Big up the bibimbap
Korean food is fab, and I have been missing it since I came to Jo’burg from my home in Toronto’s Koreatown three months ago. With its delicious combination of grilled meats, pickled vegetables and fresh seafood, this cuisine is healthy, tasty, filling and cheap. I’m used to being able to eat lots of it, so I’m happy and excited when we spot a new Korean restaurant in the heart of Johannesburg’s suburb of Cyrildene.
Gangnam BBQ is bright, with a surprising number of televisions for such a small space. Our server is kind and attentive and our table is immediately served the selection of banchan that is requisite at any Korean meal. These small dishes, with rice, form the heart of the Korean diet. They include a wide variety of delights — seaweed salads, daikon carrot pickles, perhaps a dish of smoked mackerel or marinated tofu.
But whatever else there may be in the five or six little dishes you’ll be served regardless of your order, there will always be kimchi. No dish is more central to Korean cuisine. Meaning simply “pickled vegetable”, the variety within kimchi itself is astonishing. Used generically, however, it refers to the fermented cabbage and chilli that Health magazine calls one of the world’s five healthiest foods. Koreans eat bucketloads of it.
It is, perhaps, an acquired taste — sharp and fresh at the beginning, increasingly funky as it ages. It can be eaten at every stage and you will find it incorporated into a number of dishes. Each place should have its own recipe; you can pick and judge a joint by the quality of its kimchi.
Our banchan is delightful and our food is on the way. Koreans are famous for their grilled meats, so, if you’re dining with carnivorous friends, try the galbi (barbecued pork short ribs) or the savoury beef bulgogi, in tender little strips. Depending on your order, the built-in propane stove may be fired up in front of you for table-top cooking — a big trend in Korean restaurants.
Our table is seduced by the hamool pajeun, a seafood pancake that turns out to be more scallion than seafood and more omelette than the light, rice-flour pancake that I’m expecting, but it’s still crisp and brown with a salty little dipping sauce to set off the richness.
Next is a dolsot bibimbap. This is the dish that has seen me through many a cold Canadian winter and I could happily eat a well-made bibimbap once a week or more. The heart of bibimbap is a simple bowl of steamed rice, layered with individually prepared selections of vegetables and meats. Sesame spinach, lightly steamed, and julienned carrots, fermented bean sprouts, shredded and dried seaweed, perhaps a bit of barbecued beef or squid. The whole is topped with a raw egg and, if you have ordered it dolsot style, it will be served to you in an oiled and red-hot stone bowl.
The proper technique is to stir with your chopsticks but eat with your spoon. This maintains the fluffiness of the rice, while you incorporate all the discreet elements into one filling dish: scrape up the prized toasted rice at the bottom of the bowl, cook the egg as it comes into contact with the hot dish and cover the lot with gochujang, the sweet, spicy, garlicky chilli paste that should be spread generously over the whole delectable pile. You might want to nap afterwards.
We have been sharing, so we have room to move on to one of the many stews and soups, or jjigae, featured in Korean cuisine. These come to the table bubbling like mad and are a perfect cure for the sniffles. The most renowned is gamjatang, or pork bone soup, lovingly referred to as PBS by the hordes of Toronto’s post-drunk, late-night students looking for a hearty and cheap fill-up. Ours is soondubu or soft tofu, with which Koreans can do fabulous things. Sadly, this dish is basic and not interesting.
We have accompanied our meal with an overpriced bottle of soju, the distilled rice liquor adopted by Koreans during the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century. In times of shortages, it has been made with sweet potatoes or tapioca. It should be dirt-cheap. Nonetheless, it’s warming and our bellies are filled with good food; we leave Gangnam feeling happy and contented. Now I just have to locate some good Vietnamese food …
Gangnam BBQ is in Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene