|The Finns have their saunas, people in Minneapolis have enclosed walkways, the Scots have Shetland wool sweaters and Dalwhinnine, but Koreans have kimchi. Kimchi may be the best response to winter ever invented.
To have vegetables (and meat and fish) available in their harsh winters, Koreans developed a method of pickling and preserving. The key event on the kimchi timeline was the Japanese invasion of the 1500s. Even if the Japanese weren't welcome, the red peppers they introduced to Korea were; so much so that red peppers became central to the cuisine and they became the star of the most familiar form of kimchi. With the addition of hot red pepper, the preserved food was not only readily available, it was instantly warming. It must have seemed miraculous.
But here's the thing about kimchi: it's seriously addictive. So even though it's more or less no longer winter, once you've developed the habit, the cravings don't wane in the warmer months. If you don't believe us, try eating kimchi four days in a row. By day five, a little voice in you will start yowling 'kimchi! kimchi!' and you'll do what you have to do to score some. On the list of abused substances, perhaps cabbage is low on the list, but still. Just don't start.
Korean food, though, offers more than cabbage and fire. For those new to the cuisine, it helps to consider that so many of the staple Korean ingredients are already familiar: garlic, soy, red pepper, beef, broths, rice, and noodles. You find emphasis on fish and veggies, a fact often overlooked given how good Korean barbecue is. And while dishes are frequently spicy, it isn't only spicy. Balance is important.
Sticky rice or soft bean curd chill down fiery chiles. Nothing is more refreshing on a summer day than naengmyun — buckwheat noodles in cold beef broth — laced with only a touch of kochujang, the much-used red pepper paste. Textures in Korean food are full of contrasts: chewy strips of pugo (pollack), crunchy kimchi, crisp Asian pear, soft tofu, crackly seaweed. You'll find dishes that have of all these textures at once.
Granted, kimchi is no beauty pageant winner. You may never warm up to Naejangjeon (batter-fried cow stomach, lungs, and liver). But we still think Korean food is the most underrated out there.
Where to Eat:
Kum Gang San, 49 W. 32nd [Bway/5th] 212.967.0909 and 138-28 Northern Blvd. [Union] Qns 718.461.0909. We prefer the Queens original.
Cho Dang Gol, 212.695.8222. Have one of the tofu dishes.
Franchia, 12 Park [34th/35th] 212.213.1001. A teahouse serving vegetarian cooking from Hangawi's owners.
Woo Lae Oak, 148 Mercer [Houston/Prince] 212.925.8200. The most stylish Korean eatery.
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