I first started cooking Korean food while at university. Before I’d left, a friend had encouraged me to watch somewhat trashy Korean television series that she liked (the Korean entertainment industry has been hugely successful in much of Asia in recent years), but I was more fascinated by the meals people were eating than the predictable storyline. At least, that’s what I like to think.
Tables are laden with small shared dishes of reds, yellows and greens and islands of white rice mixed with beans and other grains at each place setting. You’d think the legs would bend and break under the weight of it all. There were wobbly, cylindrical rice cakes in a thick vermillion sauce and scenes of kimjang, when the infamous spicy pickled cabbage, kimchi, would be made, the whole family involved in the salting and seasoning. I was in awe of it all.
A little investigation, and I learnt the cornerstones of Korean cuisine: soy sauce, sesame oil, chilli, garlic and spring onion. With them all readily available, I tried my hand a simple dishes and visited a Korean restaurant in London before I invested in more serious supplies like doenjang and gochujang, thick pastes made from soybeans and chilli respectively; dashima and miyeok, both kinds of seaweed commonly used; dried shiitake mushrooms and common Korean styles of noodles.
The Internet was my first source of recipes: recipe blogs mostly by Korean-Americans and the youtube cookery videos of Maangchi. Methodologies and ingredients varied, but as I learnt more about the cuisine, I learnt about the strong traditions of food being passed down through families and strong regional identities of Korea’s provinces (going far beyond the artificially drawn North and South of the last 60 years). This custom of informal home cooking and local individuality means there’s lots of scope for the variations that confused me in the beginning. This dish is itself a regional speciality from the South-east of the country, and I’ve adapted it from Maangchi’s original to what I have more readily available (honey instead of the preferred rice or corn syrup), and removed the potatoes to make it a little less carbohydrate-heavy with rice.
The ingredients are, for the most part, readily available and I think it’s a good way to dip your toe into Korean cuisine, a milder heat than many dishes and familiar flavours that are shared also with Chinese dishes. It’s always been well received by friends. Of the lesser known ingredients, oyster sauce is akin to a thick soy sauce, and it’s sold in most supermarkets. Dangmyeon, transparent and grey in colour, are a native Korean noodle made with sweet potato flour that soak up lots of flavour in stews like this, but hold their shape and chewy texture – rice noodles or Chinese bean starch noodles, sometimes called glass noodles, are good substitutes.
Serve this stew with kimchi (you’ll probably come across it whilst hunting down the noodles) and rice, as well as some simple seasoned vegetables if you like.
Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-based pan and lightly brown the chicken pieces on all sides, about 5-10 minutes. Add the minced garlic and ginger and the onion and fry for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant, taking care not to burn the garlic. Pour over the soy sauce, oyster sauce and honey, then add enough water to just cover the chicken. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid, and leave to simmer for around 10 minutes. Add the carrot and the chillies and simmer a further 10 minutes, uncovered to allow the sauce to thicken. Once the carrot has softened, drain the noodles and add to the stew, along with the cucumber and whites of the spring onions (reserving the greens for garnish) and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir through the sesame oil before topping with the reserved spring onion.