Don’t just stop at bibimbap
May 4, 2010 00:05:00
I don’t understand why my request for a Korean cooking expert has been directed to a Chinese woman whose email address is “thepalacemaid.”
Or why the globetrotting Patricia Wong, who agrees to make bibimbap in her downtown penthouse, is wearing the elaborate red hair ribbon of a Korean palace maid from the Joseon Dynasty.
“I am Chinese myself, but I just got totally crazy about Korea,” explains Wong.
She got swept up in the Dae Jang Geum craze of the mid-2000s. The South Korean TV series, known here as Jewel in the Palace, was a historical drama about a girl who rose from royal cook to royal physician.
It’s a cult hit that I’ve never heard of.
To make matters more embarrassing, I’ve asked Wong to make bibimbap instead of royal cuisine, although both will be showcased at the Korean Food Products & Beverages Exhibition at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on May 21 and 22.
“The whole weird, frustrating thing is the Korean food is more than bulgogi, kimchi and, nowadays, bibimbap,” Wong says, naming the grilled beef, pickled vegetable and rice medley dishes that captivate restaurant-goers. “There is a lot more variety, history and meaning to Korean dishes.”
I am temporarily shamed that my love of Korean food has stalled on such an obvious dish until Wong says elaborate palace cooking is perhaps better suited to her upcoming demo than to homes.
Bibimbap, she concedes, “is amusing, it tastes good, it’s visually attractive and you can put almost anything on it.”
And anyway, during the opening ceremonies for the upcoming exhibition (the first major Korean food show in Canada), chefs from Seoul House, Miga and Sariwon restaurants will create a giant bibimbap to feed 200 people.
So let’s get on with our home-style version.
There are infinite variations of bibimbap, white rice (usually presented in a sizzling stone bowl so the bottom turns crispy) with an array of raw, blanched or stir-fried toppings in a neat circle. Korean hot pepper paste (gochujang) and a raw egg yolk or sunny-side-up egg are frequent centrepieces.
Wong moves around her immaculate, sunny kitchen with determined precision. She opens her rice cooker to let her mix of Korean hangawee and sweet glutinous rice air out.
She tenderizes her boneless Korean short rib slices with grated Asian pear. She has already rehydrated Chinese mushrooms, and marinated bean sprouts, julienned carrots and thinly sliced curly cucumbers in salt and sesame oil.
“Carrots are not a traditional ingredient, but they are eye-catching,” Wong feels compelled to point out. “But I also have bellflower – in Korean it’s called doraji (also platycodon).”
I do my usual thing — ask to see packages, read labels, hover with measuring spoons.
Raised in Hong Kong with summers in this Toronto penthouse, Wong studied German at Brown University, then worked as a journalist for the Chinese media, and a translator for the Ontario government. Last year she taught English in Korea and studied at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine.
“So I am not a professional chef, but I have researched and written profusely about Korean cuisine,” says Wong, 37. “I just want to spread the spirit of royal cuisine. It’s a whole, ethical, personal, spiritual quest. It’s about striving for knowledge and excellence. It’s almost like a martial art.”
She stir-fries each bibimbap ingredient separately in equal, balanced portions. She heats a dolsot (stone bowl) on a gas hot plate with a smearing of sesame oil and sprinkling of sesame seeds. She adds the rice and then painstakingly arranges the toppings in a tidy circle.
With chopsticks, she turns the mung bean sprouts so their heads are on the outside of the bowl (lest they “draw the vision inwards”). She ensures the unpeeled sides of the cucumbers face the same direction.
Bibimbap can be as sloppy or as grand as you have patience for.
Wong feels hot pepper paste (gochujang) is overpowering, so she adds a dollop of a milder red pepper soybean paste called saamjang. She finishes her bibimbap with ground pine nuts, “an extremely important garnish and ingredient in royal or haute cuisine.”
I’m given the honour of mixing the bibimbap, right down to the oil and sesame seeds at the bottom. Our dolsot wasn’t sizzling enough to create crispy rice, but the bibimbap is still an intoxicating collision of colours, textures and flavours.
The Korean government wants to “globalize Korean food and market it to the world.” So say Daniel Ko of Fisherbill Enterprise Canada, the advertising and promotion agency that’s organizing the Korean food exhibition in Toronto.
Wong also wants North Americans to gain a wider appreciation of Korean food.
She loans me a CD of a cooking show inspired by the royal cuisine scenes in Dae Jang Geum.
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