Pickled cabbage your idea of culinary hell? Think again: Ruth Dodson tries, and loves, Korea's spicy staple, kimchi
It was my first night in the teeming metropolis of Seoul, a balmy evening with the fast and furious sounds of the city assaulting my senses. My guide, most certainly a man in the know, suggested we get away from the beaten track for an authentic Korean meal to which I readily agreed – and I’m so very glad I did.
I was led down a tiny cobbled footpath just off the chaotic Insadong, home of Seoul’s lively market scene, to a world centuries old. Entering a traditional hanok, one of the oldest remaining buildings in the now-concrete jungle, I was greeted by a spectacular space, a huge vaulted ceiling criss-crossed with ancient tarred beams, decorated with dozens of fuchsia-hued locust lamps and blackened kimchi pots, an oasis of calm and tranquillity.
My senses were bombarded: candles and incense battled for olfactory attention, while hand-carved antiques peeked out from behind precariously piled dried foods, from berries and bark to roots and ferns.
We were at Sanchon (www.sanchon.com), one of Seoul’s culinary delights, a rare institution serving traditional vegetarian temple food based on the centuries-old Buddhist teachings that inform Korean cuisine.
On arrival, smiling robe-clad waiters relieved us of our shoes and lead us to a private corner – a knee-high table surrounded by huge cushions on which we were obliged to sit cross-legged (a warning: 16 courses later my knees were screaming to move – sitting in any other position is deemed inappropriate).
An appreciation of kimchi – vegetables fermented in salt water – is essential to understanding Korean cuisine: kimchi is served in some form at every meal. The country’s long, harsh winters and mountainous terrain give limited opportunity for agricultural cultivation, hence the tradition of fermentation: people scoured the land for anything edible – including the aforementioned roots, bark and ferns; the pickling process preserves the vegetables through the bitter winter months.
Until the latter half of the 20th century, the Korean diet did not feature much meat; cattle were regarded as sacred – the consumption of beef was banned under Buddhist teaching – and butchers were on the lowest rung of an hierarchical society.
Our food arrived in a dizzying array of beautiful clay pots (I lost count after 25) from which all diners at the table helped themselves: cabbage leaves (baechu) rubbed in chilli and ginger; raw tofu doused in seawater; fried fern leaves and kelp; and pumpkin and lotus root served in perilla leaves (a relation to mint). The flavours were fiery, astringent, delicious and divine, accompanied by exquisite service.
Temple teachings also play a huge part in culinary ritual and ceremony; dining is an event to be celebrated and to linger over – it was several hours before we reluctantly left the serenity of the restaurant and returned to the clamouring streets of the city, fully sated.
Sanchon is an unforgettable dining experience, and one which I have not yet been able to replicate. But then I don’t have a vaulted ceiling, I struggle to source lotus root – and sitting cross-legged is so very, very difficult...
Ingredients:1 Chinese cabbage (1.5kg)
1. Remove outer leaves of cabbage; halve it lengthways. Dissolve salt in water and soak cabbage halves for four hours with a weight on top to keep submerged. Remove and squeeze out excess water.
2. Blend chopped garlic, ginger, chilli and onion with 125ml of water to a smooth paste. Add chopped radish and spring onions; stir in fish and anchovy sauces and chilli powder.
3. Spoon the stuffing between cabbage leaves, ensuring all are well coated on each side. Place in airtight container (not plastic) and leave in cool place for three days to mature. Chill before serving.
Bibimbap A densely flavoured rice dish cooked in a very hot stone bowl; strips of beef are topped with egg and chilli paste and cooked by the heat of the bowl
Gujeolpan A delicacy of nine dishes, including beef, egg, mushrooms, beansprouts and pickled vegetables, served rolled in buckwheat pancakes
Haemul Jeongol A spicy seafood hotpot made with a mix of delicacies including, clams, squid, crab and lobster, marinated in a fiery chilli broth
Naengmyeon Chilled noodle soup finished with a dash of hot mustard and slivers of apple and cucumber
Japchae Slices of chilli-marinated beef and thin noodles, served with soy sauce and sesame seeds