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Koreans are known for their fritters, pancakes, and dumplings that fill the belly with warming carbohydrates. If you've ever watched Hawkeye Pierce shiver dramatically during an episode of M*A*S*H, you'll recall that Korea, like northern China, can get pretty chilly. Indeed, one of my fondest memories is going to a Korean restaurant for just-fried vegetable pancakes and ginger tea on the coldest day of the year in Chicago, then having enough body fuel to actually walk (if somewhat stiffly, given the dozen layers of scarves I was wrapped in) back to my friend's apartment.
Likewise, soups and stews, usually made and served in heat-keeping stone pots called tukbaege, are popular meals. Kawai lists some of these under "house specialties" and others under "sizzling dishes," sometimes a misnomer. For example, the multitudes of jigae are really more like soups -- think Vietnamese pho -- than stir-fried dishes. A piquant concoction, the basic kimchee jigae is usually cooked when the kimchee has been lingering in the refrigerator for about two weeks and needs to be used up. Boil the chili-spiced, preserved cabbage in water with cubes of bean curd, perhaps some pork, and a highly regarded vegetable like zucchini and voilà -- a tasty one-disher you don't even have to season, thanks to the previously marinated cabbage. Variations on the theme at Kawai include a marvelous doenjang jigae (somewhat mysteriously described as "clams, squash and onion stew of bean in heated stone pot"), further flavored with toothsome little nuggets of clams that didn't betray their seabed origins with a single speck of unwanted sand.
Two of the most well-known (to Americans) dishes are prepared with expertise here, though once again, the menu might be misleading. Bulgogi, thin-sliced marinated beef, is supposed to be served raw and cooked by the customer on a tabletop grill (a descendant of Mongolian barbecue). Kawai served it already fixed, which in the end we didn't mind because the beef, practically shaved, was so tender and savory, we were glad we didn't have to stop to make more.
On the other hand, the dish made famous by restaurants in the city of Chonju, bibimbap, was prepared tabletop, though by the waitress instead of the customer, as is also customary. A rice mixture stir-fried in a tukbaege, bibimbap is presented as a pie chart, with individual ingredients such as julienne beef, bean sprouts, scallions, cucumber, and seaweed arranged in wedges. Then the separate elements are mixed together, rapidly sautéed in sesame oil, chili paste, sesame seeds, and a raw egg, and the mixture infuses into the medley as it cooks. The result? A super, multifaceted meal that supplies endless nuances of flavor in every bite.
It's necessary to return to the Japanese menu for desserts, as the Korean one doesn't offer any; even my Korean cookbooks don't describe much in the way of sweets beyond dates dipped in honey. But it's not so far-fetched to follow the zesty Korean dishes with some cooling green tea ice cream. Just as it's not out of the realm of believability that Kawai might actually tempt those more comfortable with gyoza and miso soup into trying goon mandu and jigae -- if they remember to pass out the Korean menus, that is.