Korean Food Is About So Much More Than Barbecue
These dishes are there for you on those days when you don’t want your clothes to smell like a well-charred s’more shortly thereafter.
Kongguksu. All photos by Javier Cabral
There is an entire world of non-barbecue Korean food out there.
It may not seem like it when you pull up your phone to research where to eat when you're craving Korean. But it exists. And it is there for you—if you look hard enough—for those days when you aren't feeling like eating your body's worth of all-you-can-eat beef and pork. And it is also there for you on those days when you don't want your clothes to smell like a well-charred s'more shortly thereafter.
It is a hearty, spicy, and rustic world, and it is about damn time that the these homestyle Korean dishes receive the recognition that they deserve. Galbi, kimchi, and Korean sushi are tight and all, but these popular dishes need to share the spotlight with the real food that Korean-Americans eat for dinner: fish stews, noodle salads with noodles made from acorn flour or yam starch, braised spicy squid. You know, the food of the Korean working class.
After all, it is a little-known fact that Koreans in Korea don't eat as much meat as the Korean restaurant scene in the US might have you think. A study by researchers at Dankook University in South Korea revealed that more than 72 percent of the Korean population is not eating enough protein, based on current dietary recommendations, to be exact.
So if you're not eating smoky meat while having Korean, what else are you eating?
If you live in Los Angeles, the answer to this question may lie in a trip to a nondescript strip mall in Koreatown, in a hole-in-the-wall by the name of Mapo Kkak Doo Gee. There are no tabletop grills inside the establishment that seats only 30 people. There are no loud exhaust systems floating over every table. There is only the fishy aroma of fatty mackerel roasting away with radishes and gochujang, and the residual hum of a Vitamix transforming dried soybeans and black sesames in the chilled, nutty base for kongguksu, a dish of al dente somen noodles swimming in freshly made soy milk.
This dish, along with godeungeo jorim (braised mackerel with radish) and ojingeo bokkeum (Korean stir-fried spicy squid), is just one of the plates that the mostly Korean regulars order from the tiny menu available at Mapo. The owner speaks little English (and the English translations of the dishes are rife with typos), but one of the walls is adorned with the photos of all the dishes, and this is all of the direction that you need.
There are a few places like this in LA that specialize in the non-barbecue, lesser-known Korean dishes. Sa Rit Gol used to be one of these places; it closed down because of family issues, but it lived a long, happy restaurant life in Los Angeles from 1990 to 2009. The restaurant's dishes were even beloved by Mark Bittman, who wrote that "[he] couldn't stop eating the rice cooked in a stone pot with kimchi, and the huge portion of black cod."
The family behind Sa Rit Gol were one of the pioneers of the non-barbecue-based Korean food scene in LA, so I reached out Edward Hah—the son of the owner—to try to get an idea of why Korean food in LA went down the grilled route in America. Both of his parents are from Seoul, South Korea, and he personally witnessed Korean barbecue restaurants slowly dominate the LA Korean restaurant scene. According to him, the all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue phenomenon was simply born out of meat vendors in the 90s just wanting to get rid of old meat. He remembers a time when his family briefly considered turning Sa Rit Gol into an all-you-can-eat barbecue joint because it was such a force to be reckoned with in LA's Korean food community. "It just happened. It was an attempt for [meat-loving] Americans to jump into Korean culture," he tells me over the phone. He is on to bigger and better things nowadays, but he does admit that Mapo carries forth the food spirit of Sa Rit Gol.
It must also be acknowledged that the flavors accompanying these other non-barbecue Korean dishes might take a little bit of getting used to, especially if you're only accustomed to the tame flavors of caramelized meat mixed in with kimchi for kicks.
The dish of the noodles swimming in the thick, nutty, black sesame-spiked soy milk—made with freshly ground soybeans, unsweetened and unsalted—might make you think that someone is playing a cruel joke on you by switching the corn flakes in your breakfast cereal with a fistful of thin noodles, since theoretically that is what the dish is. Also, "intense" doesn't even begin to describe the force of the bold, spicy, fishy, flavors from the mackerel and squid dishes, with the earthiness of the radish and ungodly amounts of gochujang needed to construct them.
Nonetheless, these two Korean dishes balance each other in the same way that eating a pile of grilled meat accompanied by all of the pickled banchan does. In this case, the frosty milk with the noodles extinguishes the fire from the squid and mackerel. And the more you eat dishes like this, the more you will recognize this beautiful balance of spicy, pickled, creamy, and fishy flavors that only Korean cuisine has to offer.