Beijing’s Korean food not Korean enough

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2015-4-9 18:03:01

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Korean restaurants are not hard to find in China's capital. Massive barbecue joints where you can grill your own marinated meat proliferate across the city.

Shiguobanfan - stone pot mixed rice, or dolsot bibimbap in Korean - has become a staple dish around Beijing.

However, it seems to me that there's something missing in Beijing's Korean restaurants, some ingredient or spice. Or, to be more accurate, several things.

The first is atmosphere. A recent visit to Seoul reminded me of the homely, friendly feel of Korean restaurants. Most places are family-run and so welcoming that you feel instantly relaxed. Nobody stands over you waiting to take your order. Instead, you order in your own time, calling out what you want, when you want.

The same cannot really be said of Beijing's gigantic establishments where bored waiters stand over you until you place your order. The cavernous interiors of these places lack the intimacy and warmth of the original version.

Another element which could be improved is the side dishes. In Korea, these are supplied for free, replenished without complaint, and add delicious variety to the meal.

In China however, the diner usually has to pay extra for side dishes, which are usually not very exciting. Kimchi - a kind of pickled cabbage that is a staple of the Korean dining table - often comes in sachets in Beijing's restaurants, and lacks the fresh taste found in restaurants on the other side of the Yellow Sea.

In fact, taste in general is another problem. I am not really an expert, so it is difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what is wrong, but somehow Chinese versions of Korean food never quite achieve the level of flavourful zing that they should.

Either the barbecued meat is not marinated quite as it should be, or there is too much rice and not enough vegetables in the bibimbap. I don't want to be picky, but it is clear that the chefs in Beijing's Korean restaurants have either not been properly schooled in the cuisine they serve, or they are simply not interested in preparing it to the standards they have been taught.

Or perhaps, to be fair, they simply create dishes that are better suited to Chinese palates. If this is true, it is a pity, because Beijing's diners are missing out on a treat.

Korean food, when prepared correctly, is one of the world's great cuisines. A wide range of vegetables and meats are combined with unusual sauces such as gochujang (a red pepper paste) and doenjang (a thick paste made from soy beans) to create a truly distinctive gastronomic experience.

Korean barbecue is already popular in Beijing. However, somehow the experience is not quite the same as enjoying Korean barbecue in Korea. When complemented by makgeolli, a sweet rice wine, and consumed amid good friends seated on a heated floor around a low table, there is no better culinary experience.

My suggestion is for Beijingers to take a quick hop across the water and give themselves up not only to shopping and tours of TV drama locations, but also to the full, unadulterated impact of the taste sensation to be found in the eateries of Seoul's environs.

And then to come back home and ask for the same from Beijing's chefs.

This article was published on the Global Times Metropolitan section Two Cents page, a space for reader submissions, including opinion, humor and satire. The ideas expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent the position of the Global Times.

Posted in: Twocents-Opinion

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