As a country, we seem to be quite smitten with Korean food—and for good reason. It's anything but subtle, boasting intense flavors ranging from fiery to potently garlicky to fermenty-funky to salty-sweet … or some glorious combination of all the above. Here, an exploration of some of the defining dishes from this burgeoning cuisine.
If you want to have an authentic Korean dining experience, you really should prepare yourself for having some drinks. When I spent some time in Korea, that was something that surprised me a bit: As much as Koreans love to eat (and they really do), they have a powerful thirst for booze. I saw this play out over and over, on every random weeknight as well as, say, a more celebratory Saturday.
The most prevalent drink of choice was soju, a rice-based spirit with the alcohol content of strong sake and the flavor of a slightly sweet vodka. It comes to restaurant tables quickly, usually in small green bottles, and is consumed neat. It's fantastic, and you definitely feel it that night … and the next day. In the U.S., you can find soju at many Asian markets; it's worth a try, for sure, especially if you're hosting a Korean dinner party.
What I was more enchanted by in Korea, though, was makgeolli, a milky-cloudy rice beer with a hint of sweetness and tang, and a slight effervescence (that comes from fermentation). In Korea, it was always served out of a ceramic tureen, with a ladle or scoop and little bowls from which to drink it. The effect is certainly more gentle than soju, and the communal pour is rather charming. And, surprisingly, it pairs beautifully with Korean food. You might find makgeolli at some Korean restaurants, or bottled makgeolli online or at Korean markets; the bottled stuff isn't as good as fresh home-brew, but it'll give you a nice taste. I highly recommend giving it a try.
Aside from the booze, there is the roasted barley tea that you see everywhere. This drink is nutty, earthy, and delicious, and you'll find it served hot or cold. I've found a way to make it easily at home; it's basically the cooking liquid you might otherwise discard after cooking barley. Try this recipe, from my book Everyday Whole Grains.
KOREAN ROASTED BARLEY TEA Hands-on: 11 min. Total: 41 min.
This is a common Korean drink called bori cha, often served hot at the table or as a surprisingly refreshing chilled beverage. I think of it as a happy byproduct of something I’m already making—because it’s the cooking liquid most people discard. In Korean markets, you’ll find packages of pre-toasted, browned barley, but it’s easy to just toast it yourself.
1 cup uncooked whole-grain hulled barley 8 cups water
1. Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add barley to pan; cook 10 minutes or until evenly toasty-brown and fragrant, stirring frequently. Add 8 cups water to pan. Increase heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes, uncovered. Strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a heatproof pitcher.*(*see note) Serve hot, or allow to cool to room temperature and chill.
SERVES 6 (serving size: 1/2 cup) CALORIES 8; FAT 0.1g (sat 0g, mono 0g, poly 0g); PROTEIN 0g; CARB 2g; FIBER 0g; CHOL 0mg; IRON 0mg; SODIUM 0mg; CALC 1mg
* Note: The barley likely won’t be done at this point, but you can return it to the pan, cover with fresh water, and continue cooking for another 15 minutes or so or until tender, then use in recipes.
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