Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Do not let your eyes deceive you; the art of green chili

As Korean, my color conception tells me any red food would be hot. It is mostly true for Korean food. Tomato is not introduced till very recently and the only red seasoning in traditional Korean food was red chili. Red food, therefore, is usually hot unless it is dessert.

But, not all spicy food is red.

One day, I have overheard one very misleading advice how to avoid spicy food in Korea.

“Avoid color red, and you will be safe.”

Sorry, that is absolutely not true.
Despite its relatively short history in Korea – chili is introduced about 300 years ago – I don't think any Korean can imagine Korean food without chili.

Koreans love chili in general even though I know many Koreans who do not care much for spicy food including myself. But, now and then, I crave for clean sharp taste of green chili to wake up my sense. We even eat one of the most spicy chili with chili paste on top.
We put chili in our Kimchi, Ghuk, Jjigea, and every food imaginable; powdered, fermented in paste, mix with oil, pickled, stuffed or even row, chili has very important role in Korean cuisine.

Unfortunately for many people who don’t like spicy food, Koreans even invented ways to snick fiery taste into food without the color or appearance.

We just have to have it.

Adding one or two spited green chili into the broth add taste of chili. By doing this, the sharp but not over-dominating taste of chili is added. By no means will it be subtle, however.

Look at this Kongnamool Ghuk (Soybean sprout soup), for instance.

Doesn't it look benign? Clean broth and gentle soy bean sprout soup, huh? Can you sense the danger? The broth is little bit spicy -for me, and probably spicy enough to kill few of my friends- since I put green chili and take out before serving.

This is one more example; Doenjangjjigea (Korean bean paste pot stew) . In the name, you don't see any thing about chili. I put chili on top of tofu as garnish here, but often the chili is removed before serving. So, don’t let your eyes deceive you. You will get much more than you see.

The best way to avoid spicy food in Korea is asking one who prepares food to cook without green chili or chili powder. Emphasise "zero" chili; as you might have guessed, unless you are from Latin America or India, Koreans probably have higher threshold for what is 'hot'.

Even though I scare you to death, Korean food is NOT all about spiciness.

The most misleading perception (but most popular impression) of Korean food is all of it is spicy and hot, bombarded with garlic.

Simply omitting green chili from recipe, you can enjoy not so spicy Korean food which is often done in many homes in Korea. You can avoid garlic, too. A lot of restaurant which specialise in Buddhist temple cuisine in Korea serves mild but full flavored food without the bite of garlic.

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