Next time you're considering international standbys for Chinese or Japanese, try branching out to Korean fare. With some subtle similarities to those other Asian cuisines, Korean food has its own flavor profiles. Go as a group, so everyone can pick an appetizer or entrée to share.
For an appetizer, start with haemul pajeon, a savory seafood pancake served with a tangy and spicy soy dipping sauce. Packed with scallions and an array of seafood — octopus, squid, shrimp, oysters and clams — folded into the batter, the slightly spongy haemul pajeon is lighter than an omelet but denser than a traditional American pancake. Savory, slightly sweet and salty combine for one flavorful dish.
Korean cuisine centers around the trifecta of rice, vegetables and meat. However, the rice and a wide range of vegetables take center stage. Veggies are often uncooked, in salads or pickled, or incorporated into soups, stews and stir-fried dishes.
Meals are served with a slew of side dishes called banchan, which arrive in small bowls intended for sharing and can be refilled upon request. Ingredients vary depending on the availability and seasonality of produce: pickled vegetables, cubed radishes, green onion salad, mung bean sprouts and mung bean jelly. Items may be raw, boiled, fried, sautéed, fermented, dried or steamed. The number of side dishes presented is based on the number of table guests and the importance of the occasion. For a casual table of four, roughly six items are served.
The traditional side dish kimchi — fermented cabbage mixed with Korean radish, and sometimes cucumber, along with ginger, scallions, garlic and chili pepper — mixes spicy, sweet, salty and sour sensations.
Originating almost 4,000 years ago in ancient Korea, kimchi is served in both Korea and Japan. Recipes vary by region and by seasonality of ingredients.
Originally, making kimchi was a community event, drawing families together for several days to prepare several hundred heads of cabbage. In the 1700s, red chili peppers were introduced into the mix as a standard ingredient, adding a noticeable spice.
Popular throughout Asia, Gogigui (Korean barbecue) is served on a communal platter with a number of side dishes and sauces. The meat, typically beef, pork or chicken, is thinly sliced and may be seasoned before it's roasted.
The most popular Korean barbecue, Bulgogi (which can be spelled a number of ways — Korean words do not translate perfectly into English), is often prepared tableside on a sizzling hot skillet. After being thinly sliced or shredded, the meat is marinated in a mix of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, sugar, scallions and pepper. Tablemates take turns turning the meat as it cooks and then distribute among everyone's plates (or you can request the chef cook it for you in the kitchen). Galbi (sometimes spelled kalbi) is thin slices of pork or beef short ribs cooked on a metal plate over charcoal in the center of the table. It's worth noting that Korean chopsticks are metal, not wooden.
The signature bibimbap, or "mixed rice," is cooked in a stone pot called a dolsot; the dish arrives at the table piping hot. Inside the pot, you'll find a colorful assortment of vegetables (typical offerings include julienned cucumber, zucchini, daikon, mushrooms, spinach and soybean spouts) arranged in rows for visual appeal along with a generous heap of warm white rice, sliced meat and a spicy chili pepper paste. On top sits a raw egg — before you eat bibimbap, you break the yolk and mix everything together, helping to cook the egg. Since the hot stone pot is coated with sesame oil, the rice at the bottom transforms into a crispy, crunchy layer.
To try these items locally, head to Hon Korean (5161 Beach Blvd., Ste. 5, Southside, 396-4008) or Sam Won Garden (4345 University Blvd. S., 737-3650). Sam Won's seafood pancake tops Hon's, but I preferred the bibimbap at Hon. Koji Sushi (The Jacksonville Landing, 2 Independent Drive, Ste. 222, Downtown, 350-9911) offers a few Korean choices: galbi, bibimbap and two dolsot pots — vegetable and marinated beef — along with a kimchi soup.