Korean Food Bazaar set for May 3 in Shadyside
Every few years, it seems, a different ethnic cuisine will begin to catch on.
Korean food may not be quite there yet, but it's getting closer. Korea has long retained a culinary identity distinct from its neighbors, China and Japan. Though fairly common on the West Coast, in big cities and immigrant gateways, Korean cuisine is starting to become fairly familiar in Pittsburgh. The interest is growing along with the local Korean population: According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 5,070 people of Korean ethnicity in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, a fair increase from the 3,146 in 2000.
This Saturday, the Korean Central Church of Pittsburgh is hosting its annual Korean Food Bazaar. The event is aimed at those new to Korean cooking as much as those who grew up with it. There will be about 70 types of Korean foods for sale, from hot entrees to packaged take-home food, to desserts, drinks and snacks. About 2,000 people are expected.
“When we started in 1996, it was mostly Korean people around,” says Young Lim of Upper St. Clair, who organizes the event. “Now it's not a just a big event for Koreans, but more Americans. ... It's an opportunity to introduce Korean food and Korean culture, and even Korean martial arts, like Tang Soo Do. We prepared lots of food last year, but it was all sold out by closing time.”
A number of local Korean restaurants, like Oishii Bento in Oakland, hedge their bets a bit and feature sushi or other Japanese dishes alongside their Korean offerings. Some of the more creative, non-Korean restaurants around town have been willing to spice up their menus with Korean dishes and flavors in various combinations. Even Station Street, the street-food spot from star chef Kevin Sousa, has put Bibimbap on the menu occasionally.
Green Pepper in Squirrel Hill does only Korean food – dressed up a little for a night on the town. The narrow dining room and bright-green walls combine in a modern, minimalist look. A flatscreen television in the corner shows Korean pop-music videos — now hugely popular across Asia and increasingly in the United States — but the music is kept low. An adjacent room features comfortable couches and turns into a karaoke lounge after 10 p.m.
“Based on actual interactions with numerous regular customers, it is obvious that more and more non-Korean Pittsburghers are not only interested in Korean food, but also the language, pop culture, industries, arts — you name it,” says Green Pepper owner Jake Young.
Kimchi is probably the flavor most associated with Korean food — a condiment unlikely to be confused with anything else. It's a typically sour and/or spicy dish of reddish-colored fermented vegetables, seasoned with salt, vinegar, chile peppers and other spices. Traditionally, it's pickled and stored in sealed pots buried in the ground. Kimchi happens to be quite healthy — lots of vitamins, fiber and the same type of digestion-aiding healthy bacteria as yogurt. It's as ubiquitous at Korean meals as Heinz ketchup is at Pirates games.
“Kimchi is usually (served) at every meal,” Lim says. “Koreans eat rice all the time, and whenever they eat rice, kimchi is there. It's a side dish, but they eat it all the time. It is spicy, but (at the Korean Food Bazaar) they try to not to make it that spicy. Whenever they put more red pepper in, it's more spicy.”
Side dishes (banchan) are an important part of most Korean meals, served alongside bowls of cooked rice. They include items like japchae , which is sweet-potato glass noodles, stir-fried in sesame oil with beef and/or vegetables.
“Whenever it's somebody's birthday, the mother or grandmother would make these things,” Lim says.
Other side dishes include the pan-fried, pancakelike jeon. Varieties include thin green-onion pancakes, fried-potato pancakes, and — of course — kimchi pancakes. The Korean Food Bazaar also features mung-bean pancakes — made with mung beans, pork, green onions, kimchi and bean sprouts — and seafood pancakes, made with wheat flour, shrimp, scallops and green onions.
For American palates, an easy place to start may be Korean barbecued meats.
Bulgogi (meaning “fire meat” in Korean) is a sweet-and-salty dish of grilled, thinly-sliced sirloin or other prime cuts of beef. It's first marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, garlic, pepper, green onions, ginger and mushrooms. Bulgogi is typically served with steamed white rice.
“The common denominators of all Korean barbecues — it smells so great when cooking, still sizzles until you can finally eat it, and tastes yummy,” Young says.
There's also bibimbap, which is rice topped with beef and seasoned vegetables, a fried egg and spicy red-pepper sauce. At Green Pepper — where it's the most popular dish — the spicy pepper sauce is served on the side, so customers can dole out as much as they can handle.
Korean desserts include the street food hotteok , a sweet pancake filled with brown sugar.
In search of new flavors, American chefs haven't been shy about adopting, combining and remixing Korean dishes and spices. Witness the improbable rise of the Korean taco — a product of Los Angeles' vibrant food-truck culture, born of a marriage between Korean and Mexican flavors.
If you want to go the other way, the “strictly authentic” route, you can always find the table at the Korean Food Bazaar selling jokbal. That's Korean pigs trotters — pigs' feet, braised with soy sauce and various spices.
“It is popular among Koreans, but I don't know if Americans would like it or not,” Lim says. “It is very authentic Korean food, though.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.
Area Korean restaurants
Green Pepper: 2020 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-422-2277
Korea Garden: 412 Semple St., Oakland. 412-681-6460
Oishii Bento: 119 Oakland Ave., Oakland. 412-687-3335
Sushi Kim: 1241 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-687-3335
Dasonii Korean Bistro: 6520 Steubenville Pike, Robinson. 412-494-3311
Golden Pig: 3201 Millers Run Road, Cecil. 412-220-7170
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