There is Korean food. Then there is the hybrid cousin, Korean-American food. Koreatown food. You may ask what the hell is the difference, but I implore you to search deeper into your honorary Korean self and, surely, you will discover the nuances. When waves of Korean immigrants flew into this country, with no short supply of emergency gochoojang and kimchi, Korean cuisine and food culture was also transplanted. Food and eating in general is central to Korean culture, as evidenced by a popular greeting, which literally means “did you eat?” Perhaps our obsession with food is partially rooted in the devastation of civil war in the fifties and ensuing deprivation and starvation in the sixties. Rebuilding from the rubble meant an entire generation struggling to thrive, rising from virtually nothing. Even before the tragedy of war, the geographic diversity of the peninsula must have contributed to a rich culinary tradition. Surrounded by water on three sides, and with a vast mountainous region to the east counterbalanced by fertile farmlands to the west, an abundance of ingredients coupled with a love for food ignited to culminate in the Korean cuisine we know today.
Folks may have forgotten toothbrushes and a few other things, but rest assured, the Koreans brought the food (airport customs officers still ask me if I have any kimchi in my bags). As the majority of immigrants settled in Los Angeles, Northern Virginia and Flushing, NY, Korean restaurant’s also sprung up, mainly to satisfy other Korean immigrants who found it impossible to part with their craving for the food of the homeland. Now, as this insatiable appetite took root here, eyes were popping open to a much greater variety of produce and meats, and at a fraction of the cost of what it would have cost in Korea. In my experience eating through various Koreatowns from coast to coast, I am always fascinated by the amount of jalapeno peppers used in dishes. You just don’t see that in Korea, because, well, jalapenos were really hard to come by. Back home, Koreans used their own varieties of hot peppers; their acquaintance with the jalapeno and its added kick seems to have revolutionized Korean food. Hotter the better, says the Korean.
The ensuing decades of immigration history cannot be discussed without a taste tour through LA, home to most populated Koreatown in the US. Driving through Wilshire and Olympic boulevards, you are surrounded by Korean signage – restaurants, saunas and spas, groceries, mechanics. And yet something is remarkably different from the bustling streets of Seoul, as if time stopped with the arrival of the immigrants; Koreatown is eerily reminiscent of Korea in the 80s. But the food has changed, has adapted to the distinct taste buds of folks that now call themselves “Korean-Americans.”
A prime example of “Korean-American” food is the soondooboo, soft tofu boiling away in a spicy broth with basically whatever else is available – beef, pork, clams, shrimp, oysters. Urban legend says this spicy version of soondooboo (literally means soft tofu) was born in LA Koreatown, unheard of back home in Korea. A few years ago, while I was traveling through Sulak Mountain and the surrounding Sokcho area on the mountainous eastern shore, I actually had the “original” Korean soondooboo, in its pure form. Surprisingly, it was not spicy. Not at all. It was white. This is how soondooboo was enjoyed on the peninsula. Sea water was used in the tofu-making process, allowing the softer particles to rise and curdle at the top. This fluffy, pillowy matter is then put in a bowl with a clear broth, often made from anchovies, seaweed and fish stock. It is then seasoned with simple soy sauce, garnished by chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. The result is a much mellower, sophisticated flavor. Delicate.
This mellow soondooboo radically transformed in the streets of downtown LA. Boiling cauldrons of red hot lava-like stews, raw eggs plunging right in the midst of it, meat and seafood lay in abundance alongside the soft tofu, slices of raw jalapeno peppers dancing vehemently to and fro. This is the jacked up Super Sayan version. And it is absolutely delicious. LA has a laundry list of tofu houses to choose from, and Buk Chang Dong Tofu House (“BCD”) is the most well-known. If the rounds of soju or sake the night before has taken their toll, BCD brings you good news, in the form of soondooboo for breakfast. In fact, they are open twenty-four-seven. The tofu that never sleeps. My usual is either pork or oysters with kimchi, but on this particular morning, I had to try the one with beef intestines. I am a huge fan of grilled intestines but had not tried it in soondooboo. Did not disappoint. BCD is also known for serving whole croakers on the side. Lightly coated with flour and pan fried, these salty little things go well with steaming rice and kimchi.
To nobody’s surprise, LA Koreatown is infested with Korean barbeque joints. It would be a crime for me not to introduce you to my personal favorite, in which the better known cuts of galbi and bulgogi take a back seat. At the Corner Place Korean Barbeque (Korean name and pronunciation is Gilmok), “joomuluk” is king, and grilled brisket is a close second. I have long loathed the limited stereotype of Korean meat culture; every corner of the peninsula is saturated with unique meat dishes that have not been featured in a cookbook or blog somewhere. The now-famous galbi and bulgogi are still popular, but by all means they are just the cover of the multicolored meat culture in Korea.
Corner Place is famous for joomuluk, lightly marinated chunks of rib meat. While using the same part of the animal as galbi (which literally means “rib”), joomuluk gets its name in the marination process. The meat, cut into cube-like chunks, is “massaged” with a soy-based sauce similar to galbi. Every restaurant is different, but I think joomuluk tastes best when it is marinated just before grilling, like seasoning a steak right before it hits the heat. Also like grilling steak, where it is a crime against humanity to cut into the finished steak before letting it rest a few minutes, there is a rule of thumb for grilling Korean meat. FLIP ONCE. Do not poke at the meat, do not stir it around on the grill, do not hassle it. Just one flip, when the blood seems to seep through. Never overcook the joomuluk or galbi; medium or medium rare is best, just like steak. Brisket is also loved dearly. Sliced thin and grilled with no marinade, a few seconds on each side on a hot grill will do. The best brisket will melt on your tongue, the tender fat enveloping the meat. For heigtened pleasure, make a dip it in something. I prefer a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, wasabi paste and sesame seeds. Wasabi and brisket, a surprising combination.
I should be slapped twice for saying this, but at Corner Place, the meat – oh yes, it’s still magnificent, still magnificent – can take a seat. I first found the grill house for its meat, but I return for its cold dongchimee noodles. “Dongchimee” is a type of kimchi – in a clear, white liquid. Unlike other red kimchi varieties more familiar to us, dongchimee is mostly radish fermented in water with sea salt, garlic, radish stems and leaves, ginger, and maybe even apples and pears. White somen noodles in a bucket full of this dongchimee liquid (tart, sweet, tangy, slightly vinegary), cucumbers, tomato wedges and scallions as garnish. After sweating through rounds of joomuluk and brisket, diving into this cold bowl is pure bliss. Shivering cold, as dongchimee was traditionally a winter treat, sometimes half frozen with ice chunks floating around.
Compared to Japanese, Latin American, Vietnamese, Thai and other foreign cuisine, Korean food seems to have resisted a global urge to mutate, launching sushi, tacos, pho and pad thai into a much wider culinary platform. Yet a bowl of tofu and a night of grilling and noodle-slurping in Koreatown reminds me that, in a miniscule sense, “Koreatown food” may just be a genre on its own, evolving at a sloth’s pace. In the meantime, get out there and crack an egg in that red boiling lava of a stew, try something other than galbi. Koreatown never sleeps.