January 19, 2005

How to eat a Korean Chinese meal

Caution: The carb-conscious eaters need not read further.

Although there is much sophistication when it comes to Chinese cuisine and its myriad regional varieties and specialties, it is always puzzling to me that there seems to be so little knowledge about the fabulous phenomena that is the Korean Chinese food. This is as distinct from authentic Chinese food as Chop Suey, which I'm sure I've never had, or fortune cookies. It is likely, however, that at least some of the Chinese restaurants you've visited in the U.S. do serve some Korean Chinese specialties but you just didn't know it. And if you can't distinguish real Chinese food from American Chinese food, you have a long, long way to go. No offense, but it's true.

Taking its base from the Mandarin Chinese cuisine, the Korean Chinese cuisine was probably developed by Chinese restaurateurs in North Korea. North Korea because of the prevalence of noddle dishes and you know those North Koreans and their noodles. In fact, the most common staples of the Korean Chinese cuisine are the various versions of noodle dishes, such as the ubiquitous jjajangmyun and jjamppong or the less commonly orderd gismyun or oolmyun.

A note: I will use the common romanization of these terms but they don't really tell you how they sound. It's an archaic system created by a French priest who probably didn't speak Korean well to begin with. Anyway, jja-jang-myun sounds more like tza-jang-myun and myun means noodles.

My earliest memories of the Chinese Korean food are from my childhood in Korea in the 70s. My parents would occasionally take me and my siblings out to Chinese restaurants where our father would call out for a "boy" to take our orders. It was so wrong but we thought it was very funny at that time. We always heard Chinese being spoken at these restaurants and we thought that was funny too.

At other times when we wanted jjajangmyun, we would order delivery: Yes, they had Chinese take out delivery even back then, even in Korea. Since my brothers are twins and twins were pretty rare at the time in Korea, our house was known as the "twin house" and my sister would call to order some jjajangmyun to be delivered to the "twin house." And they always knew exactly where we were. These delivery boys had, and probably still do, a special delivery container for Chinese food - it is a big box-like tin structure with shelves to hold multiple dishes - and most often they'd ride a bike to make their deliveries (they probably ride a motorbike these days or drive a car). It was a good time.

As a side note, the Chinese living in Korea are called "hwagyo."

So when my family goes out to eat Chinese, it is understood that we are going to eat Korean Chinese. There is a peculiar order to eating Korean Chinese and it is definitely not for the faint bellied.

We normally wet our appetites with jasmine tea which, I always hope, will wash down some of the oil we are about to consume. Then we get our appetizers, most commonly, fried dumplings, Shanghai-style. Shanghai-style dumplings are huge and have thick skins and you can get them steamed or fried. Then we have our "main course." Depending on the number of people at the table, we order 3-4 main dishes that we call "yori." "Yori" doesn't mean main dish. It just means prepared dish or fancy meal. Last Sunday, we ordered kanpoonggi (spicy fried chicken with bones), tangsooyook (sweet and sour beef), orange chicken (for my sister-in-law who only eats chicken, American style), and fried rice (for the American-palated children at the table). Other dishes we commonly order are nansajansa (which are like meat patties in hoisin sauce that my brother-in-law likes and the rest of my family looks down upon) or ryusansa (cut veggies with cuttlefish gelatin in mustard sauce).

You might think the meal is over by now, but wait, there's more and it's even more substantial. To wash down the "yori," as my parents would say, we order the noodle dishes, Jjajangmyun (noodles with black bean sauce) or jjamppong (which means hodge-podge or mishmash - noodles in spicy seafood broth). If you're like my father, you order a jumbo size of the noodle dish.

The jjajang or the black bean sauce, can be made in several different ways and you can ask for it on the side of the noodles instead of on top. That's a version called "Samsun" jjajang with seafood, and there's also the one that is made from jjajang powder but I forget the name. The black bean sauce is made with pork, onions and zucchini and topped with thinly sliced cucumbers to give it a zolt of coolness.

Of course, the mark of a good noodle dish is the noodles and few places can boast of making their own noodles and by hand. If you've ever seen people draw noodles by hand, it's pretty amazing. How they are able to separate a clump of dough into spectacularly long and individual noodle strings is wildly beyond me.

Somehow, almost miraculously, after all the "yori" we've consumed, there's always room for the noodles. My mother, for whom nobody can eat enough, always says, "It's only noodles. It'll go down very quickly." Obviously, she wouldn't be a good candidate for Atkins. What do French say? L'appetit vient en mangeant?

One saving grace about this experience is that there isn't a rich dessert that follows the noodles. Unless you go to a pastry shop elsewhere. Most often, we are served small amounts of sliced oranges or caramelized sweet potatoes as a sweet aftermath to the carnage of the massive meal that lay in front of us.

If you're hungry, there's nothing better and if you like noodles, there's nothing better either. If you are by yourself or someone with small stomach, I'd go easy on the "yori" and share the noodles with your companion. Or, there's always the takeout box.

In Koreatown, you can get good jjajangmyun at YongGung on Vermont, 1 block north of Olympic, or Great Wall on Olympic (food can be a little greasy) or Jinhunggak in Koreatown Plaza on Western and 9th. In San Fernando Valley, we go to Cafe Mandarin on 20425 Sherman Way in Canoga Park.

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