Fire and Fermentation: In Search of Traditional Korean Food
[Please note that at the time of publication, the restaurants noted in this article were offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates, and consider purchasing gift cards to help support local restaurants and their staff during the current crisis.]
“I was born into this business,” says Jae Ho Chung, 36, co-owner of Westford’s Seoul Kitchen. A native of Seoul, South Korea, Chung moved to Ghana when he was 6 years old. There, his parents worked in a Korean restaurant. At the age of 11, he moved with his family to Flushing, Queens, in New York before resettling in Massachusetts, just in time to enter Shrewsbury High School as a freshman. Chung went on to attend Northeastern University and earn a degree in finance. His time in that field would not last long.
“My parents worked hard and put me through college and told me to stay the hell out of the [restaurant] business,” he says. “I did the finance thing for about 3 1/2 years — and I came right back.”
Seoul Kitchen is the Chung family’s second restaurant in Massachusetts. Chung and his family also own Sapporo Korean Barbecue & Sushi in Westborough, which opened almost 13 years ago. When looking for a location for a second venture, Chung was encouraged to look at Westford. “A friend suggested this was a great town to open a restaurant. … We did demographic research, and Westford fit really well,” he says.
After taking over the site of the old Westford Grille in 2014, his first task was to introduce locals to a cuisine that might be new to them. Early menus focused on fusion items, such as Korean tacos, as well as sushi. “To get them in here,” Chung says, “we try to sell them on things they know. Sushi is something that people know, and we have excellent sushi. Then we can ease them into the Korean entrees.”
When asked what advice he would give to new customers, Chung says: “Try some of the stuff that you can’t pronounce. Just try it. It might be new, but it might be one of the best dishes you’ve ever had.”
And what about people who avoid Korean food because of its spicy reputation?
“The food is spicy, but people don’t realize that for many items that spice can be controlled to any level,” he says. “Even the spiciest items are nothing compared to some Indian and Szechuan food. If I eat spicy Korean food, I take a sip of water, maybe a little milk, and the heat is completely gone.”
Some entrees aren’t spicy at all, such as kalbi (marinated short ribs) and bulgogi (marinated beef or pork). These are served with lettuce wraps and a mild sauce. For Chung, the way it’s served, not its spiciness, is what sets true Korean food apart. “That’s what Korean food is all about,” he says. “Everything is family style. There’s no such thing as ‘this is mine, this is yours.’ Korean food is meant to be a shared experience.”
That ideal is reflected in the restaurant itself. The bar-centric vibe draws a crowd of young professionals. The bartenders and staff are friendly. Seoul Kitchen features live music on Friday nights to emphasize that it is a place for more than good food and drinks — it is a place to feel entertained while in good company.
To learn more about Korean food, I met with Chelmsford resident Jay Lee.
Lee, 45, followed a path to the Merrimack Valley that paralleled Chung’s. He was born in Seoul before moving to New York City, Texas and California. He earned his law degree at Northeastern University in Boston and, after college, worked as an assistant district attorney for Middlesex County before entering the private sector. He is now an attorney at the downtown Lowell law firm of Gallagher & Cavanaugh. An avowed foodie, his search for fine dining experiences takes him beyond the confines of the Merrimack Valley. However, he seems enthusiastic about the local food scene, and its Korean food options in particular.
When he was growing up, Lee’s family spoke Korean around the house and ate traditional Korean food. He has retained his family’s customs and even uses a second refrigerator for kimchi, which he eats daily. The fermented food staple can get pungent. He keeps his supply in the basement.
Lee notes that Korean food has crept into local cuisine in unexpected ways. He speaks favorably about a quick-pickled slaw with Korean-style zest and zing that’s served at Lowell’s Fuse Bistro. Still, he appreciates tradition and is dismissive of how Korean food is sometimes eaten in the United States.
“Bibimbap is really a lunch food,” he notes, “because you can’t share it.” Lee reiterates the point Chung made — if you’re looking to do it right, family style is the way to go.
Lee says that nearly all traditional Korean meals include banchan — small plate side dishes such as kimchi, sprouts, sea vegetables and pickled radishes — as well as stew that’s served from a communal pot.
Korean food is, in his words, interactive. “You pick up your protein with lettuce wraps. You get your hands dirty,” he says. this means that dining out requires a lot of activity. You won’t see many diners staring quietly at their plates. And then there are the drinks. Lee recommends that I try flavored soju, a wine typically made from rice and sipped from small cups that are meant to be refilled throughout the meal.
Lee is one of an estimated 1.8 million Korean-Americans according to 2016 U.S. Census figures. The number belies the growing impact of Korean culture on this country. The influence goes beyond the popularity of K-pop and Korean cinema, or even the painfully catchy and once-ubiquitous 2012 hit “Gangnam Style,” which opened the door for many young non-Koreans to the land of kimchi.
After meeting with Chung and Lee, I was ready to eat in as traditional a manner as my limited knowledge would allow. Order family style. Try dishes I can’t pronounce. Share everything.
The next time I visited Seoul Kitchen, I arrived with a group of friends. We passed on the bibimbap and ordered heaping plates of kalbi and bulgogi. We enjoyed the first stew, daen jang, so much that we ordered a second one called soon dubu, which is made with silky tofu and squid. We filled our bowls with a touch of rice and scoops of the rich, spicy soon dubu. The grapefruit soju flowed freely.
One major difference between Korean food and other popular Asian cuisines is the price. Korean food is often more expensive. However, the banchan and rice served alongside the meal are usually complimentary. For three adults, including one hungry individual who’d been in the woods hunting all day, the bill came to $90, including drinks. Not a cheap night out, but reasonable.
While the food is traditional, Seoul Kitchen presents a sleek, contemporary K-dining experience. Traveling north up Interstate 495 from Westford, Lawrence has two excellent Korean restaurants that stand in contrast to Seoul Kitchen, and to each other. Both happen to be located on Route 114 — Garden House and Rega’s Grill.
Garden House is hidden in a nondescript building near the old Showcase Cinema. Inside, it is warm and inviting and feels like a home kitchen. The banchan is plentiful. The bulgogi and kalbi are popular menu choices.
Garden House is owned by Chang and Kyung Kim, both in their early 60s. Kyung was a waitress at the original Garden House about 20 years ago, and the couple bought the restaurant five years after she began working there. Garden House brought traditional Korean food to the MV long before it became a food trend.
Their son, who preferred not to give his name, says the staying power of the Garden House is tied to “the side dishes,” referring to the banchan. He also notes that his father is adamant about using the freshest ingredients, and plenty of them. According to their son, the Kims prefer to keep the business small, and find themselves in the position of having to turn away customers on weekends when it gets too crowded.
Nearby Rega’s Grill represents a different dining experience — Korean barbecue. The meat is cooked at your table and cut with scissors, the way it’s done in South Korea.
If you live along the Route 3 corridor, Nashua’s Shira Kiku is another option for Korean food. Also family-owned, this restaurant doesn’t seem to always keep business hours as posted, so call ahead.
K-food has also started popping up on the menus of forward-thinking area restaurants. Scott Plath, mvm columnist and owner of Cobblestones in Lowell and Moonstones in Chelmsford, says he has included numerous Korean-influenced dishes, including gochujang-marinated beef, on his ever-evolving menus. When I emailed him to ask his opinion on why Korean food has been gaining so much attention in the culinary industry, he wrote back: “I think the simple answer to Korean food’s popularity is it’s so great! Textural, clean, sweet and spicy. … Plus, it’s fun to say words like bulgogi and bibimbap.”
There is another reason why Korean food is trending. It’s exceptionally healthy. According to a 2017 paper published in The Lancet, South Korean women could be the world leaders in life expectancy — and South Korean men among the leaders in men — by 2030. Could the South Korean diet be a factor in its citizens’ longevity?
According to Kelsey Mangano, an assistant professor in the biomedical and nutritional sciences department at UMass Lowell, “Traditional Korean cuisine contains many characteristics that make it healthy.” In an email, she went on to characterize these qualities: a reliance on rice and barley, a high intake of vegetables and legumes, more fish and poultry and less red meat, the frequent use of medicinal herbs, the limited use of animal and vegetable fats, and the daily intake of fermented foods. Why are fermented foods important? Mangano writes: “[F]ermentation is hugely beneficial to health as it makes minerals in foods more available to the human body; helps produce enzymes that are beneficial for digestion; and creates a healthy environment for our gut bacteria to thrive. A healthy gut, with many types of healthy bacteria that are very active, has been shown to reduce rates of obesity, chronic diseases and inflammatory conditions. The diversity and activity of our gut bacteria is largely reliant upon what we eat.”
It seems likely that we are only beginning to witness the growth of Korean food in the Merrimack Valley. In the future, places such as Garden House and Seoul Kitchen may be seen as local pioneers of a food trend that is quickly gaining popularity in other parts of the country. But even if K-food never catches on the way it has in New York or California, such places will remain bastions of a traditional cuisine that is healthy, fun to eat and delicious.