Touring the culinary delights of KoreaPublished on March 26, 2012

  • Kalbi.

  • Food editor Paula Roy enjoys Korean hospitality with Mi-Sook Um.

  • Bibimbap with banchan.

  • Sweet potato cake and sliced Korean pear.

Ottawa is a great place to discover the delicious, fresh tastes of Korean food, considered by many to be among the world's healthiest cuisines.

With a year-long celebration underway to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea and Canada, it's a perfect time to explore this country's proud culinary traditions. Ottawa at Home called upon local expert Mi-Sook Um, wife of Ambassador Joo-Hong Nam, who proved to be an enthusiastic and gracious gastronomic tour guide.

A tour of the embassy's impressive Rockcliffe residence reveals the importance of food and hospitality in Korean culture. Two dining rooms, one intimate and one expansive, are designed for Western-style service, while the living room features several low, hand-carved wooden tables where diners sit on cushions on the floor, in the Korean tradition.

One of the first things Mi-Sook explained about Korean food is that simply calling it healthy is an understatement. "High in fibre and low in fat, it has been proven to boost one's immune system and promote longevity," she said. Among the flavourful seasonings that give Korean food its unique characteristics are ganjang (soy sauce), doenjang (fermented bean paste), and gochujang (fermented red pepper paste), which create bold yet balanced flavour combinations, as evidenced by the scrumptious luncheon served by Mi-Sook.

Unlike a typical Korean meal where all dishes are brought to the table at once, we enjoyed each course individually. We began with pretty porcelain dishes whose lids were lifted to reveal bright yellow squash porridge. Next were delicate radish-wrapped vegetable parcels, followed by japchae, stir-fried sweet potato starch noodles served with vegetables. The thin, almost-transparent noodles had a delicate seasoning which gave them an appealing, salty taste.

Savoury pancakes are a staple of Korean cuisine. We were served several pan-fried delicacies, including pancakes flavoured with green onions and kimchi, the fermented, seasoned cabbage that some consider the quintessential Korean condiment. Made by hand in almost every household, it is so important to Korean cuisine that parents typically ask to taste a prospective daughter-in-law's kimchi to determine her worthiness as a bride.

Following the pancakes were marinated, barbecued beef short rib slices, called kalbi. Served with lettuce leaves and a spicy sauce, the dish is eaten by putting the meat and sauce on the lettuce and rolling it up to eat by hand, providing a delightful contrast of flavours and textures.

Up next was bibimbap, scalding hot bowls of rice, decorated with vegetables and a raw quail's egg. The vessel was so hot that when I stirred the egg into the rice as directed by Mi-Sook, the egg cooked instantly. We added side dishes as toppings to suit our tastes; these included spicy sauces and two kinds of kimchi. A bowl of soybean paste stew accompanied this course; it was fragrant and had a complex, earthy flavour.

Our meal ended on a sweet note with a bowl of rice punch and a plate composed of several desserts, including a slice of moist, delectable sweet potato cake. Korean red ginseng tea proved the ideal finish to the meal, with its lovely aroma and pleasant taste.

Many of the nuances of Korean etiquette would have been incomprehensible without Mi-Sook's guidance, such as not rummaging through the side dishes with one's chopsticks, and understanding that rice can be eaten with a spoon. She explained that when dining at a Korean restaurant, you are expected to order one or two individual main dishes from the menu and while waiting for your dishes to arrive, you enjoy complimentary small plates of communal side dishes, called banchan. I also learned that Koreans treat their elders with the utmost respect at the table, as they do in every aspect of daily life.

With its harmonious balance of flavours, textures and visual appeal, it was a memorable meal indeed. "Every taste comes from the fingers," Mi-Sook noted, explaining that it is the effort and skilful preparation that makes Korean food so flavourful and satisfying.

A sampling of Korea's ?finest fare in Ottawa

According to Mi-Sook, all the Korean restaurants in Ottawa serve good-quality Korean food. "Each restaurant has its own strengths, so I recommend that you visit each one and try their specialties," she said.

Here are a few of her recommendations:

- Alirang Restaurant (134 Nelson St.) ?Pajeon (savoury Korean pancake) is delicious.

- Arum (512 Bank St.) has excellent Bulgogi (marinated barbequed beef slices).

- Kochu (361 Elgin St.) is a great place to pop by for a casual lunch or takeout. Its Kimchi (spicy, pickled and fermented cabbage) has a good garlicky flavour and their Kimbap (Korean sushi) is also great.

- Korea Garden (470 Rideau St.) has excellent Galbi (beef or pork that is marinated until tender and then braised ?on the grill).

- Korean Palace (610 Somerset St.) serves wonderful Bibimbap (rice with vegetables).

- Koreana (711 Somerset St.) is known ?for its sizzling fish stew.

- Le Kim Chi (420 Preston St.) spicy pork stir-fry is superb.

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