We were fortunate to see Busan at its prettiest - at the height of the annual lotus lantern festival, celebrating Buddha's birthday. Thousands of colorful paper lanterns were lit across the city, strung from trees, street lamps and temple courtyards, creating a joyous, festive atmosphere.
It was easy to get swept along in the happiness and optimism of the festive season. Parades and music all added to the relaxed, friendly feel of the city.
What is a festival without a feast? An authentic Korean barbecue, served in a traditional restaurant, is the highlight of our fond memories of Busan. We were seated on the wooden floor on small mats surrounding a low table. As soon as we made our selection, small plates of side dishes appeared in quick succession. There was pickled white radish, marinated bean sprouts, kimchi and an array of other exciting little appetizers.
The marinated meat was brought in and we cooked it at our table on a tiny charcoal fired grill, with our server hovering around to guide us gently and change the grill occasionally. We were puzzled by the small bowl containing about 30 cloves of garlic she had placed on the table - we couldn't imagine eating all that garlic in a single meal. But when the meat was cooking, she arranged the garlic around the edges of the grill so that all the juices and fat dripped down on it, creating a wonderful caramelized flavour that was irresistible and quite unlike anything we had ever tasted before. Once we started eating, the garlic was the first item to be devoured!
The sheer variety of meats and vegetables in a Korean barbecue is staggering. After munching on all the little plates of appetizers, we grilled beef, pork, lamb and chicken and ate it wrapped in crisp lettuce leaves. There were also vegetables and noodles to add to the feast! And to round it all off, small bowls of my favourite Soon tofu soup. Luckily there was only sliced watermelon for dessert - we couldn't possibly have eaten any more!
Korean red pepper paste or Gochujang is the basis for all of my favourite Korean flavours. It is made of dried red chilies, fermented soybeans and glutinous rice. Think of it as the seasoning with attitude! Whenever I cook Korean food at home, I make sure to add a bit of Gochujang for its unique, smoky heat and flavour which is hard to describe but definitely addictive.
This marinade also works well with other meats such as beef, pork or lamb. Try it on seafood, tofu or vegetables as well.
Start your meal with Soon tofu soup. You can find the recipe here.
Korean Style Chicken With Quick Pickled Radish Salad
For the chicken:
1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into thin strips
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece ginger, minced or grated
2 tbsp each: soy sauce, rice vinegar
1 tbsp each: toasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, brown sugar , oil
1 tsp Korean hot pepper paste (Gochujang), optional*
Place chicken in deep mixing bowl. Combine remaining ingredients, except oil in small bowl and pour over chicken, tossing to coat well. Cover and refrigerate for up to 4 hours.
A grill pan works best for cooking the food. If you don't have one, a frying pan will do too. Warm pan on medium heat, drizzle with oil.
Lift chicken strips out of marinade (discard marinade) and place in pan. Cook for about 6-8 minutes or until chicken is cooked through, juices have cooked off and chicken is browned and slightly caramelized with the marinade.
Transfer to a platter and serve with radish salad.
Quick Pickled Radish Salad:
4 cups peeled, diced white Daikon radish
1 cup each: rice vinegar, water
1/4 cup brown sugar
Salt to taste
Place radish in deep glass bowl.
Combine remaining ingredients in separate bowl and pour over radish, tossing well to coat. Marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
Drain radishes and transfer to a serving bowl. Chill until ready to serve.
*Gochujang or Korean hot pepper paste is available in most Korean or Asian grocery stores.