The Koreans are mad container gardeners. Everywhere there's a bit of sun, there are greens in pots, squash scrambling up walls, hot peppers and medicinal herbs tucked into corners. In the summer, Korean apartment buildings take on a shaggy look. Apartment buildings in Korea invariably have balconies, a miniature version of a traditional Korean courtyard. A courtyard house has an outside kitchen, a place to store big earthenware jars, a large sink, usually sunken below ground level, a bit of container garden, perhaps with a large bonsai ornamental tree, laundry, bicycles, chickens, and outhouse. OK, the apartments have indoor plumbing and the chickens are only resident long enough to be dinner. The rest of it goes right to the 14th floor. Mama has a low charcoal grill and a large plastic tub for washing small children, vegetables and laundry. In summer, vines festoon the balustrades. Bitter melon is a favorite. Bitter melon is good for Granny's high blood pressure. Traditional preservation methods are high in salt, so high blood pressure is common in grannies.
Which brings us to those large earthenware jars. Korea has a short growing season. To get through the long winter, Koreans dry, pickle, ferment, root cellar, sprout and mostly put up a giant jar of winter kimchi. There are at least a hundred types of spicy kimchis, all made from lactofermented vegetables and chilis, but the one most recognizable kimchi is Napa cabbage stuffed with a filling of shredded daikon radishes, garlic, ginger, scallions, dried chilis and fish guts. This is packed into a giant jar with a ceramic lid, about this time of the year. If there is a ground level garden, the jar is buried with a plug of straw over the lid, then a board and a rock on top. Every morning, Grandpa goes down to the garden, moves the rock, board and straw plug, and scoops out the day's ration with a long handled dipper.
The Koreans have a wonderful attitude towards food. There is food growing everywhere, even in the middle of Seoul: squashes rampaging over the roof of a car repair shop in an industrial section of town, fruit trees where we would plant ornamentals, an array of neat herbs in pots on the steps of a dentist's office, a glimpse of a squab raising operation on a roof, above offices, above street level retail shops.
The Koreans eat a lot of wild foods. Professional forager is a recognized vocation. By March, when Grandpa is scraping the bottom of the kimchi jar, the bracken ferns are forming tightly curled buds. Acorns make a nutty brown gel, sliced and eaten with hot sauce. Tender sow thistle leaves go into chapchae (cellophane noodles) and the hearty pancakes called pajeon. Mushrooms are both foraged and encouraged by transplanting inoculated lumps of substrate to a likely spot. Fresh pine needles are harvested to flavor steamed buns and keep them from sticking together in the steamer.
Korea is a mountainous peninsula surrounded by sea on three sides. It is full of microclimates and regional specialties. Everywhere that isn't straight up is cultivated. The mountains are terraced with narrow fields on the contour lines, highly sophisticated ancient low tech. The tops of hills are left wooded, intentionally planted with an acre or two of mixed trees. The wooded spots provide erosion control, wood lot and foraging area. Some of the hills are not terraced with rice paddies, but left in pasture grasses. These have a tiny, neat cemetery below the cap of woodland, fenced to keep the goats out.
We a have a new Korean restaurant in town, Stone Pot Soup. Their motto is "Healthy Korean Food". Like many old soldiers, I'm always on the lookout for authentic Korean food. Stone Pot Soup satisfies Seoul food cravings. Generous portions, the excellent soups which are central to Korean cooking, and best of all, plentiful naemul. Naemul are the many vegetable side dishes that come with a Korean meal. Soup came with two kinds of kimchi, a plate of steamed bean sprouts, carrots with hot sauce, and spinach with sesame seeds. That's typical for a family style meal in Korea. Across from Yaeger's on Meridian. Good stuff.
The best places to buy Korean ingredients are the two Asian markets on Meridian in the Fountain District. Check the cold case for fresh hot bean paste. Terra Organica carries a garlic and hot pepper miso from South River (in the cold case) that works very well in Korean style cooking, also some hippie kimchi and excellent dulse for seaweed soup. Koreans have always happily adapted recipes to local and seasonal ingredients, so making Korean dishes with what you have in the garden is very much in the authentic spirit.
There are lots of Asian greens to grow on purpose in your garden, in addition to eating your weeds. Shungiku, edible chrysanthemum, is eaten as a green when young. The flowers go into chrysanthemum tea. Korean thread onion is nearly impossible to buy. Thread onion is the cluster of narrow onion shoots that come up when you plant the whole seed head formed by a flowering onion. Chinese chives, tatsoi, bok choi, joy choy, mustard greens, and daikon radish are all easy to grow. Perilla, or shiso, is a warm weather herb that grows like basil. Soy and mung beans are easy to sprout at home.
Tuna rolls for a fast Korean lunch
I got this recipe off an ad for hot bean paste on a bus in Seoul. My housekeeper, Mrs. Kim, told me that I had been in Korea entirely too long when she saw me eating it for lunch.
Can tuna or salmon
Korean hot red bean paste
Cooked rice, leftover is fine but it's best warm
Perilla leaves or loose leaf lettuce leaves, separated and washed
Put a spoonful of rice, a forkful of tuna and a gob of hot bean paste on a leaf. Roll up the leaf and eat.
Mrs. Kim's Pa Jeon (Korean Savory Green Onion Pancake)
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup black bean flour, rice flour, or chickpea flour
1 cup water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon rice spirits
small hot pepper, fresh or dried, stemmed, seeded and cut in fine slivers
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
bunch of thread onions, or 6-8 scallions, cut in 6" lengths and then sliced the long way
fat handful of green stuff from your garden, cut in thin ribbons, or a few mushrooms, sliced thin
oil for frying
Mix the liquid ingredients into a batter, stir in the pepper, garlic, ginger, add the vegetables. Use a large spoon to drops globs on a hot pan with a little oil, squish the globs to resemble a pancake, turn over and cook until browned.
Mrs. Kim made a sauce to dip the pa jeon pieces into from a couple tablespoons each soy sauce and rice vinegar, a dash of sesame oil, some green onions sliced in thin rounds, and hot pepper threads for garnish.
Seaweed Soup (Miyuk Gook)
Really good on a cold day. Gook is soup, jeon is pancake, see, your Korean is better already.
1/4 lb beef, sliced or cut into small pieces
1/4 lb dulse, dried seaweed
Lots of garlic, 5-6 cloves
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
a little vegetable oil for browning the beef
Soak dulse in water until it swells, about 10 minutes and cut into 2" pieces. Slice onion, mince garlic. In a large pot, fry the beef, onion and garlic until browned, add seaweed, stock and soy sauce and simmer 10-15 minutes, then stir in the sesame oil.
Chapchae (Cellophane Noodles)
This was always a vegetable dish when I lived in Seoul in the 1980's, but with rising Korean standards of living, it has acquired sliced beef. Leave it out if you prefer the vegetarian version.
package sweet potato, mung bean or rice cellophane noodles
spinach or those sow thistle leaves
onion, sliced thin
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced
scallions, sliced the long way and chopped into 2" pieces
shitake mushrooms, sliced thin
the leafy part of a Napa cabbage, sliced thin
That's the basic ingredients, but you can add whatever vegetables you have: julienne carrots, zucchini and daikon, sweet peppers cut in thin strips, etc.
1/2 lb sliced beef, marinated in a little soy sauce, rice spirits, and sesame oil with a teaspoon of sugar and a dash of black pepper
Rehydrate the cellophane noodles by soaking in cold water (see package for directions.) If you are leaving the beef out, make up the marinade for your sauce anyway. Use a slotted spoon to pull the beef out of the marinade. Heat a little vegetable oil in a wok or large pan and saute beef, then add the vegetables. When the vegies are almost done, add the cellophane noodles and sauce. Cook for a few more minutes. Noodles should be soft and edible, vegies still brightly colored. Garnish with sesame seeds.
The library has a half dozen Korean cookbooks. I particularly liked Eating Korean by Cecilia Lee. It has a handy list of Korean ingredients at the back. Here is Lee's recipe for my favorite kimchi:
Asian Radish Kimchi
gallon glass jar or four quarts
1 bulb garlic, cloves separated and peeled
2 inch piece ginger root
2 tablespoons Korean chili powder, the coarse kind
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 large daikon radishes, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
bunch of mustard greens, chopped into 1" pieces
2 tablespoons sugar
Combine garlic, ginger, chili powder and salt in a food processor or blender until finely minced. In a large bowl, rub into radishes carefully. Ms. Lee suggests wearing gloves. Fill jars by alternating radish layers with mustard greens toped with a sprinkle of sugar. Place jars in a cool place 3-4 days to ferment. You will know it's ready when water rises from the radishes. Refrigerate after opening.