"Do you cook Korean food?"
The inevitable question. I love food. I love to cook food. And my family is Korean. A fact of life when I meet new people and get to know them. I accept the reality. What I don't ever anticipate is the reaction when I say, "well, no not really." It's as if I spit in their food and cursed their patron saint and their mother. The look is sustained as I reveal further that, in fact, I prefer to cook and eat Mediterranean dishes than the things my mother cooks and feeds me.
Note the last part of the last sentence. Mom feeds me. Korean food. I've never had the necessity of simmering potent taeng-jang (soy bean paste) with plenty of garlic, green chili pepper with enough water to accomodate the potatoes and slivers of sesame oil-sauteed beef. It wasn't until recently that I started taking stabs at my ancestral cuisine. At first it was to avoid the inevtiable reaction that came with the inevitable question. Now, it's to come mouth-to-spoon with all the unabashed flavor.
A simple and bastardized example of my kitchen exploits: A fresh radish salad that can be called, well, "punchy."
Not quite sure how radishes were relegated to the decorative pieces on the Sizzler salad bar. But like the humble cabbage, people are slowly getting to know this root veg that seems impervious to shitty gardeners like me who can even grow them in enough slender abundance to pair with softened French-style butter and coarse grains of sea salt. With a crusty baguette it as achingly rustic and French as it sounds.
My friend and pastry goddess, Amber, caught me onto a more refined combination, slathering the butter onto the bread and topping it with thinly sliced radish. The sprinkling of salt and chopped chives crown the lot softening the sharper, spicy edge reminscent of wasabi.
Shredded, it's the sturdy, crunchy counterpoint to the folded goodness of taco carts. And in the Korean kitchen, it's one of the litany of fresh vegetables, spicily brined for future consumption - AKA kim chi. The greens, normally discarded, is part of the recipe, too, adding a deep, earthy green to the red and white chunks in the hot red sauce.
Contrary to popular belief, not all kim chi requires underground burial and two seasons worth of curing by the careful eye of a stern grandmother. There's the chili-based pickling and then there's a refreshing blend known to me as "water kim chi" that involves salt in clear liquid (like water) and acid that can be eaten relatively soon after making or preserved for a future occasion.
Then, there's this recipe, somewhere in between the recipe scale but ranking very high on simplicity. It can be thought of in two ways — thin slices of crunchy, punchy radishes tossed with a tangy chili pepper vinaigrette to serve as a quick and unique salad for any meat, or left to sit in its tangy chili juices in a cold container for a week or two to mellow, coalesce and develop into a mock kim chi that even my mother would call her own.
That's because this recipe is.
Punchy Radish Salad (AKA Kind-Of Kim Chi)
1 bunch fresh radish, stems trimmed and discarded * 1 tablespoon rice vinegar * 1 teaspoon granulated sugar * 1 teaspoon fish sauce OR salt to taste * 1 teaspoon Korean red chili flakes (found in Korean and Asian grocers) * 1/2 cup OR small handful thinly sliced green onion, both green and white parts (OPTIONAL)
Wash the radishes well under cool running water and dry them. With a mandoline, sharp chef's knife or one side to a box grater, thinly slice the radishes. You should end up with pink-rimmed white discs. Place in a large bowl and set aside.
Mix together the rest of the ingredients and whisk together to get the chili flakes swirling about like snowflakes in a snow globe. Pour this over the sliced radishes and toss it thoroughly to get the radishes nice and colored. Cover and keep in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Can be stored up to two weeks.
Serve chilled with grilled, roasted and braised meats. The punchy radishes balance out deeper, danker flavors of summer grill outs and winter cooking.