Is Kimchi Now Chichi?
A Seoul-Searching Voyage into
the Newest Must-Try Cuisine
By Margo Rudman Gold
Photography by Michael Polito
“Chinese food smells good, Japanese food looks good, but Korean food tastes good.” I heard variations on this theme many times as I went out to explore the latest culinary hit: Korean cuisine. If you haven’t noticed, Korean restaurants are blooming. While Westchester County boasts three dedicated Korean eateries, a growing number of formerly Japanese restaurants now highlight Korean cuisine.
Why the sudden popularity? Perhaps the answer lies in our growing adventuresome culinary spirit—and the fact that fusion of all kinds is popular. Westchester’s growing Korean population is no doubt a factor, too. According to Andrew (Young) Kwon, president of the Korean-American Association of Westchester, there are now more than 5,000
Koreans residing in the county and, while the number of Korean residents is small compared to the approximately 7,000 Japanese and 14,000 Indian residents in the county, the Korean population has grown by about 15 percent over the past five years, drawn in part, according to Kwon, by the reputation of Westchester’s public schools.
If you’re not familiar with Korean cuisine, a few (mini) lessons are in order. A classic Korean meal includes an artful blend of five taste sensations: spicy (from peppers), salty (from soy or miso), sweet (from fruit or honey), bitter (from ginger or ginseng), and sour (from vinegar). It uses far less oil than does Chinese food and is spicier than the average Chinese-American fare. Korean food retains many of the healthful aspects of Japanese cuisine (little oil, lean beef, and fresh fish are used), but adds a one-two punch of garlic and hot peppers, both of which are uncommon in Japanese cuisine. As noted chef and cookbook author Mark Bittman wrote recently in the New York Times, Korean food is “Japanese cooking with guts.”
One of Korean cuisine’s most famous offerings, a condiment called kimchi, was thrust in the New York City spotlight, courtesy of a noted foodie’s now-famous faux pas. That was back in 1967, when celebrated food critic Craig Claiborne penned the first review of a Korean restaurant in the New York Times and referred to kimchi, a mainstay of Korean cuisine but then still virtually unknown to Americans, phonetically as “kim cheese.”
These days, many people know that kimchi is as ubiquitous to Koreans as soy sauce is to the Japanese or as ketchup is to the American child; it accompanies all Korean meals. “A man can live without a wife, but not without kimchi,” declares an old Korean proverb.
To me, kimchi is an acquired taste, which I admit I haven’t yet acquired. Think sour deli pickle mixed with enough chili to numb your mouth. Robust and complex, kimchi has many variations but is always prepared hot and spicy, supposedly to stimulate the appetite. Heads of cabbage are cut open, salted, and placed in brine with lots of red chili and garlic and set to ferment. In winter, many Koreans still bury big kimchi pots in the earth and leave them there for months. To Chappaqua business owner Kyong (Kim) Chung, kimchi is so important, she keeps hers in a separate constant-temperature refrigerator.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Korean food, panchan, a colorful array of eight to 10 different small side dishes, is fun and flavorful. You may find vegetables such as bright green and crunchy Korean broccoli, chili eggplant, crispy black seaweed, and pungent stewed mushrooms. While I am one of the many who eschew the anchovies on Caesar salad, the panchan dish of crispy dried anchovies is a pleasing combination of sweet and salty flavors. Panchan dishes often offer a sweet surprise, such as caramelized black beans.
Panchan can make an exotic counterpoint to an order of Korean barbecue, an easy initiation into this cuisine. The two most popular choices for barbecue are kalbi, beef short ribs, or bulgogi, which translates as “fire meat” and is prime rib-eye. Pork, chicken, fish, and mushrooms, which are sometimes marinated for deeper flavor, are other typical choices.
Those in-the-know order soju—a clear liquor similar to low-alcohol vodka, but made from distilled rice, barley, sweet potato, and tapioca—to start. The native tea served is a no-caffeine roasted corn tea, although the more familiar green tea is usually available.
On this side of the world, the most popular Korean dishes are barbecue, bi bim bop (a rice, vegetable, and meat dish), and mandoo (light dumplings).
What follows is a rundown of the Korean restaurants in the county.
2375 Central Ave. Yonkers
With 37 gas-grill tables, kang suh is the mother ship of Westchester Korean restaurants and was the first to open in the county, in 1988. Owned for the past seven years by the Choi family, this is the younger sibling of Kang Suh in Manhattan. While a weekday lunch draws a crowd of mostly Asian-American businessmen, on Saturday nights a mix of American and polyglot families come for a shared experience of barbecuing at the table. My burger-addicted children joined me one night under duress, but succumbed to the fun of grilling their own dinner. They found the tender and sweet marinated bulgogi similar to the simple meats they enjoy. Both the kalbi and bulgogi were well marinated and tender. The meat earned high marks from the gentleman dining next to us, who was gobbling his portion raw, as his family grilled theirs.
We also sampled the popular bi bim bop, a Korean riff on the rice, beef, and vegetables combined in so many diverse cuisines. For this dish, a special hot stone bowl is brought to the table with rice, a mix of spinach, zucchini, radish, bean sprouts, and marinated beef. A raw egg and red-pepper paste (the cooks tread lightly unless you tell them otherwise) are mixed in and the heat of the bowl cooks the dish. This is Korean comfort food, luscious and filling.
Fans of Italian carpaccio may take to yook hwe, as both are thinly sliced raw beef. In its incarnation as yook hwe, the raw beef is mixed with sesame oil and raw egg; it’s an entrÃ©e selection popular among devotÃ©es of Korean food.
291 N. Central Ave. White Plains
Another easy entrÃ©e to KOREAN Korean barbecue can be found at Kalbi House, two blocks away from the Westchester County Center. Co-owner Cindy Kim, who hails from the southern Korean city of Busan, loves to introduce neophytes to her cuisine. She extols its health benefits, pointing out the fresh vegetables and light use of oil. She and her husband, a self-taught chef, opened their first restaurant in Manhattan 30 years ago; they’ve run Kalbi House for the past two years, and live in Dobbs Ferry with their three children.
Here, slightly adventurous diners can create their own meals. The tabletop grills start to sputter and puffs of smoke dance in the air as the fun begins. Try the beef—well-marinated, tender, and flavorful. You or your waiter can grill the meat quickly, only a few minutes for bulgogi, a few minutes longer for the kalbi (my recommendation; the flavor is more complex and the meat more toothsome). Grab a lettuce leaf, spread it with saam jang (a spicy orange-colored miso paste, which translates aptly as “wrap condiment”), place a slice of grilled beef inside, and fold it like an envelope (Don’t worry; your waiter will demonstrate how this is done). We folded and popped little beef packages into our mouths until we ran out of lettuce leaves.
Love sashimi? Then try the hwe dup bob, Korea’s answer to Japanese chirashi. This mixed fresh raw fish dish (the mix on our visit included tuna, salmon striped bass, and fluke) is combined tableside with rice, lettuces, and vinegar and chili-based sauce to taste. What a discovery—very low-fat yet flavorful. This is an entrÃ©e that could be shared as an appetizer (it was too large for two of us).
Another must-try is hae mool pa jun, a Korean seafood pancake which can be shared as an appetizer for several people or a filling entrÃ©e for one. Chunks of scallops, crab stick, squid, and tentacles are held together by a surprisingly light batter, which forms a pancake the size of a dinner plate.
The dessert Kim recommends is a bowl of refreshing but cloyingly sweet cold punch called soo jung kwah, made with cinnamon, ginger, and pine nuts. In the winter, a rice punch called sik hye is suggested.
454 Main St. Armonk
Ginseng is actually a Japanese/Korean restaurant owned and operated by Koreans who offer several choices from their native cuisine, plus barbecue prepared in the kitchen. At lunch one day, a group of executives from nearby
IBM were ordering an interesting-looking assortment. Manager Tony Han explained that they and many local Pepsi executives come in for the cuisine they’ve grown to love on business trips to Asia. According to Han, Korean barbecue is well-loved by the Japanese, but very expensive in Japan, so expat execs enjoy having it in the U.S., where it’s more affordable.
I enjoyed a popular, light dish: chap chae (another good choice for beginners), which combines light and slippery sweet potato noodles with vegetables and shredded beef. Sesame oil enrobes the squishy noodles and forms a gooey pleasure.
925 Saw Mill River Rd. n Ardsley
When hyung M. (Benny) Park learned that we were already acquainted with Korean barbecue offerings, he asked us to put ourselves in his hands with an “old-fashioned Korean barbecue” (a request we happily obliged). I can’t say I would have chosen the kimchi and pork belly on my own, but I was glad to at least try different tastes. A specialized stovetop burner was brought to our table, with a cooking surface like a metal warrior’s helmet with an inside moat. The meat is cooked on the top and broth is poured into the moat, where tofu, rice cake and kimchi simmer. These are moved to the stovetop’s summit when the meat is served, and diners quickly dip the meat into sesame oil, salt, and soybean powder. To complete this dish, noodles are poured in the moat for a quick simmer, first cellophane-like noodles made from sweet potato, and then buckwheat noodles.
If your dinner companion forgot to tell you that a tuna burger is his idea of a culinary adventure, not to worry. Aria offers comfort foods like chicken teriyaki with no attitude, as well as other typical cooked Japanese entrÃ©es and sushi. If your conversation stalls during drinks, Park can keep things moving with his helpful explanations and quick patter. (Ask him about the deer and his attempts to bury preserved kimchi at his Briarcliff Manor home.)
Aria also makes excellent light dumplings (mandoo), steamed or fried. The dough is almost translucent and the filling is also lighter than the dumplings of other cuisines.
83 E. Main St. Elmsford
Open just a year and a half, Okidoki is a Japanese restaurant with a Korean chef and owner who have aspirations to serve more of their native cuisine. In addition to a full Japanese menu, Okidoki offers a half dozen of the most popular Korean specialties, bi bim bop and hwe dup bob (lettuces and rice combined with raw fish) priced reasonably and also available as lunch combinations. Owner Timothy Kang hopes that customers who come for the Japanese food will try Korean dishes and become converts. A big bonus for families is a choice of children’s dinner combinations, such as chicken teriyaki or four other Japanese entrÃ©es with vegetables, potato, cucumber, or California roll, dumplings, rice, miso soup, and ice cream.
Margo Rudman Gold is a Chappaqua-based freelance writer who specializes in reporting on food and parenting topics.