As a middle schooler growing up in South Korea, I still vividly remember the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. At the time, the country was a burgeoning democracy, and South Koreans were proud of hosting an international mega event.
I’ve since become a hospitality professor and researcher in the U.S. And thanks to the growing popularity of Korean culture (dubbed the “Hallyu” or “Korean Wave”), I tend to get asked a lot about Korean food.
Now, 30 years later, South Korea’s second Olympic Games — and its first Winter Games — are being held in Pyeongchang in Gangwon province (or Gangwon-do). Coincidentally, I recently received a message from a former student who was planning to visit Pyeongchang because her cousin, Jacqueline Wiles, will be competing for the U.S. alpine ski team.
She wanted to know more about the foods she should try.
“Lucky you,” I thought, “because there are almost too many to name.”
Ingredients of ‘potato valley’
With its beautiful landscapes and relaxed beach towns, Gangwon-do is known as one of the best and most convenient winter escapes for many Seoulites.
Located along the eastern coast of the peninsula in northeast South Korea, the region faces the East Sea. But about three-quarters of the province is covered by mountainous forest, which means there’s very little farmland. The province is divided into two regions: Yeongseo in the west and Yeongdong in the east, where Pyeongchang is located.
Such an environment — surrounded by mountains but bordering the sea — creates the conditions for cuisine that’s unique to the region.
Dishes tend to include some combination of potato, corn, buckwheat or seafood. (In Korea, people from Gangwon-do are actually called “folks from Potato Valley.”)
In the Yeongdong region, seafood is a main fare. At the Jumunjin Fish Market, the largest fish market on South Korea’s east coast, vendors sell red snow crab, octopus, mackerel, sole, flounder and a whole medley of sashimi. Nearby restaurants will cook seafood by request, either steaming, boiling, grilling, frying, or even including it in a soup or stew.
In the Yeongseo region — with its rocky terrain — potato, millet, corn, buckwheat and mountain vegetables are the main ingredients in most dishes. Potatoes will be used for pastas, pancakes, dumplings or snacks.
Overall, the province’s food is simple, healthy, and can appeal to a global palate. The cooking method – which accentuates the natural flavors and aromas of the ingredients – is also rather uncomplicated.
Simple, heartwarming fare
The following are a sampling of several delicious dishes that are typical of the region.
Gamja ongsimi — a potato dumpling soup — is a vegetarian option. The potatoes are grated, drained, squeezed, and mixed with potato starch. Then it’s boiled in a broth with vegetables. This is a popular winter dish.
A soft tofu called Chodang sundubu is another vegetarian option. During the congealing process – which goes through several steps – salt water from the East Sea is used. This is a soft, light version of tofu, perfect for a soup or stew. But my favorite way of eating it is eating fresh – after steaming it with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil. It’s so light and soft that it’s almost like eating ice cream.
Dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken with vegetables) and makguksu (buckwheat noodle) are two dishes – usually served together – that are popular in Chuncheon, the capital of Gangwon-do. The dakgalbi is seasoned and deboned chicken stir-fried with sliced rice cake, sweet potato, perilla leaves and cabbage. In restaurants, the spicy, sweet and meaty dish is usually served on the same tableside hot grill that it’s been cooked on. Its companion, makguksu, is a buckwheat noodle served either in a chilled broth or with a sauce. The harmony of heat and coldness showcase the yin and yang of this frugal but filling meal.
Finally, there’s osam bulgogi, which is spicy stir-fried squid and pork bulgogi. Bulgogi – pork marinated in a sweet and spicy sauce – is one of the most well-known Korean dishes, and popular with many foreigners. But the Gangwon-do version mixes squid with the pork. Freshly caught from the East Sea, the squid transforms the dish into a surf and turf.
The PyeongChang Organizing Committee has built a “K-Food Dome” near the Olympic Plaza, where tourists will have the opportunity to sample the local fare.
No matter what they choose, they’ll be able to enjoy warm, hearty food – the perfect end to a day spent in the frigid mountains.
Kimchi Bacon Mac & Cheese
From “Everyday Korean” by Kim Sunee and Seung Hee Lee (Countryman Press, $17). Kimchi, bacon and cheddar seem like an unlikely trio, but they all come together beautifully. The trick is to saute the kimchi in butter to soften the funk.
4 to 6 slices bacon, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
14 ounces kimchi (store-bought is fine), drained and chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 to 3 cups whole or semi-skim milk
1 pound cooked short pasta, such as elbow macaroni, fusilli or penne rigate
Freshly ground black pepper
Dash of hot sauce
8 ounces grated comte or cheddar, or a combination of both
Garnish thinly sliced green onion
Cook the bacon over medium-high heat in a large, oven-safe skillet for about 7 minutes, until the bacon is cooked through and starting to crisp. If there’s more than 3 tablespoons of rendered fat, omit adding the butter. Otherwise, add the butter.
Add the chopped kimchi and saute, stirring occasionally for 5 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the kimchi, stir, and cook for 1 minute. Add 2 cups of the milk and, stirring constantly, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until the sauce is slightly thickened.
Stir in the cooked pasta, pepper and hot sauce, if using. Add a little more milk if too thick. Turn off the heat and stir in the cheeses. If the mixture is thick, add a little bit more milk. Taste and adjust seasoning as you add more milk. Garnish with green onion and serve.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Extra-Crispy Baked Chicken Wings Two Ways
From “Everyday Korean” by Kim Sunee and Seung Hee Lee (Countryman Press, $17). Gochujang and gochugara are available in Asian stores and in some well-stocked supermarkets.
4 1/2 pounds chicken wings, tips discarded, and cut at the joints into flats and drumettes, if desired
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon onion or garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil to grease foil (optional)
Honey, rosemary sprig and toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Sweet and Spicy Wing Sauce:
4 tablespoons ketchup
3 tablespoons gochugaru
2 to 3 tablespoons gochujang
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons rice syrup (or maple syrup)
1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar
1 tablespoon apricot or peach preserves
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Juice from 1/2 orange, plus 1-inch strip of zest
Place the chicken in a large colander. Rinse under cold water and pat dry. Place the wings on two wire cooling racks set over two baking sheets and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or, preferably, overnight, uncovered, in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Combine the baking powder, onion or garlic powder, if using, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the dried wings and toss to coat evenly. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil (lightly greased) or parchment paper (no need to grease) and divide the seasoned wings equally between the two baking sheets.
Place two oven racks on the lowest levels of the oven and bake the chicken for 30 minutes. Switch the baking sheets, increase the temperature to 425 degrees, and bake 20 to 25 minutes until golden and extra crispy. There’s no need to turn the chicken, but turn the pans around and switch them from one rack to another for even cooking.
Sweet and Spicy Wing Sauce: Combine ketchup, gochugaru, gochujang, soy sauce, vinegar, syrup, honey or brown sugar, preserves, about 1/4 cup water, minced garlic and orange juice and zest in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat and bring to a low boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Taste and add more vinegar or honey, as desired.
When the wings are finished, place half the wings in a large bowl and toss with the sauce; place the sauced wings on one side of a large serving platter. Place the remaining half of (unsauced) wings on the other side of the platter. Lightly warm honey in a small saucepan, immersing the rosemary sprig in the honey, if using. Drizzle over the unsauced side of the wings and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
Yield: 10 servings.