Real Korean cooking, veggie-style

I live in K-town, baby. That is the way to tell someone in Los Angeles you live in the Koreatown neighborhood and sound reallllll coolllll. Please note my sarcasm. Actually, whenever I tell people where I live (and technically I am now just east of Ktown, in Westlake) they wax enthusiastically about all the Korean barbeque joints. I then have to shamefacedly admit that I rarely take advantage of my own ‘hood. I am surrounded by restaurants earning the praise of top critics, and I, food person that I am, haven’t partaken. You see, I am a very strict vegetarian. And I have been warned by Korean friends that I probably shouldn’t even try to order in Korean restaurants. Although a lot of dishes seem innocuous, things like anchovies and fish sauce are frequently used as seasoning. I was forlorn when I found out that like the Bloody Mary, most of the spicy kimchi I used to enjoy contained anchovies and was off my vegetarian table.

While I could claim culinary scholarship was the reason I wanted to vegan-ize some Korean foods, the truth is that I am addicted to spicy food. Korean food can be some of the spiciest. And I have been avidly adding to my hot sauce collection. I needed an excuse to use my latest add, a Bibigo Gochuchang hot sauce (which I double and triple-checked to make sure was vegetarian).I love hot sauce. So much. Too much? Nah. Living where I do, I can explore the hot sauces from a multitude of nations. The world loves spicy.

Anyone can go online and find less widely available ingredients, but I love going into my neighborhood’s Korean markets and ogling aisles and aisles of foods whose name I cannot even read. Nowhere else do I see sweet potato starch noodles, fermented foods of all kinds, and intriguing vegetables like chrysanthemum greens. And I was mesmerized to find out that when Koreans speak of rice cakes, they aren’t talking about the air we consume here in America. They are talking about dense little cakes made of glutinous rice flour, toothsome and chewy.

If you don’t speak Korean or live in Korea (or Koreatown!), Maangchi, the Internet Youtube cooking star and author of Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking wrote a comprehensive guide to all the ingredients and equipment you need to make an authentic Korean feast. Maangchi means “hammer” so I figured she would be a badass source to learn from. Armed her glossary of ingredients including both the English and Korean names, as well as pictures of what I needed, I set out.

I could wander for hours in these stores. What the US does for cereal aisles, Korean stores do for fermented soybean paste aisles. I pondered a bit then got what I needed, like this paste. Then I got cooking.

I did have some difficulty finding vegetarian recipes with this book. The intros to many of the recipes emphasize the importance of ingredients like anchovies or other meats in defining what a dish was. I didn’t want to alter those too much. Instead, I found a recipe that was already vegetarian. I double checked that my gochujang and bean paste were veggie-safe, and put together this delightful lil’ snack.

One minor substitution: I realized I was out of rice so I used…rice noodles! These Maifun noodles, to be exact, since they tasted of rice and the super thin pasta made it easy to scoop. They worked. Gluten free-ers take note. This pasta could work for you.

HOLY HECKBALLS! This dish was transcendent. I did not believe it. I mean, maybe its that I don’t cook with these exact flavors as much but MY GOD it was good. I mean, it was something that had me thumping around my kitchen pumping my fist saying “HOT DAMN I’M GOOD” even though I was just following a (relatively foolproof) recipe. I wanted actually to eat just a bowl of the rice or noodles mixed with the sauce. The sauce. You guysssss, the sauce. It is more of a manna from heaven. Thank you Maangchi!

Vegetable Leaf Wraps with Rice and Apple Dipping Sauce adapted from Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking by Maangchi

  • 1/4 cup fermented soybean paste (doenjang)
  • 1 Tbsp. Korean hot pepper paste (Gochuchang-I used the sauce by Bibigo)
  • 1 small sweet apple (I used a Gala), peeled and diced into 1/8-inch cubes
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. toasted sesame seeds (I bought raw ones and cooked, stirring regularly in a dry skillet over medium high heat until they were lightly browned)
  • lettuce to use as wrappers (I used iceberg)
  • chrysanthemum greens or you can substitute mint or basil
  • cooked rice (I used noodles!)
  • fresh cilantro sprigs

For the sauce, mix up the soybean paste, gochujang, apple, garlic, scallions and sesame oil. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Now the fun! Take a lettuce lead, add a sprig or so of the chrysanthemum greens and cilantro. Heap on some rice or noodles. Top with a spoonful of sauce. Pick that sucker up using the lettuce to wrap around it and bite in! SO good.

I received this cookbook for review but all opinions are mine and freely given.

(Image via Shutterstock)