Seoul serenade

In America, you often hear people boast about how lucky we are because we can taste all the foods of the world within our very borders. You can have Chinese one night, Italian the next and then Indian, Latin, African or Middle Eastern. It might be a fortnight before you have to repeat a single ethnic cuisine.

To these people, my mother would say the Korean equivalent of “big deal; it’s not all that.” The foreign-born and children of the foreign-born may appreciate my mother’s stance, for nothing satisfies like one’s own ethnic cuisine. In the case of my mother, we can go to any restaurant, of any cuisine and any rating, and her reaction will vary from “not bad” to “not worth the money” to “eh.” For years, I attributed her dissatisfaction to the lack of kimchi at these other restaurants. I secretly derided her, assuming her lack of fulfillment was the fault of an immigrant bumpkin skin she could not shed. But children are not wise when it comes to their parents. Lately, I have started to wonder if my mother was on to something. Is there something about Korean food that, once had, makes nothing else as satisfying?

Says Korean cookbook author Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, “Korean food is pleasingly sour, sweet, hot, burning hot, salty, bitter and nutty. It is a happy marriage of intriguing tastes, often in subtle harmony, sometimes in surprising contrasts.”

To be sure, Korean cuisine makes use of the same ingredients over and over again: hot pepper in its myriad iterations, green onions to flavor and garnish everything, the ever-present garlic, soybean paste, soybean curd, soybean sprouts and sprinkles of toasted sesame seeds that dance lightly on dish after dish. But these ingredients serve as fixed stars in a diverse universe of tastes, textures and temperatures: cold, crunchy roots and vegetables; jiggly acorn curd; soft tofu; chewy meats; and delicate fish. Then there’s the spice factor. Korean food is meant to challenge your mouth—sometimes with a pleasant heat and other times with a serious burn.

Situated unassumingly off busy Folsom Boulevard in Sacramento, Willow Tree Restaurant, also called Bud Namu Jip (Willow Tree House), embodies all that Korean food should be. It begins when you walk in. Clean, quaint and unpretentious, the small restaurant incorporates decorative artifacts and hieroglyphic-like Chinese characters that convey an understated charm.

First, we were presented with ban chan—side dishes or tasters meant to whet the appetite and give the meal some diversity. Ban chan can include different kinds of kimchi, seasoned roots or vegetables, fish, beef—you name it. The ban chan that came were exercises in freshness—from superb radish and cabbage kimchis to soybean sprouts seasoned with hot pepper spice.

Next came the bin-deh-tuk appetizer, a batter of ground mung beans fried up like a little pancake. Glistening and golden on the outside, with flecks of kimchi and bits of other vegetables on the inside, the pancake was absolutely delicious. The o-jinga-bokkum, sizeable pieces of squid sautéed in a hot pepper-paste sauce, was likewise pleasing, with a spicy heat that dissipated fast. Another dish, the chap chae, was a hearty-flavored, heavily peppered cellophane-noodle dish accompanied by beef and vegetables.

For some, going to a Korean restaurant without eating gal bi, or marinated, barbecued beef ribs, is like going to Paris and not seeing the Louvre. What is the point? For others, it merely takes great restraint, which we did not show. One order of gal bi got us the sizzling hot plate. (Note: At many restaurants, two or more orders means cooking the meat over hot coals yourself.) We also asked for lettuce and spicy paste with which to wrap the meat, well worth the inquiry if you want to enjoy contrasting tastes, textures and temperatures.

The crowning dish wasn’t the gal bi, however. It was the soon dubu chigae, a spicy, spicy stew filled with tofu as soft as custard. The broth was both flaming hot and boiling hot. A few sea critters—such as clam, oyster and unpeeled shrimp—were thrown in to ground the broth with a seafood overtone. The soft, velvety tofu was like a gentle glove amid a tumultuous sea of red spice.

We ate until we sweated, and then we ate no more. As we walked into the blistering heat of the Sacramento summer, I thought about my mother again. Maybe she is poorer for missing out on a world of culinary excitement that lies beyond Korean cuisine. But on that day, I left feeling that perhaps I was the poor one, for missing out on the blissful, sweaty satisfaction that comes with eating every meal Korean.