More than just kimchi

Beef ribs sizzling on the charcoal grill
I MUST confess. I knew nothing about Korean cuisine except for kimchi, a pickled cabbage dish that’s synonymous with Korea.  But I soon learn that kimchi is not limited to only pickled cabbage or radish. It can be made with any kind of vegetable.  I also didn’t know any Korean word beyond kamsahamnida (meaning thank you).

At Kyung Bok Gung Korean BBQ restaurant in Johor Baru, the menu is filled with strange-sounding names of dishes, accompanied by helpful pictures and descriptions of the various dishes.  Nevertheless, I’m glad that my Korean friends, Dr Lee and his wife, are the ones ordering for me, a typical Korean meal.

Eating is a very important social part of Korean culture and food is usually served in bite-size portions. Koreans take such pleasure in eating that they have a saying that goes something like this: “Even the diamond mountain can wait until you have eaten your meal.”

At the table, I find a long-handled steel spoon on a plate with a pair of steel chopsticks. I am rather worried that the chopsticks will feel heavy or slippery. Koreans use chopsticks and rice bowls made of metal so I make a mental note not to let my chopsticks carelessly hit the bowl and make embarrassing noises. As the meal progresses, I’m relieved that it’s mostly a “hands-on” affair and I don’t have to worry about being clumsy with the chopsticks because I’m happily eating with my fingers.

Banchan & Barbecue

The table, built with a hole in the middle for the metal barbecue grill, is quickly covered with an array of small dishes filled with a variety of appetisers and condiments. I count 10 side plates of pickled and boiled vegetables known as banchan and recognise a few, like cabbage kimchi, boiled sprigs of spinach, bunches of broccoli with a side of red soya bean sauce and pickled sesame leaves.

This is the way to assemble ingredients on
a 'bossam' or lettuce wrap
A waitress removes the metal grill and another places in it a small container of glowing charcoal before replacing the metal grill on top. The hot grill sizzles with appetising promise when the waitress rubs a thick slab of sliced onion over it and deftly unfolds rolls of galbi (beef) marinated in soya sauce. After it’s grilled, the meat is cut into bite sizes with a pair of scissors and served.

Taking heed of the Lees’ step-by-step directions, I take a piece of fresh lettuce and place, in the centre, a slice of meat dipped in soya bean paste and top it with a slice of garlic and chilli.  The trick is to fold the leaf inwards to make a bite-size pouch and pop it into my mouth elegantly. It’s fine to add any choice of banchan into the bossam (lettuce wrap) for more flavour but be sure the whole wrap fits neatly into your mouth!

Rice & Noodles

Nachi Bokum - spicy fried octopus with wheat noodles
Nachi Bokum is a pretty platter of spicy fried octopus and vegetables heaped in the centre with four bunches of wheat noodles in the four corners of the plate.

Though it’s a pity to destroy the arrangement, the noodles must be tossed into the gravy for serving. The smooth noodles, mixed with the spicy, tangy flavour of chewy octopus and vegetables, is absolutely appetising.

Bi Bim Bap - Yummy Korean hot stone pot rice

“Be careful, it’s hot!” I am reminded several times when a hot stone pot is placed in front of me. This Korean hot stone pot rice, fragrant with sesame oil, is topped with chicken, mushroom, cucumber, carrot, lettuce, spinach, seaweed and an egg yolk.

An interesting and colourful sight. Lots of red soya bean sauce is drizzled over the rice and mixed thoroughly before I can dig in.

Fast Facts

Proprietor Lee Sang Ho and his wife, Lee Myung Ja, who come from Taejon, Korea, prepare delicious Seoul-style kimchi using only vegetable sauce. No MSG is used in any of the food.

Pancake with seafood and scallion
Some of their recommendations include pancake fried with seafood and scallion, tender grilled beef marble, chicken stew stuffed with glutinous rice and ginseng, and samgyeopsal or boiled slices of pork belly served with two types of kimchi (cabbage and radish), garlic and sliced chilli.

Kyung Bok Gung Korean BBQ restaurant at 82-A Jalan Kuning, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, is open daily from 11am to 11pm. For reservations, call 07-333 3077.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 26 October 2009

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