Chinese food in Korea – Koreanised Chinese Restaurants.
This is the first post in a short series about Chinese food in Korea, what’s available and where to get it.
Chinese food in Korea is not what you’d expect. South Korea is so close to mainland China, merely separated by the small issue of the impermeable North, and this physical divide is reflected in the food. Chinese restaurants abound, but most of them are Koreanised to the point of becoming something new. Despite their names, these aren’t Chinese restaurants, they’re Korean-Chinese restaurants. Just as small town Australia has it’s own brand of Chinese takeaway, and Chinese food in India is often flavoured with subcontinental spices. That said, more genuine Chinese food is available if you know where to find it (more on this later) but the fact that Koreanised Chinese food isn’t legit, doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
Australianised Chinese food has honey prawns and Mongolian lamb, Korean Chinese food has it’s own favourites. Set on a backdrop of more expensive, elaborate dishes featuring exotic ingredients, the following are the basic and affordable staples of the Koreanised Chinese restaurant.
Jjajangmyeon 자장면 is the Koreanised version of the Chinese dish zha jang mian. A viscid sauce, black as night, so gelatinous the few shards of onion and shreds of pork present are suspended. It is flavoured with a black soybean paste, called chunjang, a different beast from the varieties used in the original. Use your chopsticks like salad servers to mix this gloop through the noodles. Sometimes there are more vegetables and meat, or seafood, and matchsticks of raw cucumber serve as a much needed textural contrast. The jjajang sauce is a also served with rice for jjajangbap. Jjajang sauce often presents as over salty, unusually textural and mysterious to beginners, me included.
Jjambong 짬뽕 A blow-your-head-off hot soup, fiery with chilli red concealing a school of seafood. Mussels are usual, as is squid and octopus. The more extravagant translations can have prawns, fish, sea cucumber and unidentifiable creatures of the deep. The best are ripe with vegetables and hand made noodles, the worst are lonely with onions and carboardy starch.
Tangsuyuk 탕수육 Sweet and sour pork. Sometimes crisply fried with a tangy sauce, good beyond belief. The sweet and sour sauce ranges from artificial tang to light and bright, thin to gelatinous gloop.
Bokeumbap 볶음밥 Fried rice, generally white with cubed vegetables and frozen prawns. Often served with a dollop of jjajang sauce.
Requisite banchan are danmuji (단무지) yellow pickled diakon radish, raw onion dipped in black bean paste, and yes, kimchi.
Koreanised Chinese food is an incredibly popular home delivery option. Your order, on re-useable plastic plates, is wrapped in multiple layers of intensely taut plastic wrap, fitted into specially made metal boxes to be delivered to your door by motorcycle. Once you’re finished, leave the plates outside your door and forget about them. They’re collected and taken back to the restaurant ready for the whole cycle to begin again.
Banchan commonly found at Koreanised Chinese restaurants.
Sandong Seong (산동 성)
This restaurant, in my neighbourhood, is known for its jjambong. The spicy version overpowers the delicate flavours of the seafood, an issue I take with most jjambong interpretations. But this restaurant also serves a mild white jjambong (백짬뽕, baek jjambong). The white broth is fishy without oppression and savory to the point of compulsive spooning. Both soups have the same extensive range of seafood, including prawns, clams and sea cucumber, a riot of vegetables and springy handmade noodles.
Tangsuyuk – sweet and sour pork. A delicious rendition.
It’s lunchtime and freezing and Sandong (Shandong?) Seong is busy. Families and couples fill every laminate table in this dilapidated room, slurping down jjajangmyeon, bokeumbap and jjambong. Metal take away boxes leave filled with meals and return, and again, the delivery drivers letting in puffs of frigid air with every circuit. A few tables order more elaborate dishes, multi course meals, featuring shark’s fin or abalone. When a heaving serving of tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork) is delivered to our neighbours, we can’t help but order our own. It soon arrives, colourful, shimmering and brilliant. Lightly battered crisp pork, smothered with tangy light sauce and gem-like vegetables. The smallest portion is huge, filling and decadent. Good in a way that I didn’t realise Koreanised Chinese food could be, until now.
Koreanised Chinese restaurants often dish up fast food, quick meal options unlovingly prepared and difficult to care for if you lack the requisite nostalgia. But every so often you’ll find a special place will take those otherwise forlorn dishes and invigorate them, and in doing so reinforce why anyone would want to eat such things, which was a mystery for pre-Sandong Seong-me. Now, I’m a (white) jjambong and tangsuyuk convert but jjajangmyeon is a different story.
Sandong Seong (산동 성)
Eunpyeong – gu, Seoul, 88-21
Jjambong – 8,000 won
Tangsuyuk (small) 13,000 won.