One of the more surreal, fascinating and occasionally discomforting experiences of my life was to visit North Korea on a day trip from the South.
We went through passport control, were put on a bus and driven past the Kaesong industrial zone where North and South work together (except when they’re having another political spat), entertained by a guide/minder warbling sentimental Korean songs and taken to a series of beauty spots and historical sites where we were followed around by what I took to be secret policemen.
It was all a bit conspicuous and Inspector Clouseau-ish and I wanted to say: “A berm? What berm?” but on mature reflection judged it unwise.
Other than the minders and the women staffing the extensive gift shop (lovely, lovely foreign currency, kamsahamnida) we weren’t permitted to speak to any North Korean citizens and I learned more about the North from a South Korean professor who was on the tour than I did from the actual visit, although I wouldn’t have missed it for worlds.
This isn’t the place for an analysis of North Korea’s way of life but the really tricky part came at lunchtime when the North Koreans laid on a feast; busloads of visitors sitting at refectory tables being fed dishes that just kept coming. We had, as my grandma used to say, an elegant sufficiency – and then some.
The food was fine but I felt deeply uncomfortable and not a little hypocritical because I had read numerous stories about famines in past years in North Korea and the continuing poverty, hardship and food shortages faced by its people.
And here they were waiting on me hand and foot and stuffing me full of food.
The North Korean authorities would doubtless say that those stories were Western propaganda, which you can take with a pinch of kimchi if you like. It was, however, a thought-provoking experience.
None of this, I’m sorry to say, stopped me from eating the food. Meanwhile, back in the South Korean capital, Seoul, I ate my way round a good many restaurants and fell completely in love with the cuisine. Spicy, fresh, subtle and sophisticated, at its best it’s a real winner.
When I got home I bought a Korean cookery book but for various reasons, chiefly inertia, it has sat unopened on my shelf ever since.
Until the other day, that is, when I was casting around for something interesting to do with some very rare, almost raw, roast beef left over from the middle of Sunday’s joint.
I made bulgogi, griddled beef with sesame and soy, and it was delicious.
I’ve made it again since with sirloin steak as suggested in the recipe. I think the Sunday beef had the edge, but that was down to the quality of the meat, so in future I’d just make sure I had top quality steak instead of what the supermarket optimistically calls a “frying steak”.
While I love Korean food I’m not keen on the national dish of fermented vegetables, kimchi (I hate sauerkraut too, sue me) so we had the meat with a cucumber sangchae, which is a crunchy salad with a spicy dressing, and courgette namul, a stir-fried veg dish.
I’d run out of steam at this point so we had plain rice rather than attempting my much-loved bibimbap, the rice dish which ensures that Korea will always have a place in my heart. Or possibly my stomach. I did make the gochujang sauce which is normally served with bibimbap.
These recipes are from Korean Cooking, by Young Jin Song, which makes Korean food accessible to an inexperienced westerner like myself.
880 g (1 3/4 lb) sirloin steak
4 spring onions
1 Asian pear (I substituted a fairly unripe English pear)
60 ml (4 tbsp) dark soy sauce
60 ml (4 tbsp) sugar
30 ml (2 tbsp) sesame oil
10 ml (2 tsp) ground black pepper
5 ml (1 tsp) sesame seeds
2 garlic cloves, crushed
15 ml (1 tbsp) lemonade
Finely slice the steak and lightly tenderise it by bashing with a meat mallet or rolling pin before cutting into bitesized strips.
Roughly shred one of the spring onions and set aside for a garnish. Finely slice the remaining spring onions, the onion and the pear. Combine all of the ingredients except the beef in a large bowl and stir well to combine.
Then mix the beef in with the marinade, making sure it’s well coated. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 2 hours – any longer than two hours and the beef will be too salty.
Heat a griddle or large heavy frying pan gently. Add the meat and cook over a medium heat. The marinade will form a glaze on the meat and any leftover juices can be eaten with rice.
Once the meat has darkened and is cooked through, transfer to a large dish. Garnish with the shredded spring onion and serve.
You can serve bulgogi wrapped in lettuce leaves or dipped in a blend of soy sauce, crushed garlic and a drop of lemon juice.
I served it with Gochujang Sauce: just mix together 3 tbsp of gochujang (Korean chilli paste), 1 1/2 tsp of honey and 2 tsp of sesame oil.
2 courgettes, finely sliced into ribbons lengthways
10 ml/2 tsp sesame oil
30 ml/2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
40 g/1 1/2 oz dried shrimp (pls see note below*)
Finely chopped spring onion and sesame seeds to garnish
Put the sliced courgettes in a colander, lightly sprinkle with salt and leave to stand for 20 minutes. Drain off any excess liquid and transfer to a bowl.
Add the sesame oil to the courgettes and mix together to coat.
Coat a frying pan or wok with the vegetable oil and heat to high. Add the courgettes and crushed garlic and stir-fry briefly.
Add the dried shrimp and stir-fry quickly until they become crispy, but without losing the bright colour of the courgettes. *The recommended quantity of dried shrimp made the dish too fishy for my taste. Another time I’d just add a sprinkling. Or you can use fresh shrimp as an alternative.
Remove from the heat and transfer to a shallow dish. Garnish with spring onion and sprinkle over the sesame seeds before serving.
400 g/14 oz cucumber
For the dressing:
2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
5 ml/1 tsp cider vinegar
5 ml/1 tsp salt
3 ml/1/2 tsp chilli powder, preferably Korean chilli powder
10 ml/2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
10 ml/2 tsp sesame oil
5 ml/ 1 tsp gochujang chilli paste
10 ml/ 2tsp sugar
Cut the cucumber lengthways into thin slices, place in a colander and sprinkle lightly with salt. Mix well and leave for 30 minutes.
Place the cucumber slices in a damp tea towel and gently squeeze out as much water as you can.
Place the spring onions in a bowl. Add the crushed garlic, vinegar, salt and chilli powder and stir to combine.
Sprinkle in the sesame seeds and mix in the sesame oil, chilli paste and sugar.
Mix the cucumber with the dressing. Chill before serving.
Great travelogue. Excellent recipes.
Thanks, Conor, much appreciated.
Just wow. I’ll be having a go at that beef dish.
Thanks Will, let me know how it goes.
Have eaten Korean but never cooked it. The courgette dish in particular looks delicious.
Thanks, it’s well worth a go.
And even yummmmmmmm! I promise I’ll cook some for you.
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Found it! Yes, I’ve hard that stuffing yourself while North Korea starved was the worst bit in many ways. But like you, I think bibimbap is my go-to Korean dish. Emily keeps telling me to get my finger out and make kimchi. One day..
I adore bimimbap. As you probably saw, I’m not a massive fan of kimchi. I don’t like fermented stuff much (apart from wine, cheese and beer of course).