The New Hot Cuisine: Korean
Why its flavors are cropping up everywhere from haute cuisine to fast food
« The noted Chicago eatery Blackbird has kimchi on the menu, and California Pizza Kitchen is developing Korean barbecue beef pizza. In Los Angeles, crowds are lining up for street food from a pair of Korean taco trucks called Kogi. The slightly sour-tasting Korean frozen yogurt served at the Pinkberry and Red Mango chains has inspired many imitators.
Redolent with garlic, sesame oil and red chili peppers, Korean food is suddenly everywhere.
In recent years, despite a wave of Korean immigration, the cuisine remained mostly in traditional restaurants that catered mainly to Korean-Americans.That's beginning to change, thanks partly to New York chef David Chang, the cuisine's unofficial ambassador in America. He calls his three Momofuku restaurants "vaguely Asian" and his menus "eclectic," but they showcase Korea's kimchi, the staple of spicy fermented vegetables, in preparations including stew, butter and consommé.
Americans are "searching for new, more-challenging flavors," such as Latin and Asian ones, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago restaurant-industry consulting firm Technomic. "Korean seems to be fitting that."
California Pizza Kitchen hopes so. Besides Korean barbecue beef pizza, it's testing Korean fried-chicken salad in its kitchen, says Larry Flax, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of the 251-unit casual-dining chain. Elements of Korean food could go global, he says: "I think Korean barbecue would resonate in Dubai."
Korean food swings from fiery (showcased in soondubu, a spicy, bubbling tofu stew) to mild (the soothing dduk gook, a beef broth-based rice-cake soup traditionally served on New Year's Day). It can take some getting used to. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a pioneer in fusing Japanese and Thai flavors with French cuisine, shied away from Korean cuisine because of its pungent smells -- before his wife's Korean cooking made him a convert. Now, he says, "I love it. I'm trying to incorporate it more and more into what we do." One recent tweak: subbing out chicken stock in a garlic soup at Jean Georges for a seaweed stock inspired by the Korean seaweed soup miyuk gook.
While some chefs incorporate Korean elements in Western dishes, others do the opposite. Youngsun Lee of New York's Persimmon creates traditional Korean food, but incorporates Western ingredients such as butter and red wine.
Some entrepreneurs are taking Korean food to the masses. Kogi, the L.A. Korean taco-truck outfit, uses Twitter to broadcast its whereabouts and has a $5 cap on prices. The food brings together Mexican and Korean influences in items like kimchi quesadillas and short rib tacos, and is "cheap, unbelievably delicious and unmistakably from Los Angeles," critic Jonathan Gold recently wrote. Chef Roy Choi says he hopes Kogi will be in New York by 2010. Bulgogi is already there: The thinly sliced, marinated meat, popular in Korean barbecue restaurants, shows up at New York Hot Dog & Coffee, where it's a popular topping.
Korean cuisine's rising popularity is anything but coincidental, according to 610 Magnolia's Mr. Lee. Korean immigrants tend to be protective of recipes and resistant to tweaks, he says, in contrast to Korean-Americans who feel more free to play with flavors. "It takes that kind of confluence of culture for ideas to start sparking," he adds. "A lot of other Korean chefs are saying, 'We have this incredible culinary history. Let's take advantage of it.'" »