It’s Sunday, and four of us have piled into the car to get dinner fixings in Koreatown. Nothing fancy, we agree. No big cooking projects. A low-key, easy dinner after too much fun on a too-late Saturday night. Two of us, the Kim sisters, Betty and Laura, are leading the way, but they’re doggedly modest in this role. “We only know what we like,” they say. “We don’t have any wide-ranging expertise in Korean cuisine.” Never mind that they ate their mother’s Korean cooking five days a week while growing up in Ohio. Or that, several years ago, in an attempt to formally educate themselves in the art of Korean cooking, they hired an accomplished Korean chef and hosted a summerlong series of cooking classes in their own home. At any rate, they have agreed to take us shopping and assemble a meal easy enough to be replicated by anyone, however truly inexperienced, who is interested in eating Korean food at home.
“Is there any kind of Korean food you don’t like?” they ask as we set out.
“Well, the other day I had a salad with all different kinds of beans and greens with an egg and rice all mushed together that I wasn’t crazy about,” I say. “It reminded me of what, in the Midwest, we used to call a garbage salad.”
Soft laughter. “Bibimbap! That’s one of the things we were planning to make!” they say. “But we don’t have to . . .”
“No, please, maybe your version will change my mind.”
Our first stop is the HK Market on Western Avenue, a hard-used, always busy supermarket with a hairily congested parking lot. We find a spot on the street and, at the front, pause to admire a machine extruding small, orange-hued, yam-flavored rice cakes soon to be packaged in cellophane and sold as Doo Doo Rice Pops. Inside, we take a hard left to the warm-food counter, and the Kim sisters, after a brief conference — they will confer softly, intensely on every decision — agree on a black-bean sauce for rice noodles (a Chinese dish) and big, soft bready dumplings stuffed with meat and vegetables. Next, we move to the prepared-food cases where they select mung pancakes (pindaeduk) and fried fish fillets (saeng sun jun). “And here’s your garbage salad!” they say, tossing into the cart a pretty, colorful arrangement of beans and shredded greens (fernbrake and spinach) arranged around a small carton of red-pepper dressing. The traditional bibimbap accompaniment is a seaweed-wrapped, sushi-style roll filled with vegetables.
The sisters confer again over the various freshly packaged pickles and other side dishes in their clear plastic containers — and swiftly agree that the lotus root here is in sugar syrup and probably too sweet; they like it more savory and will look for that elsewhere. They jointly select dried anchovy (myeolchi); dried, seasoned, marinated radish (muumallaengi); dried, seasoned squid (ohjingoh); and pickled cucumbers and daikon. They already have kimchi (pickled napa cabbage) at home but point out that people select a brand based on their preferred degree of fermentation — the more fermented the kimchi, the more steeped-looking and orange-colored the cabbage appears.
Next comes the search for a good red-pepper sauce to accompany the mung pancakes and fish fillets. The Kim sisters want the kind with sesame seeds that they ate throughout their childhood, and don’t find it at HK. On our way out, we stop at the candy counter and taste a free dduk, a moist, chewy, salty-sweet, bean-filled rice candy, which induces us to buy a whole tray of coconut-covered dduk.
Once back in the car we head down Western to the Koreatown Plaza, located on what is now known as “the old mall” (as opposed to the Koreatown Galleria, the big new fancy mall on the corner of Western and Olympic). “My parents have stayed loyal to this mall,” the sisters say of the large pink structure.
“But your parents live in Ohio!” we exclaim.
“Yes, but they’re here visiting for a good five months every year.”
We have come to the Plaza Market to buy the meat: two big plastic tubs of beef kalbi or galbi, thin-sliced, bone-in marinating short ribs ready for the barbecue grill. Here, the sisters find the right salty-sweet lotus root. “We like the more Japanese style, with more soy sauce.” From this market’s pickle selection we find another favorite, garlic stems in red pepper (manil jong). And here, too, is found Cosmo brand red-pepper sauce, which has sufficient sesame-seed content to quench the sisters’ childhood longing.
Our last stop is at the new Korean mall, just a few blocks down Western. “So close!” I say.
“Yes, it seemed unkindly competitive,” they say. “Which is why the question of loyalty even comes up.”
The supermarket in the new mall does have the bright, upscale gloss — and prices — of a new, high-end market; it’s like the Bristol Farms of Koreatown. But the assortment of pickled and pre-made foods does seem particularly fresh and appealing, and we can’t help but gather several more side dishes — like the bright-green, wonderfully crunchy pickled cucumbers (oimuchim). “If you want pickled crabs, go ahead,” say the Kim sisters.
Small crabs in their shells in a red pickling sauce recall an AWOL Jude Law eating live little crabs in Cold Mountain. “I don’t think so,” I say.
We load up on beer — Sapporo. “Is it okay if we don’t get Korean beer?” they ask, and we head back to the house.
there, we split up into two factions: Betty Kim is in the kitchen, where she boils water for the noodles and makes rice. Laura Kim starts the barbecue in the back yard. While the coals burn down, we unpack our booty, arranging on the Kims’ large dining-room table the assorted side dishes (silvery, dried, seasoned anchovy; chewy, dried, pickled squid; slightly sweet black beans in soy sauce; pungent black sesame leaves; the savory lotus root; the greener crunchy cukes, and some hotter, sweeter and more-pickled ones). Despite the clutter of many boxes, it doesn’t look like a whole lot of food — especially since friends, having heard of a pending feast, have begun drifting in.
In the back yard, the coals in the Weber are soon ready, and the barbecue grill is covered in aluminum foil with a few holes pierced in it. (The foil allows the meat to cook in its juices.) The galbi is prepared in two big, sputtering batches. Meanwhile, Betty has warmed the mung pancakes and fried-fish fillets and doctored the red-pepper sauce with sugar and vinegar to accompany them. She has boiled the fresh rice noodles, and warmed the black-bean sauce in the microwave. When the big vegetable-and-meat-filled bun dumplings come out of the oven, she sets out a ponzu (soy and citrus) sauce to accompany them.
The bibimbap, now referred to by all as “your garbage salad,” is tossed with rice and its red dressing — and, yes, I do like it far better than the egg-topped, overly busy, fast-food version I’d had previously.
Eight or nine of us gather at the table and dig in. As it turns out, there is more than enough of everything. The side dishes are so intense in flavor, one eats just a small amount of them, and we actually wind up with lots of leftovers.
Karen, a Korean-American friend of the Kim sisters, allows that the food is “actually pretty good.” The best Korean food, she admits, is her mother’s. The Kim sisters agree that homemade is probably better, but also point out that there is much more variety possible with pre-made foods. The various dishes — buns, pancakes, pickles, short ribs — can each be so time-consuming to prepare, you’d only have a few of them at any homemade meal — maybe four or five side dishes and a soup.
Dessert is simple: Two juicy, refreshing Asian pears are cut up and passed around. “Koreans don’t usually have dessert,” says Laura Kim. “Just fruit, like this.” But we also have the coconut-covered dduk, which makes the rounds to general approbation: a pleasant variation, we agree, on the Hostess Snowball.
One guest surveys the table with obvious satisfaction. “I always shop at the HK Market in Glendale for produce and stuff,” he says. “But I never bought any Korean food because I had no idea what to get. But now I do.”
Exactly. And we have the Kim sisters to thank for that.
Bao-style dumplings stuffed with vegetables and meat
Mung pancakes (bindaedduk)
Cooked fish fillet (jun)
Black-bean sauce, rice noodles (fresh or dried)
Beef kalbi or galbi, pre-marinated beef short ribs
Three or more assorted prepared side dishes, which may include:
Marinated dry squid (o jing e chae)
Marinated dry anchovy (medrutchee or myulchibokum)
Black beans in soy sauce (kong jang)
Lotus root in soy sauce
Pickled radishes (mal uh mu che and jjan ji muchim)
Seasoned dry radish (mul mah lang)
Marinated garlic stem (manulchong)
Pickled cucumber (oimuchim)
Kimchi (pickled napa cabbage)
Yulum kimchi (young napa cabbage or put be chu kimchi)
Cook 1 to 2 cups (dry) rice, white or brown.
For the short ribs (kalbi): Approximately 1/2 pound per person. Barbecue or broil until done to taste. If you barbecue, cover grill in tin foil and prick holes in the foil every six inches or so — this allows smoke and heat in while the meat cooks in its juices.
For noodles with black-bean sauce: Boil rice noodles according to package directions. Heat black-bean sauce (in microwave or on stove top). Toss together or serve separately.
For the pancakes and fish fillets: Warm them and serve with red-pepper sauce seasoned to taste; try 1/4 cup of red-pepper sauce with a dash or two of white vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, and adjust as desired.
For bibimbap salad: Toss contents of package with 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked rice and the carton of dressing. If desired, top with an egg fried over easy.
Set out all side dishes banquet-style — and enjoy.