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SEOUL FOOD : Olympics Spotlight Korean Dishes

September 15, 1988|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

The 24th Summer Olympic Games opening Saturday in Seoul, South Korea, will draw attention to a culture and a cuisine that also play a strong role in Los Angeles.

About 500,000 Koreans now live in Southern California, according to Young S. Lee, president of the Korean Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles. Many are residents; others are posted here with the 250 or so Korean businesses that have branches in this area. As a result, Korean food and ingredients are becoming widely available. But aside from the ubiquitous barbecued meats and the spicy pickle, kimchi, the cuisine is not well known outside the Korean community.

Few Korean cookbooks are available in English. And Westerners may not recognize many of the ingredients in Korean supermarkets. Two examples in the produce department are minari, which could be loosely described as Korean watercress, and a feathery-leafed green called sukkat. Each has a distinctive flavor and many uses in Korean cookery.

The cakes, sweets and snacks produced by local Korean bakeries may seem novel to the Western taste. At the Western Rice Bakery, which opened recently on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, a salesgirl brought out an enormous structure of pink, green and white topped with prettily decorated small cakes in overlapping circles. Made from rice rather than wheat flour, this imposing item was a Korean birthday cake, she said.

The bakery also sells yak wah, a deep-fried cookie imported from Korea, and produces a variety of rice-based cakes, dumplings and sweets. One of these is yak shi, a mixture of glutinous rice flavored with sesame oil and soy sauce and studded with chestnuts, pine nuts and dried red dates (jujubes). Koreans eat these foods as snacks rather than as a formal dessert at the end of a meal. In Korea, one would be more likely to finish with fresh fruit such as apples, Korean pears or watermelon.

A basic larder for Korean cooking would include soy sauce, sesame seeds, sesame oil, ginger, green onions, red pepper and garlic--lots of it. A veritable fleet of floating garlic cloves sailed over a soup I ordered in a Seoul coffee shop. At a barbecue restaurant, Korean companions showed me how to wrap roasted garlic cloves with grilled beef in lettuce and eat the bundle taco style.

Instead of tea, which is customary in Japan and China, Koreans drink a beverage brewed from roasted barley or corn. Or they make soong yoong-- rice tea-- by mixing hot water with the brown crust remaining at the bottom of a rice pot. The rice grains are then served in a bowl with the hot liquid. Or one might be treated to ginseng tea, garnished with pine nuts and sliced jujubes.

Basic condiments for Korean dishes are soy sauce, soy bean paste and red pepper paste. Traditionally, each family made its own, taking pride in the special flavor produced by time-tested formulas. Large earthenware jars containing these products were stored outside the house, their quantity indicating the prosperity of the family.

Kimchi also is traditionally made in the home. In Los Angeles, Korean markets and bakeries sell it, and restaurants serve it as an accompaniment to meals. Americans think of kimchi as a fiery cabbage pickle, but other vegetables are also used, and there are variations such as water kimchi, which consists of clear, seasoned liquid embellished with a few pieces of vegetable. So important is kimchi in the diet that a young woman is expected to demonstrate her skill at making the pickle before her wedding, with her future mother-in-law as judge.

As exemplified by kimchi, Korean cuisine emphasizes vegetables. Tofu is much used and noodle dishes are popular. Beef is the favored meat, if meat is used, followed by pork and chicken.

Chung Hea Han, a leading cookery teacher in Seoul, pointed out that Americans are lucky to have beef that is better in quality and also cheaper than that available in Korea. It was interesting to see the variety of beef cuts displayed in the large market in the Lotte Department Store in Seoul. Some slices were oval-shaped, and there were thin strips intended for yuk whe, a dish of seasoned raw meat.

Korean food is gutsier than Japanese and not as artfully presented. But the two countries share some food customs. Toasted sheets of dried seaweed (nori) may be served at a Korean meal, to be eaten alone or wrapped around rice. And Koreans make a vegetable and rice roll wrapped in nori that looks like sushi.

In Los Angeles, Korean restaurants often have a sushi counter and a Japanese menu, for despite the Japanese occupation of the country from 1910 to 1945, Japanese food has become popular with Koreans. One new cafe on West 3rd Street even advertises Korean sushi.

According to Sam Chung, president of the Korean Restaurant Assn. of Southern California, there are now 275 Korean restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange counties, ranging from small eateries to lavish dining houses.

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