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korean food in japan

November 21, 2010

I didn’t have plans to cook on Wednesday, since I usually go out with a friend after yoga, but this past Wednesday was cold, rainy, and busy, so my plans never quite came together in time.

On the way back home through the rain I stopped at one of the specialty stores in Shinjuku I frequent and picked up a jar of the ingredient I’d been missing the night before: gochujang, a Korean red pepper paste.

Before coming to Japan I didn’t know much about Korean food. San Francisco is known for being a big melting pot of cultures with access to food from just about any part of the world, but my knowledge of Korean food while living there was limited to Korean Barbecue; and, not really being a meat eater, I’d only ventured into a Korean restaurant once.

I can’t quite say that living in Tokyo has really opened up my eyes to the wide world of Korean cuisine, as I do not consider myself to be terribly knowledgeable about it as a whole; but over the past few years that I have lived here I have been introduced more closely to the aspects of Korean food that are well-known to the Japanese. I was also able to learn a lot from the Korean friends I made during my first year here as an exchange student (such as the information that most Korean homes have a separate fridge -just- for kimchi making, did you know that?), and even had the good fortune to experience it first hand when I spent a couple of eye-opening days in Seoul a few years ago.

Although the Japanese palate is accustomed to very mild flavors and most Japanese cannot handle a level of spiciness above a weak medium, they still have a love affair with toned down versions of dishes from Korea. As in America, mentioning Korean food does conjure up images of barbecue and meats, but there are a few other staples known to most of the population that I had never heard of prior to coming here (although I’m confident that they have become more well-known back home in the time I’ve been gone).

The two most ubiquitous dishes are bibimba and chijimi, but it is also popular to add kimuchi, red pepper, and nira (garlic chives) to just about any dish and call it Kankoku-fuu, or Korean-style. Kimchi as a stand-alone ingredient is quite popular in Japan and served relatively often; similar to how gyoza (Chinese pot-stickers) have been adopted to the point that they might be thought of as a native dish to those who don’t know very much about Japanese food in general.

I was wary of kimchi at first, expecting it to be both oddly flavored and too spicy, but I quickly realized that my reservations were completely unfounded and really enjoy it now. It is actually one of my favorite additions for okonomiyaki and nabe, and you may remember Eric and I gushing about the kimchi tsukemen at our local ramen shop just a few short weeks ago (we actually stopped there twice while it was available!)

But enough background on Korean food and on to my actual dinner.

This is a Japanese-style Korean inspired dish I improvised one evening a few years back that became a regular in my kitchen for quite a while. For some reason I seem to have forgotten about it in time, and have not made it in at least a year, but with my recent cravings for fermented foods it crept into my mind last week and I could not shake the thought until I’d made it again.

This is not a heavily flavored dish, despite the kimchi and gochujang. It is similar in flavor and style to chige-nabe, a Japanese hot-pot dish made with Korean flavors, though with much less soup. Feel free the increase the amounts of kimchi and gochujang to your preferences. I sometimes make it with double the kimchi, but used what I had available this time.

This dish comes together very quickly, despite the number of steps and instructions, and I consider it to be a good meal for an evening that is busy, but not too busy to resort to emergency meals. Though it is very voluminous, most of its volume comes from the vegetables, so it is a good choice when you want a light,warming meal that is also very filling.

A note on the gochujang: The first time I bought gochujang I got it from a store called Kankoku Hiroba in Shin-Ookubo, which is known as the Korean section of Tokyo. It is a really great place to find authentic Korean ingredients for a really good price, as well as bulk kimchi, etc. The gochujang manufactured by other companies in Japan is not at all of the same quality as what you will find in Shin-Ookubo. You can use it in a pinch, as I did this time, but it is worth the trip to get the real stuff. I’m not sure what the availability is outside of Japan, but I’m guessing it can be found in any decent Asian foods section.

Kimchi Glass Noodles

    100 g glass or cellophane noodles
    600 g momen-dofu (firm tofu)
    2 eggs
    1 tsp peanut oil
    200 g carrots, julienned
    150 g enoki mushrooms
    125 g moyashi (bean sprouts)
    200 g hakusai (napa cabbage)
    50 g nira
    150 g hakusai kimch
    50 g gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)
    2 cloves garlic
    1-inch piece of ginger root

Bring a pot of water to a boil, cut the heat, and add the glass noodles. Cover and let sit for about 6 minutes, or until the noodles are soft and cooked through. Drain and set aside until needed.

Open the tofu and set on a cutting board to drain slightly before using. This is a soupy dish, so the tofu does not have to be pressed, but draining it will allow it to absorb more flavor later on. Also take the time to wash and prepare all of your vegetables in advance. Cut the carrots into matchsticks, cut the enoki in half, wash and roughly chop the hakusai, cut the nira into 5 cm pieces, and mince the garlic and ginger.

Lightly beat the eggs in a bowl, and heat a small non-stick pan over medium heat. When hot, turn the heat to low and use a paper towel or cooking spray to lightly coat the entire surface of the pan with oil. Working in two batches, pour the beaten egg into the pan and swirl to create a thin, even layer of egg over the surface of the pan. Let cook until just set but still slightly wet on top, then flip the egg and cook the other side for 20-30 seconds to finish. Remove to a cutting board, cut in half and then into ribbons, and set aside.

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Once hot add the oil, followed by the carrots, garlic, and ginger, and stir fry for just a minute to cook. Add the kimchi, moyashi, enoki, hakusai, and gochujang and stir-fry for another minute to let the flavors combine. Add enough water to cover the bottom of the skillet by about 1/2 an inch and bring to a light simmer. Add the cubed tofu and nira and let simmer for just a few minutes longer until the tofu is heated through and the vegetables are cooked but still retain some texture. Stir in the egg ribbons and turn off the heat.

Divide the glass noodles into large bowls and top with the kimchi vegetables. Depending on the amount of liquid left in the bottom of the skillet you can serve it more or less soupy as desired. I like it relatively wet, but not quite to the point of being a real soup. Makes four very voluminous servings; or you can add one extra egg and make six smaller servings.

Are you familiar with Korean food? How do you feel about fermented foods such as kimchi and gochujang?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2010 4:35 pm

    That looks good! :-D Sadly I don’t buy and use harusame as much as I should, so this is an inspiring recipe (when you say firm tofu I’m assuming you’re using momen?)

    Last time my Korean co-worker brought me things from Korea she gave me some fantastic kimchi that was made with dried daikon instead of hakusai. It was really chewy and delicious, and I would love to find some more but I haven’t been able to locate it anywhere in Tokyo. (She also gave me some made with sesame leaves that was not my favorite, but it was interesting.)

    • November 22, 2010 10:25 pm

      Yeah, I usually use momen, but it’s not terribly strict. Actually this time I went with about 350 g momen and 200 g leftover kinu, since I had it in the fridge just sitting there begging to be used. The noodles I used aren’t actually harusame, but the Southeast asian kind that are kinked and stick together in big bundles. I bought a -huge- package of them at the Korean store or a Thai store a while back. Harusame would probably work just fine, but I’ve never tried them. :D

      Have you ever checked the Korean store for kimchi? I think they probably have hakusai kimchi mainly, but if anywhere in Tokyo were going to stock different types I think it would be there.

  2. November 23, 2010 12:11 am

    I’m not familiar at all with Korean food… but your pictures are beautiful and look delicious!

    • November 23, 2010 3:43 pm

      Thank you so much! If you get a chance I recommend trying out some Korean food to see what you think of it. Bibimbap is a good starter dish, as it is just rice cooked in an iron or stone bowl and topped with random other things like meat, kimchi, and greens (and once even cheese here in Tokyo!). It’s tasty and I love how the rice crisps up and forms a crust around the edges. :D

  3. November 26, 2010 12:25 am

    I love kimchee! I have made it before and now that I’ve got a kefir colony, I’m going to try again with the addition of some kefir whey. Just got to get to the Korean grocery for red pepper powder: it’s different from Mexican dried chiles.

    My mother-in-law is Korean, originally from the Pyongyang region. She grew up under Japanese occupation and had to speak Japanese in public. Since the “Liberation” happened before she’d finished school, she never learned to speak the fully polite version of Japanese. And since she was restricted to learning Korean at home, she never fully learned all the polite levels of Korean, either.

    Long story short, my MIL managed to escape the new communist regime and got sponsored by an American GI to come to America.

    Later, she was able to bring her Mother over and the family was complete.

    She makes kick-butt chapchae (a noodle dish that looks like the one in your photo) It is supposed to be mild. Korean food is all about contrast, mild dishes next to fire in your mouth dishes. And the kimchee (actually the term stands for the ubiquitous preserved vegetables served at every fancy meal, some are hot and some are mild) is served at every meal.

    Bill’s Mom buys her kimchee from the Korean store, but Bill has scarring memories of Halmoni (Grandma) making crocks of kimchee and burying it in the backyard: the smell would scare off any bullies who were attacking him. He has a strong aversion to kimchee, as do his sister and brother. Perhaps that’s why his mother adores me: I love kimchee.

    • December 15, 2010 1:50 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment! You have a really interesting connection to Korea and Korean food going on there. It’s too bad that your husband doesn’t like kimchee, since it is such a big part of Korean heritage. I’m sure your MIL really appreciates that at least you like it! :D

      I’m intrigued by the process of making kimchee, but I’m not sure I’m quite adventurous enough to try it myself. If you do make it be sure to let me know how it turns out!

  4. February 20, 2011 9:26 pm

    Maya, are you Korean? What is your favortie Korean food?

    • February 22, 2011 1:44 pm

      Thanks for reading!

      No, I’m not Korean. Actually, most of my exposure to Korean food has been while living in Tokyo! I really like the flavor combinations used in the Korean foods I’ve tried, but I think I might have to go with bibimbap. I really love the way the rice gets crisp and crunchy at the bottom of the bowl!

  5. February 22, 2011 3:57 pm

    Maya, Korean Food is very popular in Japan, Hawaii, and California. I love bibimbap and Korean BBQ ( Kalbi in Korean). I also like Naegmyun ( Korean Cold Noodle) actually this dish originated in North Korea. I really like your blog. Keep up with great work.

    • February 22, 2011 4:27 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment! I’m really glad you like my blog. It’s been a little slow around here lately, but I’m looking forward to getting back on a regular posting schedule when my work schedule goes back to normal at the end of the month. :D

      I have never had naengmyun before, but it looks really good! I’m going to have to keep my eye out for it the next time I go out for Korean food. Thank you for the suggestion. :D

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