Korea, being neighbored by two strong and forceful countries like Japan and China, is determinedly proud of its own identity and culture. What the Koreans have also done well is to assimilate the ways of its neighbours and made it their own.
This observation was exemplified by the popular snack and lunch dish of kimbap. Kimbap is rice rolled with pickles, vegetables and a protein treat like tuna or omelet and wrapped round with seaweed. Looks like maki sushi, tasted a little like sushi found in any conveyor joints around the world, but try calling it sushi or maki, and our Korean colleagues would object and insist that it is their invention.
Another example was dubu. Dubu is what we know as tofu. Like us, the Koreans love their dubu. There are many dishes worked around this soya bean product, and one of the nicest way to enjoy it is in a hot stone pot casserole called Soon Dubu Jigae. We happened upon Dubu House near our hotel the second evening, and discovered this wonderfully warming and comforting dish.
Like its neighbours, the joint is clean, overly bright and basically furnished. Busy ajumas staff the place and tell you in sign language how to eat the food, going to the extent of stirring and breaking eggs into your bowl to help you along if necessary. I had a seafood and oyster bowl, my colleagues had similar variations with beef, seafood and dumplings. The casserole is made up mostly of very soft, melting tofu enriched with the tastes of seafood stock. The tofu was well highlighted with its clean sweetness yet imbued with just the right proportion of broth flavours. Chilli powder and hot bean paste can be added to spice it up, but I preferred to dunk my kimchi in to give it a more fiery colour. Rice is served in a hot stone pot, but uneaten rice is scooped out and the pot covered again in hot water, so that one can drink the 'rice water' which the ajuma said was good for us.
Mongolian hotpot was what my Korean colleague wanted for lunch the day we worked in her office. In Singapore we are used to the idea of Mongolian barbeque, which fits in somewhat with the image in our head of the nomadic tribesperson grilling food over an open source of fire as they take a break during their traverse of the vast desert. Hotpot seems more like a food suited for more wintry climes and a Mongolian hotpot sounded totally incongruous to me. But as I found out, it was nothing more than a pot of noodles, meats, dumplings and vegetables cooked at the table; the most Mongolian aspect was the graphic of a warrior emblazoned on the spoon cover and placemat.
Whilst interesting, this was not the best thing I ate. The Koreans like their noodles and beef cooked till very done and very soft; a few times while the pot was bubbling I suggested that we start eating, but colleague insisted that we wait for the ajuma who was similarly nonchalant about overcooking. As a result, everything was done to the texture most suitable for an infant about to start on solids.
But this dish had a little twist. Colleague asked if I wanted some rice. I declined because Korean rice makes me really sleepy after lunch. But, she gently insisted, and since she is six months preggers I let her have her way. The ajuma brought a bowl of rice, but instead of letting us get on with it, she proceeded to, in dazzlingly quick procession, empty the pot of all ingredients save the stock, stir the rice in vigorously and then added an egg, seaweed and other seasonings. The end result was a smooth risotto-like porridge, which was way more tasty than the soggy noodles.
I have a strong suspicion that she brought me there not for hotpot, but this warm silky gruel. It reminded me of our dubu meal where residual rice was combined with hot water to glean a nutritious drink. Looking back, I think it was this propensity to combine their rice with fluids at the end of the meal that strike me as something uniquely Korean.