WORLD FOOD – Kalguksu

17 Oct 2002

Just as the country itself is famed for its insularity, Korean food is also one of the world’s lesser-known cuisines. If people know it at all their knowledge is limited to that basic trilogy of tastes: kalbi, bi bim bap, and kimchi. This is somewhat of a shame. The cuisine of Korea is just as long, complex, and varied as its history. Indeed one would have to look to Thailand or China to find as diverse a repertoire of one-dish wonders within the Asian region. The streets of cities like Seoul, Seogwipo, and Busan are all filled with shops dealing in such edibles and every one of them has a story to tell. Consider just one example. It is a summertime favorite usually served during the rainy season or taken on windy days called kalguksu.

Kalguksu is a hearty dish made from hand-rolled noodles that play the lead role in a brothy soup. The noodles, ever the star in Asia, are made from dough that is pressed and extruded, a technique that makes them in some ways akin to spaetzle. But they look like thick and round versions of fettuccine. They seem to roll about in the soup and are a sponge for flavor. The taste of kalguksu is doughy, sweet, and yet oddly light. They are served in a clear and comforting broth, usually made from chicken and anchovy, that has a timeless quality about it. Koreans consume them in large bowls and with glee. In Seoul, the famed Myeong-Dong Gyoja shop has two floors and yet always seems to have lines that stretch the length of its tall, thin staircase.

Korean food is tightly hewn into tradition and culture. There is nary a dish without a backlog of stories that surround its place in the national repertoire. To trace the origins of kalguksu one has to go all the way back to the beginning of the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea. Though noodles are now street-corner common, at the time they were a rarity. Up until as recently as a century or two ago, they were only served to the upper classes. Then, still holding a special place, they were eaten at the first birthday parties of a baby and accompanied by prayers for the five blessings: wealth, health, longevity, virtue, and peaceful death. Even marriage ceremonies showed signs of noodle reverence as they were seen as a sign of endless love – the same way one can never seem to slurp up those last noodles.

The tradition continues today as well, though now everyone gets to – and does – indulge in kalguksu whenever possible or seasonal. During May, which is when people harvest wheat and barley, kalguksu is made and shared with one’s neighbors and brethren. Place plays a big role in the way the dish is prepared. Near the ocean you’ll find boiled clams, while in farming communities pumpkin may be added. Among the many famed riffs are: sagol kalguksu (made with meat and a meaty stock), haemul kalguksu (mixed seafood), chicken kalguksu (the most popular). In all cases, the dish will arrive with the de rigeur sides of kimchi, tricky-to-use silver chopsticks, and a heaping of vegetables. In all cases, the taste of the dish is unforgettably Korean in the way it has a touch of oceanic saltiness, a hint of the earth, and something rough yet embracing. For me it represents the geography of the country as dished up in a big plastic bowl.

Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur,
East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.

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