchy texture brightens the flavor,” Yang explains. Her Daikon Radish with Asian Pear Kimchi ($3) is a fresh take on the classic dish. “Pear is a traditional kimchi ingredient. We cut daikon and pear the same size, and people are surprised to taste one bite juicy, the next sweet and tangy,” she says.

Foreign Exchange

Despite her devotion to Korean ingredients and methods, Yang has found that Korean flavor and texture can put a spark in such western dishes as her Grilled Bison Hanging Tender Steak with Garlic Chimichurri and Preserved Garlic ($19). She remarks, “Preserved garlic, pickled with soy sauce, sake, and vinegar, has a pungent bite and goes great with game,” she says.

            She complements traditional Korean dishes with western flavors. Her Spicy Beef Soup ($7), the number-one sellingitem on the menu, is Yang’s take on Yukgaegang, a popular Korean soup. It’s super spicy. “You eat it with your entire body because you start perspiring,” she quips. Adding a bit of crème fraîche cools it down and brings sourness to accentuate the flavor. “The creaminess is lovely with the spiciness,” she notes.

            The restaurant has a small, affordable wine list made up of northwest, French, and Spanish selections, along with some traditional Asian beverages. “Because the food has a strong bright flavor, we have a lot of bright, lighter whites,” Yang explains. The NV Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut goes well with the spicy fish salad. She finds that the Katana Jinjou, a dry sake, pairs well with meat dishes because it cleans the palate.

 

Born to Grill

If there’s one thing Americans and Koreans have in common, it’s their passion for grilling. “There’s no oven cooking [in Korea]. Every meat is sliced thin so it can be quickly grilled,” Yang explains. In fact, according to Yang, the varieties of fish most available in Korean markets are the perfect size for grilling, which makes the method doubly popular there.

            To capitalize on the similarity, Yang has incorporated gas grill cooking at Joule. She and Chirchi host the Urban BBQ Series on Sundays during the summer. From 12 to 8 p.m. the couple transforms the dining room to evoke a casual outdoor picnic. Each week they choose a different theme. Salmon, clams, traditional Korean dishes, and Italian-inspired fare are just a few of the themes that appeared on the 2008 schedule (which they posted—each week with its own clever title—on the restaurant’s Web site). It’s a real festival complete with snow cones and cotton candy in unusual flavors and live jazz that encourages neighbors and families to eat together. “I think the main point of Korean food is sharing. It’s all about having fun and being engaged [in] cooking and eating at the same time,” Yang observes.

                   

 


 

Chef Gilja Jung was designated a National Human Treasure in Korea in 2007 specifically for her kimchi-making ability. She offers several tips for successful beachu (whole-cabbage kimchi).

 

  • Peel off the outside cabbage leaves and save. The cabbage should be cut half way — starting at the root—then split by hand. Salt and soak the cabbage. Take it out of the salt water, drain, and squeeze dry.

 

  • Make the sauce. With a mortar and pestle, grind together dried red pepper flakes, garlic, green onion, ginger, fermented shrimp paste, salt, and sugar.

 

  • Spread the sauce between each leaf of the brined cabbage half careful to keep the head together. Wrap the cabbage with outside leaves and put it into an airtight jar with the remaining sauce and some diced radish. Store until it develops a sour odor. (In a hot place, this will take one to two days; in a cold place, one to three weeks.) Once it is fermented, put it in the refrigerator. Kimchi has to be stored at 32 °F so it will not freeze or ferment further.

 

  • Some prefer fresher kimchi, while others like it pungent. After aging two weeks, it’s often too ripe to be used at the table. Well-aged kimchi adds intense flavor to soups and stews.

 


Recommended Reads

 

The Beauty of Korean Food: With 100 Best-Loved Recipes (Hollym International Corp., 908-353-1655, hollym.com, $39.50) is a thorough and easy-to-navigate guide to Korea’s unique cooking methods and traditional cutting techniques. 

 

The Korean Table: From Barbecue to Bibimbap (Tuttle Publishing, 800-526-2778, peripluspublishinggroup.com/tuttle, $19.56), by Taekyung Chung and Debra Samuels, provides many close-up photos, contemporary recipe variations, and insights about Korean culture.

 


 

Spicy Beef Soup with Creamy Leek, Daikon Radish, and Crème Fraîche

Yields: 4 servings

Beef bone                                                                                3 lb           

Mirepoix (diced onion, carrot, celery, and daikon)            4 cups           

Brisket, cap on (with fat)                                                1 lb           

Water                                                                                    10 cups                       

Fresh thyme                                                                                    to taste

Bay leaf                                                                        to taste

Black peppercorn                                                            to taste

Coriander seed                                                            to taste

Onion                                                                                    1            

Garlic clove                                                                        2            

Ginger, peeled                                                                        1 small piece

Coarse Korean chili flakes                                                 1 cup           

Fish sauce                                                                        2 Tbsp           

Salted shrimp                                                                         2 Tbsp           

Soy sauce                                                                        2 Tbsp

Leek, white only, julienned and blanched                         1            

Daikon, small, julienned and salted                                    1

Crème fraîche                                                                        4 tsp           

Scallion, chopped                                                            4 tsp

 

  1. Soak the beef bones in cold running water for 30 minutes to 1 hour to draw the blood out. Combine beef bones, mirepoix, herbs, and spices with water in a deep stockpot. Bring to a boil and skim the impurities. Simmer the stock for 2 hours.
  2. Add brisket to the beef stock and simmer for another 2 hours or until the meat is fork-tender. Take the brisket out and cool. Slice the brisket to bite-size pieces. Strain the beef stock.
  3. Combine onion, garlic, chili flakes, fish sauce, shrimp, and soy sauce in the blender and blend until the mixture becomes a smooth paste.
  4. Bring the beef stock to a boil and add the spicy soup base to taste. Add sliced brisket, leek, and daikon.
  5. Pour the soup into the bowl and garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and some chopped scallion.

 


 

Delicious Drinks

Several house-made non-alcoholic seasonal drinks are served at Joule. A favorite is shrub, a vinegar-based drink that is extremely popular in Asia. “It’s quite refreshing, especially in summer, because vinegar cleans your mouth,” Yang says. To make it, she infuses vinegar with grape, raspberry, or blueberry then dilutes it with water and sugar. Sweet corn tea, another Korean drink, is made from boiled corn kernels and a bit of lemon. Both shrub and sweet corn tea are served cold, in a one-liter carafe for $4. “In winter, Koreans drink [hot] tea all the time: green tea [and] grain-based tea,” Yang says. In addition, Koreans make a marmalade with yuzu or quince. This becomes the basis for tea. “You boil a cup of hot water and add a tablespoon of marmalade,” Yang says. “We make our own marmalade using yuzu, sugar, and honey.”

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