Korea’s superb cuisine has message about harmony, unity

The Epicurean
Across the world there seems to be a strong growth of interest in the cuisine and cuisine styles of a number of Asian countries, especially those of Vietnam and Korea, complementing previous growth in interest in the food of countries like China, Thailand and the Indian subcontinent.

I have from time to time seen people advertising availability of Vietnamese food items in Harare, but have never managed to access this; there has never been a Vietnamese restaurant anywhere in Zimbabwe to date.

We had one or two Korean restaurants in the Avondale area of Harare a few years ago, but these have closed and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no Korean cuisine available on a commercial basis in Harare, or elsewhere in Zimbabwe for that matter.

So it was with great interest and delight that I accepted an invitation to attend a Korean food festival at the home of the ambassador to Zimbabwe of what if formally the Republic of Korea, or what we all call South Korea.

One of the many displays of food at the event

It is situated on a lovely hilltop site in the area where Highlands and Chisipite meet and it was a lovely setting for this unique event, attended by a large gathering of people from all walks of life.

The theme of the day was Harmony of Flavours, Harmony of Minds and Harmony of the World, a message as important for us in Zimbabwe as for the people of the Korean peninsula.

In his address to those of gathered for the event, the ambassador, Cho Jaichel, emphasised how the harmony and unity of food — despite its many flavours, colours and styles — could show us humans the way to finding these desirable solutions for ourselves.

Three highly qualified culinary experts came from Korea to prepare the food for the event, all of them from the city of Jeonju, which was been named a city of gastronomic excellence by UNESCO.

The trio, chefs Cha Gyunghee, Kim Suin and Do Hyunwoo of Jeonju University, were very busy throughout the event and I did not manage to chat to them, but they certainly impressed us with the amazing selection of food laid on for us to eat, as well the superb set of displays of typical Korean foods that they laid out.

They were described as professors, so they clearly are involved in teaching and lecturing on Korean cuisine to their student base.

Ambassador Cho said the efforts of the people of the Korean peninsula to engage in dialogue after all they have been through had a message for us in Zimbabwe.

Having been here 18 months, he was complimentary about this country, its people and its culture, and he was hopeful that our own efforts at engagement, dialogue and new directions would be successful.

The display of food was done to reflect a number of interest factors:  a layout for a traditional Korean wedding (pyebaek); a layout for a first birthday party (doljanchi), which is regarded as very important in Korean culture; and a layout reflecting foods for Korea’s four very distinct seasons.

The food we tasted and that on display can be summed up in one word: amazing!

First we enjoyed delicious, juicy, tender strips of meat cooked on what we call a braai or braaivleis, and what the Koreans call bulgogi. We then had one of Korea’s best-known dishes: bibimbap.

Bibim means mixing, while bap is rice. Bibimbap therefore means mixed rice, and it is served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste), soy sauce, or doenjang (a fermented soybean paste). A raw or fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are common additions.

The hot dish is stirred together thoroughly just before eating, and this was done for us in a huge container, starting with contents laid out neatly and then literally mixed before our eyes by a small team.

It was outstanding and I can safely say I could eat this dish every day for the rest of my life; talk about wow factor!.

In Korea, the areas of Jeonju, Jinju, and Tongyeong are especially famous for their versions of bibimbap and in 2011, this dish was listed at number 40 on the world’s 50 most delicious foods in a readers’ poll compiled by CNN Travel.

We also sampled kimchi, dishes of traditional fermented vegetables, as well as galbi (marinated grilled ribs), jeon (traditional pancake) and Korean traditional alcoholic drinks, Maggeoli.

Another highlight was tangpyeongchae, in which the ingredients are harmonised through preparation and cooking and which featured a mix of meats and vegetables.

It was a colourful and exciting culinary presentation and one of the best food events I have been to in many a year.

Well done to Ambassador Cho and his team on a fine initiative and a fun and entertaining afternoon.

If this is what Korean cuisine offers, then, please, can we have some Korean restaurants in Zimbabwe!

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