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GOOD TASTE | Say Kimchi!

Summer's upon us, patio days are here, and it's time to try a new al fresco menu. Forget burgers and ribs — say hello to banchan and galbi!

By Barbara Ramsay Orr Photography By Harry Gils & Dana Cowie Gils

  • Sakai's Whe Dup Bap is a delicious mix of chopped assorted sashimi on lettuce and spring mix, served with chojang (Korean hot sauce) for mixing.

Put on some Psy tunes, get out the Sujeo (Korean eating utensils, comprised of stainless chopsticks and a long spoon) and crack open a cold bottle of Hite beer.

Korean food has been slow to infiltrate North American tables, but recently it has assumed more prominence as Korean restaurants and grocery stores increase in number and knowledge of this exotic cuisine has spread.

We're lucky in this area to have a good sprinkling of authentic Korean places where we can sample the cuisine or buy the ingredients to make our own bibimbap.

And a fine cuisine it is — healthy, highly varied, fresh and flavourful. Its flavours are created from various combinations of sesame oil, soybean paste, soy sauce, garlic and, most importantly, chili pepper, which gives it its distinctive spicy taste.

John Kim, who manages Sakai Japanese and Korean Restaurant in Burlington, explained some of the fine points of Korean dining. "The surprising thing about Korean food is the amazing diversity, when you consider how small the country is. But each region has developed its own specialties. Mountainous regions developed methods of marinating and pickling ingredients, while regions close to the sea incorporated fresh seafood, fish and seaweed into their dishes. Because of the geography, farming on any large scale has always been difficult, but Koreans live with the seasons, harvesting mushrooms, herbs, vegetables and greens at their peak."

Kimchi, a fermented condiment made with cabbage, radish, scallions or cucumbers and red chilli peppers, is a staple at every meal. "Each region has its own kimchi," Kim tells me. "Some bury it in clay pots to mature, while others like it fresh and crispy. Some like it fermented until it is sour and clear. It varies a great deal. Every Korean cook has their own style, but it is an omnipresent and tasty accompaniment to almost every meal."

It's so ubiquitous that Koreans say 'kimchi' instead of 'cheese' for photographs!

At Sakai, the most popular Korean dish is Dol Shot Beebimbap — a dish of five types of blanched vegetables like carrots, daikon radish, spinach, and big head bean sprouts with marinated beef, topped with a fried egg and sesame oil and a house-made sauce. "It comes to the table in a sizzling stone bowl and everyone in the restaurant watches and decides they will order that next time," says Kim.

While the bibimbap is more of a cold weather dish, there is the Whe Du Bap for hot summer dining — chopped sashimi with salad greens and shredded daikon, topped with seaweed and served cold with a spicy sauce and steamed rice. "This is a great warm weather dish," says Kim. "It has a spicy kick with a bit of acidic sweetness to it and different textures with the crispy salad and fish. Very healthy. It is great served with a glass of soju — the distilled vodka-like drink so popular in Korea, it is the world's top-selling alcohol."

At Alirang, at the corner of Main and Locke in Hamilton, Bobby Cho presides over an unpretentious, but pleasantly relaxed, restaurant that serves authentic and delicious Korean specialties. It is the sister restaurant to Alirang in Ottawa.

" Sometimes customers who are not familiar with Korean dishes worry that the food will be too spicy. But we will always vary the level of spicyness," says Cho.

"We have been welcomed here by many Hamiltonians since we opened," Cho adds. "They keep coming back – that's a good sign!" The chef, Sil Kim, trained at culinary college in Korea and has practiced his craft in Korea and Ireland for 15 years.

The restaurant greets you with hot tea – in my case, it was a tasty cup of corn tea.

Cho explains that many of his customers like to start with panzeon, a savoury seafood pancake, or miso soup.

Banchan comes with most of the main dishes and is an assortment of little side dishes and sauces served with white rice as an accompaniment to the main meal. While Alirang's banchan is simple, the side dishes can be quite diverse, with little bowls of kimchi, sliced radish, seaweed, spinach or bean sprouts, along with red pepper sauce and rice serving as the side story to many main dishes in Korean cuisine.

Alirang has a good representative list of main dishes. My favourite and new go-to for a quick lunch is naengmyun — cold Korean noodles in a spicy sauce, which is delicious, refreshing and light.

There's bibimbap and bulgogi — sliced marinated beef with mushrooms and onions — as well as galbi, grilled marinated short ribs, and oribokum — a duck and vegetable stir-fry. The pork bone stew is excellent, flavourful and hearty.

Dessert is not a big thing in Korean cuisine, but Alirang offers green tea ice cream as an elegant finish.

Try out a Korean summer feast to add zip to the same-old, same-old. Try dining Gangnam Style. You may well fall victim to kimchi addiction!