Korean Food: The Basics

By on 17 January, 2012 in Cooking, Food, Restaurant Reviews with 1 Comment

It comes as a tremendous surprise to many people to learn that Montgomery is home to several excellent Korean restaurants. In fact, most people raised in the average small town, especially in Alabama, have an extremely limited vision of Asian cuisine. When I was growing up, there was one Chinese restaurant and that was it. It wasn’t until I moved to a bigger city that I learned about Japanese food, even later that I was willing to try sushi, and even later than that before coming to appreciate the wide range of food options and variations from around this wide and multi-cultural world of ours.

So this post is designed to tip off Montgomery readers to Korean food. What’s the deal? And why are so many people missing out on these treasures?

Well, we think (but have no evidence to support our theory) that Montgomery’s awesome Korean places came when Hyundai opened its first manufacturing plant in the United States in 2005. The $1.4 billion plant employs about 2,700 people, some of them managers from Hyundai’s home in Seoul. Those folks probably missed home cooking, and hence a small industry was born. Montgomery’s Chinese and Japanese food offerings are relatively unspectacular, but the Korean food you can get here on any given night is among the greatest in the United States (maybe outside of Los Angeles’ storied Koreatown or New Jersey, which is home to some of the largest populations of Korean-Americans in the country). One report, quoting the head of the Korean-American Association of Greater Montgomery, estimated our Korean population at over 3,000.

If you’re like most Alabamians, you probably don’t know much about Korea, except that the TV tells you that there’s a good one (South Korea) and a bad one (North Korea). In fact, Korean culture is thousands of years old and transcends the artificial and relatively recent partition of the country into two nations. Although the political enmity between the two nations is such that some Koreans believe that there are biological differences between the citizens of each country, in fact, the splitting of the country actually divided families. Any physical differences between North and South are a result of economic sanctions and famine rather than genetics.

All of which is to say that the food we’re about to talk about doesn’t belong to any side in the ongoing (and likely doomed) political feud between North and South. And none of that stuff matters here in Montgomery, where we are all united by a universal love of good eatin’.

Let’s start with the basics: kimchi. We could write a whole multi-thousand word post about kimchi alone. Basically, kimchi is a fermented vegetable (like cabbage or radishes) with seasonings. It comes in a lot of different variations and flavors and can be made with a lot of different techniques. That means that if you are under the impression that you don’t like kimchi, you should keep giving it a chance. Because odds are, you’re going to come across a version that you like. Kimchi is to Korean food, in a weird way, what something like Pad Thai is to Thai food. It’s a place to start as you begin to develop a sense of what you like and don’t like. Sometimes kimchi is part of banchan. These are various tiny dishes of things, mostly pickled, that you will get with your meal. They are always interesting, sometimes amazing. Some have various meats in them, but many are vegetarian.

Sometimes people who visit a Korean restaurant for the first time are surprised by the diverse cuts of meat. You might see dishes made with ox tail, blood, or marrow. Our meat-eating friends assure us that these are all delicious if cooked properly, but we haven’t tried them. If we did eat meat, we’d probably be crazy for the at-table barbequing culture at many of our local Korean restaurants. The way Korean barbecue works is you use a hibachi-type grill at the table, or a waiter brings you a basket of coals. This is for cooking meats and often garlic, then wrapping in lettuce leaves. The smoky smell is pretty amazing, and from what we can tell, this is one food preparation method that even the most timid Alabamians can totally get into.

Although our friends who’ve spent time in Seoul assure us that there’s an amazing array of vegetarian food available there, you have to look a little harder at Montgomery’s local restaurants to find items for you. Especially since many of the menus are only partially translated. It helps if you eat a little fish, but even if not, you can find a great meal at a reasonable price. Arirang is out on the Boulevard in the same shopping center as an exceedingly bad Chinese place called Ming’s Garden. We had some good noodles there. It’s also across the parking lot from a really great market that stocks a ton of Korean food items, including some great freezer case dumplings, noodles and fresh kimchi. Those selections alone are worth the trip.

Further east is another Korean place called Shilla (3526 Eastdale Circle). It’s outstanding. Honestly, it’s not the most accessible place if you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you go in, stay humble, be patient, don’t act like you’re the head of some chaebol, and are flexible about what you eat, odds are good that, even if you don’t know what you’re ordering, you’re going to get something memorable. On our last trip, an incredible bowl of spicy noodles with seafood was enjoyed. And take into consideration that serving sizes may be large. You may end up taking some food home with you.

Our most recent venture was to Korean Garden, out on Vaughn Road (2801 Vaughn Plaza Rd). Although we waited for a while to get our food, we were happy when it showed. The banchan were delicious and plentiful. We got a giant plate of fried tofu as an appetizer – this came with a phenomenal sauce, and would have satisfied as a meal. So, we were pretty full already when the fantastic noodles full of vegetables and spices came to the table, as well as the lunch special. That was a salmon teriyaki, which was probably a mistake in retrospect (excessively sweet sauce), but we were trying to sample a variety of things. Next time we’ll stick with the noodles, tofu and pickled dishes. We enjoyed watching Korean television while we ate, though we were surprised by some of the programming.

Montgomery’s so lucky to have all of these restaurants. More folks should put them in their regular lunch and dinner rotations. The food’s great, and usually reasonably priced, but those aren’t the only reasons to go. When we’re adventurous about food we expand our horizons – trying something new doesn’t always mean you’ll like it, but does mean you’ll expose yourself to new tastes and possibilities. Remember when you were young and only ate brown and yellow things? Aren’t you glad you moved into some new categories of food? There’s no reason to stop now. Also, when folks eat at our local Korean (and Thai and Mexican and Chinese and Japanese and Indian and …) restaurants, we’re supporting the kind of multicultural mix that’s essential to making a city and community great.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Jennifer J Thompson says:

    Are there any Korean bakeries in the area?

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