Fire and Fermentation: In Search of Traditional Korean Food

“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 12 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.”

Left: Jay Lee of Chelmsford enjoys seafood jampong, a soup made with mussels, shrimp and noodles. When eaten family-style, Korean dinners always include at least one soup or stew. Photos by Adrien Bisson.

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.

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