One of the best things I like about Korean food is its clear demarcation: the ‘peasant food’ is simple, quick to make, and pretty good for you. The ‘palace food’ is opulent, oily, and — too often — best reserved for an immature palate. As many Koreans have moved over to more Western diets and richer fare, ideas about what makes food food are lost, not only in terms of cooking/ingredient lists, but the historical process of food, itself. This is too bad, since actually KNOWING a few things about why food is the way it is opens you to making wiser dietary choices in other contexts. In short, food has a function, an evolutionary role, and it is safe to say that those that violate some basic precepts have not survived to hand their ill experiences down.
As far as Korean food goes, one thing that has always amazed me is — barring the white rice, and the insufficient protein for some Western bodies — Korean food almost seems engineered for health. Historically, food shortages are/were common worldwide, but in cultures that don’t have much of a tradition in fermentation, these shortages will hit harder. Thus, Korean food makes use of fermentation: pickled cabbage, pickled onions/scallion, pickled radishes, root vegetables, sea vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, soy, and whatever else, which not only extends shelf life, but more densely packs nutrients in a smaller amount of food. Food scraps are easily saved for this, and while they might not hold much value on their own, the fermentation process expands what can be assimilated by the body, as well as opening one up to a variety of healthy bacteria that has, over time, been lost due to sanitation and a fear of ALL bacteria, no matter its ecological role.
So, kimchi is a staple of my household, and if it’s not homemade (the best choice), it is store-bought (which is ok). Basics run cheap, so 2 lbs of picked vegetable matter with great ingredients runs you under $5, while making it yourself can be as little as $1-$2. So is wild shrimp, which is bought in bulk and frozen (since it’s rarely available), mixed cooking leaves, shiitake, carrots, and other items that often just need to be thrown together without much thought. Given the robust and complementary flavor of sesame oil, soy sauce, and Korean red pepper, pretty much any vegetable choice is fine, and the brown rice cake eliminates any need to cook or pre-cook rice, or do any sort of clean-up afterwards.
Korean food uses a huge diversity of vegetables, and, after some experimentation, I’ve settled on the choices, below. I’d recommend trying it out as is, first, before making any alterations. Don’t worry about the sodium content if you usually cook food, as opposed to eat pre-made meals. 8 tbsp of soy sauce split across 4 people comes out to less than half of the salt that you should be consuming. Too often, I find myself chewing salt at the end of the day because I usually don’t get enough, what with plain yogurt, eggs, soymilk, and fruit for breakfast, and walnuts, dried sweet potato, and Cliff bars for lunch. If dinner is your only real opportunity to get salt, use it, or there will be consequences.
And, oh — the beer is a Trader Joe’s beer, the kimchi is from a Queens supplier, and the ‘extras’ are my father-in-law’s whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, as well as a fruit salad and chocolate.
Recipe: Korean Food — Shrimp, Vegetable, & Brown Rice Cake Stew (for 4):
- 1 lb of fresh brown rice cake, thawed and chopped to 1-inch pieces
- 1 lb of raw shrimp, thawed in salt water
- 1 lb kale or other mixed cooking greens
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 large zucchini, coarsely chopped
- 3 heads of garlic, crushed
- 6-8 medium/large carrots, coarse chop
- 8 oz cabbage, coarsely chopped
- 8-12 oz thin shiitake, chopped in halves
- 5-8 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
- 3-4 tbsp rice bran oil
- 3-4 tbsp unrefined sesame oil
- Korean red pepper
- Add rice bran oil to a 4 quart cooking pot. Toss in carrots over medium heat. Cover.
- After 5 minutes, add in chopped onion, kale, and rice cake. Stir for 2 minutes. Cover.
- Add garlic, shiitake, cabbage, 3 tbs of soy sauce, and a few shakes of Korean red pepper. Mix, turn on high heat to ‘crisp’ the rice cake, then cover.
- After 3-4 minutes, add zucchini, 2 tbsp of sesame oil, 2 tbsp of soy sauce, more red pepper. Mix, cover, and lower the heat back to medium.
- 5 minutes later, add the shrimp (fully drained), 2 tbsp of sesame oil, 3 tbsp of soy sauce, more red pepper. Mix, then cover.
- Let cook for 5 more minutes, and turn off the heat.
- Let cool for a few minutes until stew thickens, then serve across 4 bowls.