Korean food, history and culture

Haeryun Choi and her husband Dennis Mazzocco share Haeryun Choi and her husband Dennis Mazzocco share dinner at Ara in New Hyde Park. (Aug. 26, 2013) Photo Credit: Barbara Alper

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It's no surprise to Haeryun Choi that there are so few Korean restaurants on Long Island -- and that many Korean-owned restaurants favor Chinese or Japanese cuisine over their own.

"The flavors of Korean cooking are very strong," said the South Korea-born associate professor at LIU Post. "For those who are not Korean, they can take time to appreciate." Chinese food, she noted, "is much more approachable, and Chinese restaurants in America have been very good at adapting their cuisine to American tastes."

But Choi, who lives in Hempstead, is a passionate Korean-food evangelist, not only because she loves her native cuisine, but because she believes that "food is the best medium for learning about culture."

At a recent dinner at Ara Sushi & Grill in New Hyde Park, Choi enumerated the central flavor components of Korean cooking -- and an intense lineup it is: garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, doenjang (a fermented soybean paste similar to but less refined than Japanese miso), gochujang, the spicy red chili pepper paste that has elements of sweetness and fermentation along with its heat, and gochugaru (red chili flakes).

Those red chili flakes are familiar to anyone who has sampled kimchee. Kimchee refers to any number of fermented vegetable preparations, but the kimchee made from Napa cabbage and gochugaru may be the most famous dish in all of Korean cuisine.

Kimchee, Choi said, has its origins in the mists of Korean prehistory. But it didn't assume its current fiery character until the 16th century, when the chili pepper -- a New World vegetable -- made its way to Korea from Europe via Japan.

The great virtue of kimchee, Choi explained, was that it provided a nutritious vegetable during the long Korean winter. "Traditionally, Koreans would make kimchee in November and then bury the jars in the ground. That way they would have vegetables until the next spring."

Kimchee is central to banchan, the panoply of mostly vegetable gratis dishes that accompanies every Korean meal. In the context of a modern restaurant meal, banchan is a way for the kitchen to demonstrate its artistry before the main dish shows up, but the little dishes hearken back to what would have constituted a traditional Korean meal before the country's economy took off, starting in the 1960s.

When she was growing up in South Korea in the '60s, Choi said, "Korea was still an agricultural society and most people ate very little meat. There was seafood -- Korea is a peninsula -- and once a week we might have pork or chicken," she said. "Beef was rare, and very expensive. For protein we ate mostly tofu and beans."

Bibimbap, the beloved Korean dish that consists of various vegetables and a little beef arranged on top of a bowl of rice, has its roots in the culinary thrift inspired by such scarcity -- what the Italians call cucina povera. "It's a dish of leftovers," Choi said. "There would always be vegetable side dishes that didn't get eaten, so every once in a while, my mother would make bibimbap."

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At Ara in New Hyde Park, banchan, the A Koren food primer