My top 6 Korean winter-warmers
The best way to keep your body warm in winter is…(drum roll)… to get some Korean goodies into it!
Why? Because winter temperatures in Korea can dip to a severe -20°C. So Korea does winter foods like Las Vegas does neon lights. There’s no better place to get inspiration for:
- things that make you go Aaah… as comforting warmth spreads in your tummy,
- things that make you go AARGH! as the chilli sting spreads in your mouth.
So here are my 6 top picks for Korean food guaranteed to create rosy glows, from each end of these spectra:
1. Gomtang – Beef bone broth
Gomtang is the ultimate Korean comfort food.
Beef bones are simmered for hours (we’re talking double digits), breaking down to make a cloudy, lip-stickingly umami broth.
Gomtang is often served in a dolsot, a Korean stone bowl favoured for its heat-retaining properties.
This soup is as versatile as the Queen is royal. Besides being a sworn hangover cure, Koreans also believe that collagen from beef bones boosts one’s complexion.
Insider’s dining tips:
- It’s all about the soup. There’s very little meat. The dish can be made more substantial by adding noodles.
- Don’t be surprised if the soup arrives full of meaty flavours but devoid of salt. If that’s the case, you’ll find salt on the table, which you can add to taste.
2. Seu pae jeol modeum ddeokbokki – Special combination chilli rice cake
In the Korean name of this dish, seu pae jeol (say it out loud) is, literally, “special”.
Be warned: the alarming colour of this dish doesn’t derive from tomato sauce.
This mixture of chewy Korean rice cakes, fish cakes, mussels and cabbage is cooked in copious amounts of that formidably hot pepper paste so beloved of Koreans: gochujang. Then it’s topped with melted cheese.
Insider’s dining tips
- If your kids or dining companions are undergoing chilli-training, get a bowl of water. Dip the rice cakes in it to remove excess sauce. It’ll still be laced with chilli, but less so: a gentler introduction for more sensitive palates.
- Sydneysiders, for an outstanding (and MSG-free) version of this, go to Mojee Korean Restaurant, 1/27 The Boulevarde, Strathfield.
3. Dak galbi – Chicken, rice cakes and vegetables with chilli marinade
Dak galbi comprises boneless chicken pieces, chewy Korean rice cakes and vegetables (eg cabbage, carrots and onions), cooked in a searingly hot marinade. This dish will heat you up in more ways than one.
Heat from the chilli warms the diners’ insides. Dak galbi is ultra spicy, thanks to being cooked in yet another searingly hot gochujang marinade.
No, you can’t ask for a milder version. It’d be like asking for an apple pie without apples.
Some specialty dak galbi restaurants offer cheese dak galbi, which is very popular among Koreans.
The owner of one such restaurant tried in vain to convince me to order this, fearful that the unadulterated version would send me running and never to return.
Insider’s dining tips
- Beware: dak galbi normally comes in huge servings. In Sydney’s “LIttle Korea” suburb of Strathfield, a standard $30+ serve will be more than ample for 4 people.
- Guess what, when you’re done eating this dish, you ain’t done yet. Ask about paying an extra $5 or so, to get a side serve of rice+seaweed+kimchi, to be fried in the remaining sauce. Until you’ve polished off this flavoursome finale, you can’t possibly be full.
More on dak galbi: see this post.
Where to get dak galbi: see this restaurant review of Ssong Ga Chicken in Sydney’s Strathfield.
Ssong Ga and Mojee are so authentic that they’ve even been blogged about in the Korean language.
4. Hobakjuk – Korean pumpkin porridge
This is pumpkin soup, Korean-style. It’s sweetened with honey and thickened with ground sticky rice. With no added fat, it is low-calorie yet delicious, and much loved by Korean women.
The good news: with pumpkins in season during the cooler months, it’s cheap and easy to make your own hobakjuk. Here’s my easy and healthy recipe.
Insider’s cultural tip
Much as Korean women like pumpkin porridge, they can’t bear to be called “pumpkin”. Because it’s the colloquial way of being called ugly.
5. Hotteok – Korean pancake with sweet filling
Hotteok is a common Korean street snack, always freshly made and served piping hot.
As befits many street snacks, hotteok is sweet and greasy.
But in fashionable Gangnam (the suburb satirised by Korean megastar Psy in Gangnam Style), apparently there’s a stall that uses a special technique to make a less oily version popular with health-conscious local ladies. (Those local ladies were lampooned in Psy’s Gangnam Style video, in the “Hey, sexy lady” scene.)
This palm-sized snack is a pleasingly chewy pancake. Its traditional filling is a brown sugar mixture that, upon cooking, melts into a scaldingly, thrillingly hot hazard. Red bean paste is an alternative filling.
Hotteok isn’t normally found in your nicely furnished, silver-chopsticked Korean restaurant. In Sydney, a better bet would be little Korean hole-in-the-wall snack shops in Strathfield, Eastwood or the city.
A still-delicious, dead-easy alternative is to buy ready-made frozen hotteok from Korean shops, for cooking at home. Besides being cheaper, you can benefit from less grease. Just cook your frozen hotteok in a non-stick pan with a smidgen of oil (as pictured).
6. Korean honey plum tea
Think of honey plum tea as a cordial with the consistency of jam. It is citrusy and honey-sweet.
Despite the tea moniker, there are no tea leaves. It’s caffeine-free and perfect as a sleepy-time drink.
Simply dollop a teaspoon or two into a cup of hot water, cradle the cup to warm your hands, and drink up to warm your body.
Insider’s drinking tips
Honey plum tea is a versatile drink.
- Have it hot for a cup of comfort in winter (or to soothe an unsettled tummy, as Koreans do).
- Have it iced for a refreshing treat in summer.
OK, if none of the above makes you warm, there’s always alcohol. And the ever-reliable Koreans have this covered too:
Going beyond Korean barbecue
Want to learn more about Korean food? Do the Korean Adventure, a 95% non-spicy feasting and shopping tour on all things Korean!
Love spicy food? Do the Mind-blowing Homebush Adventure, guaranteed to please lovers of meat, chilli and coffee!
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An edited version of this article was published in local community paper Strathfield Scene in May 2013.