It was a crisp and wintery afternoon when Rachel and Raleigh met James at Buk Kyung for some hot tea, outstanding food and a primer on Korean cuisine.
Upon arriving, we were seated quickly and brought tall steaming glasses of tea, a very welcome respite from the cold. While we perused the menu, James clarified for us that many of the dishes served come from the southern-most areas of South Korea, where there is a strong Chinese influence. He explained to us that about 80% of the Korean vocabulary comes from China, and is also present in the food. For example Jajangmyun, a noodle dish served with pork, onion, potatoes, and zucchini in a sweet black bean sauce, is one such entrée; in Korea it is considered “Chinese food”, although such a dish is not common in China. It makes sense for such a delicious treat to be on the menu at Buk Kyung, the “Buk”, pronounced with a long “oo” sound, translates to “Beijing” in Korean and signifies the specialty dishes at this establishment.
Opened by Kyung Suk Lee and her husband 13 years ago, Buk Kyung is a staple of the diverse, myriad restaurants in Union Square. The menu is an extensive one, including over 70 items. It stretches from traditional standards such as Bulgogi, a savory dish of marinated beef stir-fried with mushrooms, onions and scallions served with rice; Kimchi, a spicy pickled cabbage dish, and Bibimbap, a meal of mixed rice with vegetables, beef and sweet and spicy ko chu jang sauce. The menu goes beyond the expected fare, along side these dishes, there are plates most popular in more southern areas of South Korea, for example our order of Jajangmyun, Jambong, a seafood soup including squid, shrimp and mussels with veggies and noodles, and the Sachun Ganjajang, another noodle dish with ingredients akin to Jajangmyun, but with a spicy kick. Our entrée’s came paired with a series of small sides, including Kimchee and other pickled veggies, to be eaten with the meal and – to our surprise – a pair of scissors. James told us that using scissors at the table was “very common for cutting noodles in Korean homes, but less so in restaurants in Korea”. Over our delightful and flavorful lunch we discussed travel, cuisine and our future plans.
As the meal wrapped up, Rachel suggested we visit Reliable Market, to learn more about Korean cuisine. James confidently navigated us through a maze of brightly colored, delicious looking treats to an enormous, refrigerated aisle in the back of the store featuring a 15-foot display of mouth-watering Kimchi in gallon-sized pails. He outlined for us the basics of Kimchi preparation: on average, two days are spent preparing and spicing the cabbage to one’s liking, then – traditionally – the Kimchi is buried in pots in the yard during the winter for three or four months to achieve maximum flavor, but “it is more common for Kimchi to be fermented in specially designed refrigerators for as little as one week, nowadays.” He pointed to out to us, one particular brand called Chun Ju Kimchi. He explained that “Chun Ju is a city in South Korea, very famous for traditional food. This one is my favorite. Chun Ju is also famous for their Bibimbap.” Next on our procession through the store, James brought us over to the ramen section, directing our attention to Shin Ramyun, or spicy ramen. He told us that it was quite popular and the character on the front, a horizontal rectangle bisected by a long vertical line, was the Chinese character for spicy.
As we circled through the store it became clear that they had nearly every product and food imaginable, from sushi-grade fish to Pocky, a popular cookie-like snack, to Kooksoondang Makkoii, a Korean rice wine from a particular brewery with interesting brewing methods as compared to traditional rice wines. Our tour drew to a close, and we said our good-byes – with many a thank-you to James for an incredible crash course on Korean eats in our neighborhood.Check back later this week for Adventures in Kimchi Part II, featuring local potter Jeremy Ogusky, and his hand-crafted vessels for creating Kimchi and More!