It’s was Lunar New Year this weekend AND the start of the 2nd week of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, so naturally we have Korean food on the brain. One of the most important foods for the Lunar New Year – called Seollal in Korea – is Yaksik. Yaksik is a sweet rice dessert studded with jujubes, honey and chestnuts. Not only is the dessert tasty, but it is touted for its medicinal properties. The name “Yaksik” translates to “medicinal food,” (“Yak” meaning medicine, “Sik” meaning food). Think of it as a fruitier, healthier version of rice pudding. Here are recipes for Yaksik from Kimchimari (seen below) and Maangchi.
This year, Lunar New Year falls on a Friday! If you will be celebrating Lunar New Year in Korea the festivities are called Seollal, and you can expect a crazy amount of food and festivities. We covered one of the most traditional Seollal dishes previously on ETW, tteokguk (rice cake soup). However, that only scratches the surface. Most large Korean meals come with an assortment of small dishes called Banchan, and the Seollal table is no exception. However, to the uninitiated, the array of banchan presented alongside a meal can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the internet is brimming with banchan guides: Lucky Peach, Crazy Korean Cooking, Zen Kimchi, Thrillist and HuffPo, to name a few. Personally, my favorite banchan are japchae, radish kimchi and toasted seaweed. I love the concept that every meal comes with an additional portion of delicious, tiny dishes. Do you have a favorite banchan?
Banchan at Gogi in Chicago
We recently spent an unseasonably cold day warming up with some Korean home cooking at Cho Sun Ok (4200 N Lincoln Ave. Chicago, IL) with some friends who are real Korean food aficionados (unlike us!). Usually, when we are at a Korean restaurant we like to indulge in BBQ, but this time around, we were going for something different. Cho Sun Ok, a small corner BYOB restaurant, has been around since 1980 (and was voted favorite Korean restaurant in 2015 by the Chicago Reader) and is known for its stone pot cooking, done right at the table. They are also known for their unusual buckwheat noodles, naengmyeon, chilled noodles in cold broth, traditionally known as a Northern Korean dish.One of our favorite parts of many Korean restaurants is that your meal comes with a vast assortment of small plates to share aka panchan/banchan. Cho Sun Ok’s banchan offerings included spicy rice cakes-ddukkbokki, picked daikon, seaweed salad, pickled cucumber, kimchi, potato salad, bean sprouts, and tofu, among others. Just when you think you have banchan figured out, we always encounter a new one! I think one of our future post will be a guide to banchan (for our own sake).For mains, we ordered a seafood pancake – Haemul Pajeon, sweet potato noodles stir fried with beef and veggies – Japchae, mixed fried rice and veggies in a stone bowl – Bi bim bop, and of course also we had to try some naengmyeon for a taste of North Korean cookery. We went with the bi bim naengmyeon variety, buckwheat noodles in a hot and spicy sauce, a perfect warm-up for the chill. The japchae was full of beef and mushrooms, and had a great, delicate sesame flavor. The shrimp and squid-stuffed seafood pancake and the mildly-spicy bi bim bap topped with an egg were also delicious and faithful renditions of Korean classics. We had a hard time picking a favorite (L liked the japchae and M the naengmyeon), but everything was delicious and we snacked happily on the banchan between our courses.
Cho Sun Ok delivered an an amazing amount of the food for the price. We had heard in advance that the service could be brusque, but we had no issues, and as an added plus, the ventilation at the restaurant is pretty good, unlike some other BBQ places we’ve visited. Overall, we like their selection of unusual and traditional dishes in addition to the classic Korean BBQ selection. Moreover, they have one of our favorite versions of japchae in the city. Definitely give Cho Sun Ok a try for some Korean home cooking, or if you want the chance to try a classic North Korean dish.
Happy Lunar New Year! In the past I’ve highlighted some traditional dishes from around Asia, and now we’re on to Korea, where the Lunar New Year is called Seollal. Tteokguk (or ddukguk) – rice cake soup – is probably one of the most recognizable Seollal dishes. Eating a bowl of this soup symbolizes growing another year older, as well as wishes for a long, healthy life. The key to the soup are the tasty dumpling-like rice cakes (which can be found in other Korean dishes with variations like spicy sauce – ddukbokki). There are many variations on the soup, with different types of stock, so here a a few versions, from Crazy Korean Cooking, My Korean Eats and Chow Divine.
Rice Cake Soup by Tony Song
So we have something of a difficult relationship with Korean BBQ. In fact, we have had only had one good experience, all the way in Los Angeles. So, for a long time we never went out of our way to try Korean BBQ. However, when one of our friends suggested that we give Korean BBQ another try at Gogi (6240 N. California Ave, Chicago, IL) we relented, especially when we saw the stellar reviews.
Today is the last day of the 3-day Korean harvest holiday, Chuseok, which is centered around the full moon during the autumn equinox. Many Chuseok activities relate to paying respects to ancestors, with families visiting their ancestral homelands, cleaning graves and making offerings of foods to the deceased. Of course, as with any holiday, traditional foods have pride of place, and one of the most traditional Chuseok foods is Songpyeon (송편). Songpyeon is a sweet chewy cake made with rice flour, and filled with honey, red bean paste, sesame seeds (or another sweet filling). Though the traditional shape is half-moon, Songpyeon can come in a myriad of colors and flavors. They are also traditionally layered on top of pine needles, which does make everything taste a little like pine! Tradition also holds that it is important to make the prettiest Songpyeon possible, since the prettier the cake, the prettier you future child will be. The Korean Bapsang blog has a guide to making your own Songpyeon, in a variety of colors and flavors.
Chuncheon Dakgalbi [Same location, now called Stone Grill]
703 S Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Though we consider ourselves open-minded eater, we have not had good luck with Korean food, so we had kind of crossed it off of our list of “try-again” cuisines. Fortunately our fortunes have turned and we were introduced to some amazing Korean food on our Californian adventure. Our friend K lives in K-Town in LA, known to have some of the best Korean food anywhere, so we were excited to try one of her picks for Korean BBQ.
The sign outside the restaurant proclaimed “Chicken Kalbi” – in pink neon – which was a good sign for us since we love love places that specialize in a single dish. With this auspicious beginning we embarked on our chicken kalbi adventure. This restaurant itself was pretty trippy, and looked more like a nightclub. It has glossy black walls and, I kid you not, multicolored disco strobe lights. The music playing throughout the night was just as eclectic – a mix of K-Pop, Taylor Swift and Michael Buble (whatever!)
When we were greeted upon entry – the server proclaimed she needed to find the English menu – which, humorously enough, did not even contain any English. Our friendly English-speaking server was very helpful, walking us through the Kalbi process. We ordered 2 orders of the regular Kalbi and one order of the “fire chicken” especially for M, who is, as we know, a fire-breather. As is the tradition in most restaurants specializing in Kalbi, the dish was cooked in a giant hot plate right on the table in front of us. It also came with a small assortment of banchan (side dishes), including radish wraps, cole slaw and seaweed.
M proclaimed that the fire chicken was one of the best spicy dishes he had ever had (but of course it was not TOO spicy). The “regular” chicken kalbi was also stellar, and the sauce was a perfect mix of sweet and spice, and came cooked with scallions sweet potatoes and rice cakes. After the meal was (mostly) over – the ends of the kalbi were mixed into fried rice right in the hot plate by our server. After the meal was completely over we got a tiny cup of tangy frozen yogurt (a la red mango). We were definitely impressed with our meal, and were completely stuffed. With our LA experience we officially re-introduced Korean food into our cuisine rotation.
Speaking of world cuisines, a type of fusion that we had never seen before – Asian-influenced tacos – is making its way across the nation. Originating in California, the New York Times describes the arrival of Korean-Style Tacos across the nation. One restaurant, Taco Chino, is even located in Chicago. LTH Forum describes the Taco Chino experience here.
I recently came across a new food that, while it looks kind of frightening, is pretty intriguing – black garlic! Black garlic is popular in China, Korea and Japan and is really just aged and fermented whole cloves of garlic. The flavor is more mellow than raw cloves with a bit of a tang. And it’s spreadable. Some Whole Foods stores sell black garlic, but you can get it online, too.
A colleague of mine is from South Korea, and she always brings in the most interesting candies to share after she takes trips to South Korea. Her latest treat was red ginseng candies. Red ginseng is a popular ingredient in Korea – and is found in everything from tea to candy to jelly. Red ginseng is a special preparation of ginseng where it is heated to create a brittle texture.
I know ginseng is supposed to be good for you – and has been shown to have some anti-carcinogenic effects, but I’ve never had it like this. The little candies looked suspiciously like lozenges – and at first sample – they tasted like them too. Gradually the little maroon-colored candies tasted sweeter, but with a bitter, medicinal tinge. All in all, not bad – and pretty good for you (for a sweet). I’ve seen red ginseng candies in Asian supermarkets in the Chicago area, however you can get them from several online shops as well.
809 Davis St. (This location closed, other US locations open)
Evanston, IL 60201
Red Mango is the Korean chain that kicked off the latest version of Frozen Yogurt mania. However, it was Pinkberry who really brought the Custom FroYo concept to America by ‘co-opting’ the Red Mango concept. However, Red Mango is the true original, and is increasingly bringing their treats stateside. Red Mango recently opened their first Chicagoland stores in Evanston and Naperville and the eaters were there to check out the scene on the opening day.
Keeping the look of its West-Coast stores, the Evanston Red Mango is small and modern, with only a few tables and stools. The concept is simple – pick a flavor of frozen yogurt – plain or green tea and choose an assortment of toppings, raging from fresh raspberries to Fruity Pebbles. This little number on the left is green tea with Ghirardelli chocolate chips. The yogurt is smooth and creamy, with a hint of citrusy tang (or in the case of green tea flavor – a sweet green tea kick). A small cup – seen here on the right – is $2.50 for plain and $3.50 for green tea. The toppings are $1 for one, and $1.25 for two. Though a little pricey for a daily indulgence, it’s one you don’t have to feel to guilty about at only 90 calories a serving.