5@5 - Korean food debunked
November 2nd, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Korean-born, American-raised Marja Vongerichten fell in love with the food of her birthplace all over again after spending a year traveling - and eating - through Korea.

Not only did she reconnect with the ancestry and culinary traditions she left behind, she also learned important life lessons like how to properly slurp noodles, pour drinks for your elders and fry chicken in true Korean style.

The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen - a companion to her Public Television Series of the same name - follows that journey, and is a delectable introduction to the cuisine of her homeland; an introduction she'd like you to make as well.

Five Commonly Asked Questions About Korean Food: Marja Vongerichten

1. Why is Korean food so spicy?
"The truth is, not all Korean cuisine is spicy. Hot chili peppers came to Korea by way of Portuguese missionaries from Mexico in the 16th century. Koreans came up with a way to preserve food with this hot chili pepper. Salt was as expensive as gold at the time and this chili pepper was a great substitute. The Koreans used these fiery hot chilis as a means of preserving food."

2. Why is Korean food so pungent?
"Kimchi (seasoned fermented vegetables, typically cabbage) as well as doenjang (soybean paste) and gochujang (red pepper paste) are all fermented foods. Pickling is the best explanation for this process; spoilage is suppressed and good bacteria transforms and enhances the nutrients. This came out of necessity to preserve the previous season's harvest. They are all fermented in clay jars that are breathable and left out to age for months, sometimes years. These foods are used all year round."

3. Is Korean food healthy?
"Most traditional Korean foods are very healthy and medicinal. Seaweed soup for instance is great for cleaning one's blood. It is traditionally given to new mothers to help aid in their recovery after giving birth. It is eaten every day for a month or so and is said to increase breast milk production. Soybean paste is rich in vitamins and minerals. It is also fat-free and rich in proteins! Kimchi is high in lactic acid which is great for your digestive system and high in vitamin C."

4. Why are beef dishes so popular in Korean cuisine?
"Traditionally, beef has always been the most highly regarded meat in the Korean cuisine. Historically, cows have been valued tremendously in Korean culture. There’s even a holiday that honors cattle on the 'first cow day' of each lunar new year.

This high esteem, interestingly, usually meant beef wasn’t widely consumed; it was also very expensive because Korea is very mountainous and has little grazing land. It wasn't until the 60s and 70s that beef became more widely available to the general population due to an economic boom in technology and the auto industry."

5. How do I know what to order when I go to a Korean restaurant?
"Be adventurous and ask your server what is traditionally eaten with whatever dish you are ordering. For instance, Korean barbecue is traditionally eaten with a side of cold noodles called naeng myun. Simply grilled fish is often served with a stew or soup like kimchi stew (kimchi chigae) or soybean paste stew (daen jung chigae).

Also, Koreans like to pair hot and cold foods - so if you’re doing a cold noodle dish, they often serve a hot soup on the side. It comes from the belief of having a balance and they like to say it helps your stomach if you can offset something that is too cold with some warmth and vice versa."

Naengmyeon (Noodles with Cold Beef Broth)
Serves 4

Naengmyeon is a very traditional noodle soup that is served icy cold. Following the Korean belief that you should eat cold food in cold weather and hot food in hot weather, naengmyeon is supposed to be eaten in frigid temperatures; but it's become popular as a refreshing dish for the summer months as well.


  • 1 pound beef brisket
  • 6 scallions, halved crosswise
  • 2-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced into coins
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 cup white radish (moo or daikon) matchsticks
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, plus more for serving
  • 1 pound naengmyeon noodles or buckwheat soba noodles
  • 1 cup Korean (Asian) pear matchsticks
  • 1 cup cucumber matchsticks
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
  • Korean hot mustard, for serving

Cooking Directions

  1. Place the brisket in a large pot and cover with 3 quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and skim off any foam that rises to the top. Add the scallions, ginger, and garlic and boil for 2 hours, adding more water if necessary to keep the meat barely covered.
  2. Strain the broth, discard the cooked vegetables, and reserve the meat separately. Refrigerate the broth until ice cold, at least 6 hours.
  3. Remove and discard the hardened fat from the broth. Thinly slice the brisket.
  4. Meanwhile, combine the radish with the salt, sugar, and 3 tablespoons vinegar in a small bowl and let sit for at least 10 minutes.
  5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the noodles according to the package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water. Divide the cold noodles among 4 deep soup bowls.
  6. Evenly ladle the cold beef broth over the noodles. Top each portion with the marinated radish, pear, cucumber, egg, and sliced brisket. Serve with the hot mustard and additional vinegar on the side for guests to stir into their soup if they'd like.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Asian • Bite • Cuisines • Korean • Think

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. 진실

    나는 그것을 명중할 것입니다!

    November 3, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Butthead


      November 3, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Jerv

      Well played. Was wondering when you were going to do that. Ha!

      November 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
      • 진실

        Discretion is a wonderful thing...

        November 3, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  2. Graceful

    I lived in Korea for a year when I was younger and still love korean food. Every time I get the chance to have bolgogi I jump on it. My mom learned how to make kimchi in a bathtub, but so far has restrained herself from doing so and we op to get it from the grocery store.

    November 3, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  3. anna mei

    Lynn Chen – actress and food blogger!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  4. Finest kind

    Jja jang myeon rules.

    November 2, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Strafer

      Jja Jang myeon is the most popular CHINESE FOOD in Korea.
      You don't find that dish in USA because Chinese food in USA is really unique to America.

      November 3, 2011 at 4:52 pm |

      • Jjajangmyeon was INVENTED in KOREA so it can be seen as a 'KOREAN' food.

        November 4, 2011 at 1:05 am |
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