“In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, the barbecue places are always stuffed full of white people. But if you go to a spot that does tofu casserole, I guarantee it’ll be only Koreans,” chef Sang Yoon joked over the phone.
Raised in Los Angeles by Korean immigrants, Yoon, a chef-restaurateur who has been on Top Chef Masters, has a deep relationship with both Korean and American food. He understands why barbecue has become the most high-profile element of his parents’ native cuisine — even if it’s led to an erroneous understanding of Korean food.
“It makes sense that barbecue is the tip of the spear when introducing Korean cuisine in the United States: Barbecue is what Americans love. We covet the meat recipes from every culture,” Yoon said, citing Middle Eastern kebab as another example. Adopting the real tenets of a Korean table, however, might be less appealing for the average American. “You really only eat about two ounces of meat a day — that’s going to be a tough sell in the U.S.”
In Korean cuisine, meat is just one aspect of a more balanced meal. “When I watch my 93-year-old father — who grew up in rural Korea — eat, he assembles his meals with a three-two-one ratio: three parts vegetable, two parts starch and one part meat,” Yoon explained. “The meat is still present but it’s not at the center of the table — it’s more like the seasoning side to the rice.”
Five colors, five flavors, five textures
Korean-American chef and author Judy Joo agrees that balance is key. “Korea was always ruled by the philosopher class, not the warrior class, and the guiding principle — since food was seen as medicinal — was that every meal had to have five flavors, five colors and five textures,” she said in an interview. For Joo, who splits her time between restaurants in London and Hong Kong, diversity is just as important as Yoon’s balance. “Think of bibimbap as a beautiful pinwheel,” she said. “Each triangle represents a different vegetable prepared in a different way — maybe blanched, sautéed, pickled or raw — and all coming from a different part of the land. Meat, or seafood, makes up one of these colorful spokes, and all of it is laid on top of a palette of rice.” Add some hot sauce, and some soup and kimchi on the side, and you’ve got a classic Korean dish that follows all of the philosopher’s rules of creating the perfect meal.
“When asked to decode Korean cuisine, I often find myself recommending a particular episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix” Yoon said. The third-season mini-documentary highlights the cooking of Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun. The narrative is an emotional window into the farm-to-table experience in Korea, and how Koreans place vegetables front and center instead of meat. “The dishes prepared on the show are known as ‘temple food’ — they don’t even use onions or garlic for flavoring — and everything is vegetarian,” Yoon, who watched the episode with his father, explained.
Aside from the Buddhist influence on the country’s veggie-forward ingredients, there are several strong geographical factors that have helped form the modern Korean kitchen we see today. As Joo explained, the peninsula of Korea is over 70% mountainous, making it an ideal setting for the Winter Olympics. With regards to farming, the hilly terrain means limited opportunities for grazing and raising livestock, making meat not overly abundant and more expensive than other consumables.
The Korean table also borrows from neighboring China and Japan. “Chinese cuisine features mostly large, sauce-heavy platters served family style while in Japan you tend to find smaller, more personalized bento meals of unembellished ingredients,” Joo said. Korean food is somewhere in between: a parade of small dishes, some with sauce, others not, served for the entire table with the all-important side of rice.
The literal translation of “have you eaten?” in Korean is “Have you had rice?”, Joo said. And although the ubiquitous starch makes an appearance at every meal, rice is not the singular essential ingredient of Korean cuisine. The most important? Time. Time for Jeong Kwan’s vegetables grow in the temple garden, or for her hundred-year-old soy sauce to gradually mature its taste.
Both Joo and Yoon agree, citing kimchi as a process in which vegetables (any vegetable, not just cabbage) become an artist’s canvas. In a way, patience is the most important ingredient in Korean cuisine — and the element that most sets it apart from American food, especially in the age of Amazon Prime, Blue Apron and fast casual.