Fine Korean food
(A monthly column first published in Car N Style magazine).
Going gung-ho over Gung!
By Ravi V. Chhabra
To fathom Korean cuisine, one needs to know various facets of Korean culture, table manners, courtesies, and all that is intrinsically linked to it. I recall my first brush with Korean food was over a decade ago at a sprawling karaoke Korean restaurant in Greater Kailash II market called: The Club. It was hardly meant for everyone. With myriad south Korean companies’ flowering into the country in the 1990s – Daewoo, Hyundai to Samsung or LG, the restaurant, I recall, sprouted for expat Koreans. It started with a bang but downed shutters in almost a year. The food was good with detailed menu and a live aquarium for relishing freshly cooked seafood. I realised it would take my palate a few more times to get into liking for this cuisine.
Korean food needs acquired taste-buds. On my recent visit to a fine dining Korean restaurant called Gung – The Palace (pronounced goong) at Green Park in New Delhi, I found everything replete with aesthetics – the decor, the waitresses’ Korean uniform, floor-based seating and of course, the colourful array of delicious dishes et al. The restaurant takes pride for having catered to President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak and his retinue. Undoubtedly, the amazing food is done passionately with every critical ingredient sourced directly from Korea including special spices and meats that are essential for authentic Korean flavours. My favourite dish was Jeongol (Hot pot) comprising prawns, shrimps, octopus, crabs, lobsters all perfectly cooked with vegetables and served in succulent broth on the table over a gas stove.
At Gung, one gets the essence of Korea on the table. Tabletop barbecues, amazingly tender meats, flavorful vegetables and fresh seafood are part of ancient Korean traditions, combining that with Karaoke, present in both locations (Gurgaon has two dedicated, sound proof Karaoke rooms and a children's play area). Gung at Green Park has three floors of seating with private dining rooms on the ground and second floors and regular table seating on the first floor and is open for lunch till 3pm and then opens for dinner after 6pm.
You'll find a dash of Korea in every dish and an extra hint of improvisation in some dishes like Budae Jjigae, which originated in the Korean war of 1950. A flavourful combination of gochujang (chili bean paste), kimchi, baked beans, meats, sausages, beef, noodles and American cheese that some may not think it to be an authentic Korean dish, which far from truth.
The menu is divided into multiple sections: Lunch Specials, Barbecues, Stews, Casseroles, Meat Specials, Korean Specials, Seafood Specials, Korean-Chinese, Mixed Rice and Noodles. This is so that the guests can find exactly what they're looking for. If they feel like a barbecue accompanied by a spicy stew and rice... they know exactly where to find it. Some dishes are served in portions for four people and some in portions for one person depending on the dish. Vegetarians have plenty of options in the menu too.
It’s advisable to order a hearty stew that'll stay hot and steaming on the table accompanied by Gung’s signature banchan that are served complimentary with every order. Accompany these with grills or individual servings and you'll find yourself gorging on hot and delicious food throughout your evening. Remember to ask for portions of rice with stews if you so desire.
In Korean food, Bap is the staple steamed rice. It may also include other grains and there are many kinds of Bap depending on the ingredients such as huinbap (white rice); jagokbap (rice with barley, millet and beans); byeolmibap (rice with vegetables, seafood and meat); and bibimbap (rice mixed with namul and beef). Side dishes include Guk (Soup) a soup of vegetables, seafood and/or meats. Some varieties are malgeun-jangguk (clear soy sauce soup), tojangguk (soybean paste soup), gomgguk (rich beef soup) and naengguk (chilled soup).
Varieties of Jjigae (Stew) include Malgeun-jjigae (clear jjigae) and tojang-jjigae (soybean paste jjigae). Jeongol (Hot pot) consists of meat, seafood, mushrooms and vegetables simmered in broth at the table just before serving for dinner or as a dish to accompany liquor. Other main dishes include Jjim (Steamed dish) and Seon (Steamed or parboiled stuffed vegetables).
Various kinds of dishes and diverse cooking methods include grilling, boiling, blanching, steaming, frying and braising. Jorim is a cooking method to braise meat, seafood or vegetables with soy sauce or red pepper paste on low heat. Bokkeum is a stir fry of meat, seafood or vegetables. Gui is a dish of meat, seafood or vegetables as is, or grilled after seasoning. Jeon is a dish of pan-fried meat, seafood or vegetables after they have been minced or sliced and coated with wheat flour and beaten eggs. Jeok is a dish of pan-fried ingredients after they have been seasoned and skewered.
Some of the special Korean desserts include Tteok - a dish made by steaming, or boiling rice powder or other grain powder after it has been sprinkled with water. Hangwa are traditional Korean cookies. There are many varieties depending on the ingredients or recipes such as yumilgwa, gangjeong, sanja, dasik, jeonggwa, suksilgwa, gwapyeon, yeotgangjeong and yeot. Eumcheong are non-alcoholic beverages.
Korean table manners worth a mention are: When having a meal together with elders, take your seat according to social ranking. After the elders pick up their spoons, others can begin to eat. Try to keep pace with elders while eating. Do not put your spoon and chopsticks on the table earlier than elders at the end of the meal. Do not hold the spoon and chopsticks together in one hand. Use the spoon for rice and soup.
Gung’s location is hard to find with no directions close by. But those who had been to the Chinese restaurant ‘Scorpion Moon’ would find Gung in a jiffy. The entrance signboard is faded and barely visible. The stairs leading to the three floors inside are narrow and cumbersome. The recorded authentic Korean music lends the place a pleasant and refreshing ambience; the cuisine and overall dining experience is excellent. A non-vegetarian sea-food meal for two would cost around Rs 2,500 and it’s worth it. Remember to take tips from the manager to order a balanced meal if you’re going for the first time.