Culinary heavyweights gathered is Seoul recently for the first Amazing Korean Table gastronomic congress. But the hosts weren't just there to listen - this is a country with plenty to say about its own style of cooking. Fiona Sims went East to find out more
Waiting by the baggage reclaim at Seoul Airport, South Korea, is Pierre Gagnaire. The famous French chef has a restaurant in Seoul, at the Lotte Hotel in Myeong-dong, which he opened in October 2008. But this isn't the main reason he is here. Gagnaire is a key speaker at Amazing Korean Table (AKT), the inaugural gastronomic congress put on by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and South Korea's Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Gagnaire is showing off his cuisine to the Koreans, along with a handful of other well-known international chefs. But the Koreans also intend to do some bragging themselves, with their top chefs lined up to show just how complex, innovative and beautiful Korean food can be. The aim? To put Korean food on the map.
In case you hadn't noticed, Korean food is hot stuff. It already has a following in the USA, where there are hundreds of Korean restaurants, and where Korean chefs have made a name for themselves, in both their native cooking, and in top kitchens - with Korean-born Corey Lee, until recently the head chef of the French Laundry, at the top of that list.
So why isn't Korean cuisine talked about over here? If you live in London, then it might have just made it on to your radar. The capital has the UK's biggest concentration of Korean restaurants, which were mostly frequented, up until recently, only by London's Korean and Japanese communities.
Now Londoners have woken up to the cuisine - its exciting flavours and integrity a welcome antidote to our chain-dominated restaurant world, not to mention an average spend of £20 a head, which is going down well in these hard-hit times. They can even be cool places to hang out. Ran, in Great Marlborough Street, ticks that particular box with its stylish makeover and spiky-haired staff.
AKT's emblem is, rather appropriately, the rose of Sharon (mugunghwa), the country's national flower - its five petals symbolising the five tastes essential in any Korean dish. It's the ying and yang approach - or as your average Korean puts it, every meal has to be balanced with the five natural elements of the positive and negative. Think sweet and sour, salty, bitter, and a riot of colour.
Korean cuisine borrows elements from China and Japan, sure, but it has its own distinct style of cooking, which has developed over several thousand years, from humble meals served in Buddhist temples to intricate feasts served in ancient palaces.
In fact, AKT kicked off the proceedings with a taste of the latter. The recipes and cooking methods were once kept secret, known only to the specially-trained palace cooks, but now you can try Royal Cuisine in a number of restaurants in Seoul.
It is available at Samcheonggak (00 82 2 765 3700), where dishes included tangpyeongchae, whose main ingredient is nutty, savoury mung bean jelly, cut in lengths and topped with Korean watercress and bean sprouts, with thin, crispy strips of seaweed and small strips of fried egg seasoned with soy sauce to garnish, with cooked ground beef to finish.
Another classic is pyeonsu, a cold dumpling soup - square dumplings filled with crunchy, fresh-tasting minced green bean sprouts, courgettes, mushrooms and cucumbers, then steamed and served in a cold broth.
Presentation is key - Korean food can be just as pretty as Japanese food, which has itself been enjoying close scrutiny by the world's top chefs searching for inspiration. So it is time that Korean cuisine got some recognition, too, figure the folks behind AKT.
And yes, before you ask, there is a cutting edge dining scene in Seoul. One of the guest Korean chefs at AKT was Jung Sik Yim, of Jungsikdong, who has worked at Akelarre in San Sebastian, and Aquavit in New York, and incorporates the techniques that he has learnt into traditional Korean cooking, turning the cuisine on its head.
Chef An Jung Hyun, at Woorega (00 82 23 442 2288), approaches food with an artist's eye. "The plate is like a canvas," she told us, revealing that she was indeed once an artist and taught flower-arranging at the local college before turning her talents to cooking. She first specialised in weddings, then opened her restaurant five years ago. Her food is stunning, presented on statement tableware, garnished with sprigs of pine, orchid stems and rose petals.
Korea has the sea on three sides, and 70 per cent of the country is mountainous. Tree-covered hills break up endless fields of poly-tunnelled produce, which see the country through the cold winter months. But the mountains serve another purpose, too, dividing the regions, giving each one a particular microclimate - and style of food.
There are 10 distinctive regional cuisines in Korea. Seoul, and the surrounding region of Gyeonggi-do, has Royal Cuisine, which uses to a diverse range of ingredients brought from all over the country. This results in dishes such as seolleongtang (ox bone soup), where beef bones are boiled for hours in a stone pot producing an intense, comforting broth; and jewel-like japchae, cellophane noodles stir-fried with vegetables and beef (the dish of the trip - its "seasoning" of sugar, garlic, soy and roasted sesame oil increasing the yum factor).
The region of Jeolla-do, meanwhile, has Jeonju bibimbap. Jeolla-do is about four hours' drive south-west from Seoul and is widely regarded as South Korea's food capital. The food is saltier, spicier and more pungent than the rest, drawing ingredients from the surrounding rich farmland, dotted with paddy fields, and from the sea, which borders the region on its west and south coasts.
We stop at Jeonju, home of the famous Jeonju bibimbap - steamed rice mixed with vegetables and seasonings, raw egg, raw beef and chilli paste to taste. There's a real art to constructing the dish, which contains up to 25 different ingredients.
Sitting underneath a Japanese maple, on a raised wooden platform, in Jeonju guesthouse Dong Rak Won (00 82 63 287 2040), we learn how to cook it. After stir-frying each vegetable separately with garlic, ginger and crushed roasted sesame seeds, we then construct the dish, layering up the warm brass bowl, the flavours brought together in the mouth by a zingy sweet-and-sour chilli paste.
Jeonju is also famous for tofu. We tried it at Hwasim Sundubu (06324 38268), which serves up signature dish soon dubu jigae (tofu soup with clams and minced pork). It's worth the trip alone. We wash it down with makgeolli, a milky coloured drink made with fermented sweet rice, which has a refreshing acidity and a mild alcoholic kick - a perfect match for Korean food. Soju is the national drink, but at well over 20% abv this distilled and fermented mash of rice or sweet potatoes packs quite a punch.
If soju is the national drink, then kimchi is the national dish. No meal is complete without at least a couple of different kimchi. What is it, exactly? Basically, fermented vegetables. It's certainly out there in terms of flavour - sour, sweet, salty and spicy all in one hit, and it's not to everybody's taste. But it's addictive and boasts impressive healing powers, and I wanted to know more - which is why we are standing in a vast hall at the annual Kimchi Festival in Gwangju.
We learn that it is considered one of the world's healthiest and most varied foods. There are more than 200 types, loaded with vitamins A, B and C, and bursting with healthy bacteria called lactobacilli, which aids digestion and even helps to prevent some cancers, suggest some reports.
All around South Korea you see row upon row of brown earthenware pots kept in gardens and back yards, placed on special platforms, or hidden away on rooftop terraces, all happily fermenting away over the winter months - autumn is the best time to make kimchi, we are told.
Why are the pots kept outside? Kimchi stinks. It gets into your clothes, your hair, every pore - the Koreans even use a special fridge to store it in. I tried more than 25 different types, from the everyday dongchimi kimchi, made with radishes, that cleverly retained its crunchiness, while delivering its sweet, sour and fiery hit, and oi sobagi kimchi, made with stuffed cucumber, that kept its juiciness, to kimchi made with squid, sweet potato stems, mackerel (my favourite - the fish flavours heightened by nutty roasted sesame) and ginseng.
The festival was offering masterclasses so we had a go at making our own. The quality of the salt used is key, we learnt, but the tricky bit is rolling up the cabbage tightly enough once you had slathered each leaf in chilli paste. But there is a certain sense of achievement as we leave the festival swinging our kimchi crocks, ready to crack open in a few months - which we did, transporting us instantly back to Gwangju.
THE KOREAN TABLE
Koreans love to share. Dishes arrive all at once - sometimes up to 20 different bowls, depending on what region you are in. And that rule applies whether you are dining alone or in a group. But gluttons can relax - you order your own main-course dish, from bap (cooked rice) to juk (porridge), to tteokguk (sliced rice cake soup) to sujebi and mandu (dumplings).
In addition to your main course, there are many different side dishes, from raw and cooked vegetables, singing with garlic, ginger, chillies and sesame, to various soups (guk), stews (jjigae), hot pots (jeongol), stuffed vegetables (seon), pickled vegetables (jangajji), salt-fermented seafood (jeotggai) and raw meat and fish (hoe), seasoned with vinegar, soy sauce, and mustard.
Other key ingredients? Rice rules, from the sweet, sticky, brightly coloured rice cakes (tteok) that we ate washed down with flower teas; to the baked risotto-style bibimbap, where you scrape up unctuous crunchy rice from the bottom of hot stone bowls.
Other essentials include beans (mostly red and mung), potatoes (including sweet), mushrooms (a lot of wild), seafood, seaweed, meat (beef, pork and chicken), eggs and fruit - particularly persimmons, jujubes (Korean date) and Korean pear.
And flavours are big, thanks to a range of punchy seasonings from soy sauce and soybean paste (doenjang) - used to give a kick to stews and added to wheat flour pancakes (jangtteok), to mustard, cinnamon, ginger, copious garlic, sesame salt and vinegar. Not forgetting spring onions, which we ate in abundance with pretty much everything.
KOREAN BBQ KALBI
For the Ssam Jang sauce
For the Korean sticky rice
For the BBQ kalbi
Cut the meat into two-inch slices and trim any excess fat. Remove bones and discard or reserve for another use. In a large bowl, mix the meat in with the sugar with your hands, massaging the sugar in thoroughly. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Remove the meat from the bowl, shake off any excess sugar and place in another large bowl. Discard the sugary water that has seeped from the meat. Mix in the rest of the ingredients, again massaging in the ingredients with your hands. Let it marinate for one to two hours.
Heat a grill pan or skillet over very high heat. Cook the beef, working in batches to not overcrowd the pan. Cook until well-browned on the bottom and caramelised markings appear, about one to two minutes. Flip over and cook the other side for one to two minutes. Serve immediately with Ssam Jang sauce, Korean sticky rice and red lettuce leaves.
For the Ssam Jang sauce
Mix all sauce ingredients together. Put in a small bowl and serve with kalbi.
For the Korean sticky rice
Wash the rice with cold water three or four times, rinsing and draining the starch out. Cook the rice in a rice cooker using 1.1 cups of water to 1 cup of rice. When cooked, fluff the rice with a fork before serving.