A well-travelled mate once told the Prick that the Koreans are the Australians of Asia: they love their beer, they love their barbeque, and they love a joke. All true, but in many ways they’ve got it over us humble Aussies as well. No way we could ever produce anything as fantastically epic as “Gangnam Style”. And, given the current state of our border protection policy, were we in Seoul’s parlous position half the North Korean military would be holed up in council housing in Bankstown and Frankston by now, tinkering with nukes in the lounge room while explaining to the nice ladies who’d just dropped around with jumpers from the Uniting Church Knitting Collective that the tubes of Uranium-235 were just a quaint expression of their culture.
It should also be noted that the Koreans have an awesome cuisine which has been ignored for far too long by the fooderati: it’s bold, spicy stuff that grabs you and doesn’t let go. Nor is it just bibimbap, as great as that may be. This may be an early call, but I’m tipping Korean food as one of the big food trends of 2013. Those looking to get in early on this (“I was eating bulgogi before bulgogi was cool, man!”) could do a lot worse than head out to Campsie for a feed at Se Joung.
I’m not quite sure how we got it into our head to make the trip out west to Campsie last weekend, except that Nick With a Fork had been talking up Korean food for a while: His best mate at school is from the peninsula and often shares goodies from his lunch bag including dried anchovies, which are apparently very popular around the old school yard. Much that there is to dislike about his present place of education (it was only in a spirit of extreme magnanimity that I did not call in the Daily Telegraph when the school librarian, a supposed custodian of knowledge, tried to force the lad to omit a reference to “In God We Trust” from his recent talk about the United States), the diverse student body is raising up some very cosmopolitan palates. In any case the boy hopped on Urbanspoon and decided Se Joung was the place for us.
Not that the place necessarily agreed, at least at first. Walking in up the back steps from the car park, we got roughly the same looks as the Alpha Delta Phi boys did when they wandered into the all-black roadhouse to see Otis Day and the Knights. The entire clientele was Korean, save for a nervous-looking Anglo boyfriend getting the business from his new squeeze’s family. The late middle aged matriarch sat us, reluctantly, as if worried we might at any moment ask for soy sauce or ketchup or both. But they dutifully gave us a table and soon hit us with a bunch of little salads and condiments including a sort of pickled potato dish, bean sprouts, and mustardy, pickled greens. Also, for the Prick, a small bottle of shochu, a mild Korean firewater that sits somewhere between decent sake and cheap vodka on the palatability scale. Well, when in Campsie …
Anyway: Starters, to start. Some lovely deep-fried dumplings (none of this pan-searing for the Koreans; as noted above, when it comes to food, these people don’t mess around). Some really tender slices of pork belly, more of a platter than a plate. And a gorgeous dish, again I have no idea what any of this is called and there’s no menu on-line to speak of, which sat somewhere between a pancake and an omelette and was filled with spring onions and fish, complemented by a lovely Asian take on an agrodolce sauce on the side.
Then the main event: Barbeque, on a four-burner mounted in the middle of the table: serious stuff. First off, beef short ribs, which were butterflied and then snipped into strips. For those of us used to thinking of short ribs as a low-and-slow cut of meat, this was a revelation. In five minutes we were munching on nearly gelatinous – in a very pleasant sort of way – little morsels of the stuff. Next, a big platter of cuttlefish which was gone in sixty seconds (another thing about Korean food: you wind up eating far more than you ever thought possible), served with a heaping pile of kim chi. The middlemost of the Little Pricks especially loved this, and by this stage the ice had melted and we were getting approving nods and smiles all around. Finally, a big plate of spicy pork, again all done on the grill, and again, great stuff. We will be back, and if you can, you should go.
And while the Prick was raised to believe that there’s nothing tackier than talking about money, the five of us hearty eaters walked out the door for just $117, including the soju. At that price, it’s practically like finding money on the street.
Having lived and worked in Korea for 7 years and being married to a Korean I think I just might be qualified to tell you a little about Korean food. There are some dishes that are great, mostly the Barbequed seafood, beef, and pork. Some of the soups have a very delicate flavour. A lot of it though looks like grass clippings or the compost pile in the garden. Fresh vegetables are a rarity, and Koreans have not discovered the use of herbs and spices. Nearly everything is red, and has the same taste. This is because virtually the only condiment used is red pepper paste and lashings of it. Soju is a very cheap and nasty drink. It used to be made from rice (the premium brands are). The stuff available in restaurants is basically commercial alcohol, diluted with water with a bit of sugar and some other flavourings. Korea has one of the highest stomach cancer rates in the world! Could it be the food?
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