Korean radish along with giant green onion being sold on the curb side. This is real shopping-on-the-go in Seoul.

If there was only one vegetable to get to know in Korea, I would say it should be the Korean radish – called moo in Korean.  It is a super versatile vegetable used countless Korean dishes from vinegar pickled, salt-cured & fermented, and dried, to chopped into stews and soups, and also eaten fresh or even as a salad wrap.  It’s available year round, though it’s most sweet and juicy in season in the fall, and in late winter from Jeju Island.

Here is a Korean radish banchan recipe that I learned from my Mom recently; sometimes it’s called che-nalmul (means julienne cut vegetable) in Korean.  It’s technically not a traditional kimchi because it’s not fermented, but this is essentially the base that is stuffed into the ubiquitous cabbage kimchi.

Unlike any other type of kimchi, this one gets doused with a little vinegar at serving and topped with toasted sesame seeds.  This helps to mellow out the flavours and make it less spicy.  It actually tastes like a fresh kimchi salad so it’s great for anyone who’s not into the fermented-sour kimchi taste.

Crunchy fresh kimchi salad - a little spicy, tangy, salty, savoury. Beyond Korean banchan, it could meld nicely with non-Korean flavours also, say for instance stuffed into a taco or a burger.

There is just one caveat in this otherwise very simple recipe, and I swear just one.  As it should be obvious in the picture and in the name, the recipe requires some chopping and sharpening up your knifing skills.  I imagine some fancy machine could work, but a sharp knife and good old arm muscle works the best I think!

For chopping, I found easiest to slice up the radish into thin slices first.  Here’s a huge stack that I made, the tower of moo!   A worthwhile tip is to make a tiny flat slice on one side of the radish to level it and prevent it from rolling around while you slice.  Then, pile a few slices at a time, and make the julienne-cut to get long matchsticks.  Some patience required at first, but it did go much faster than I thought.

JULIENNE-CUT KOREAN RADISH “FRESH” KIMCHI

Feel free to adjust any of the tastes to your liking.  Be careful not too add too much too much fermented baby shrimp as I find this flavour very strong.  Fish sauce is also strong, but can be used to adjust the savoriness of the kimchi.  This sidedish is also great accompaniment to bossam.

Makes about 2 cups

  • 1kg Korean radish, washed, cut into julienne 2-3 mm (approx. 1/2 large radish)
  • 5 Tbsp Korean red chili powder
  • 5 medium garlic cloves, minced finely
  • 1 1/4 tsp anchovy fish sauce 액젓
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp sea salt (to taste)
  • 1 tsp ginger, grated finely
  • 1 large green onion, finely sliced
  • 1 tsp fermented shrimp (새우젓) (optional)

1.  In a big bowl, start with the cut radish sticks and sprinkle sugar.  Then toss in the rest of the ingredients, and mix well with hands.

2.  Let it sit for about 30 minutes.  The salt and sugar will draw moisture from the radish and create a red kimchi water.  Taste, and adjust any seasoning. Store in a glass jar or glass tupperware in the refrigerator for up to 2-3 weeks.

3.  When serving, spoon over some vinegar and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds.

There are certain foods that I have pseudo-given up being in Korea in the spirit of cooking Korean food and for better health.  I speak about butter, one of my best cooking buddies, and THE secret ingredient that makes everything taste delicious.  Oh, how I do miss thee.

Luckily, there is some consolation to replace the saturated fat in the diet: the pork belly.  Yes, Koreans are absolutely obsessed with pork belly.  You can get green tea-fed pork belly, Jeju black pig pork belly, special pork belly that doesn’t smell.. and who knows how many other kinds.

All have a different price point and different taste character.  How do I know?  I have to admit that I always do my rounds at Homeplus when they are sampling samgypsal (grilled pork belly).  I just can’t resist most times.  I wonder how many silent calories that adds up with every trip to the grocery store…hmm, food for thought.

But let’s not worry so much about calories, health obsessed Koreans have a different view of this fatty meat than, say, Westerners, where fat has a bad reputation.  Whether it’s true or not, Koreans believe that pork fat, unlike beef fat, passes right through the body instead of gravitating to your love handles, and it also removes toxins from your body. Amongst the many anecdotal health claims in Korea, this one I WANT to believe.

So with that, here are pork belly two ways – one Korean bo-ssam style, and Japanese-style slow braised. I’m a big fan of bo-ssam with the burst of bold flavours that you create in your own individual morsel. It is essentially boiled pork belly slices wrapped in steamed cabbage accompanied by raw oyster, ssam jang and julienne turnip fresh kimchi.  It is particularly delicious when fresh kimchi is made in the late fall during kimjang, and when napa (baechu) cabbage is at its best with its tender, sweet yellow inner leaves.  In fact, I had it only for the first time last fall when I went over to my Aunts for her kimjang.  At the end of the day, all there’s left to do is to boil a chunk of pork belly for about 1 hour, and an array of components come together on the table from the ingredients of making kimchi. Very delicious and satisfying.

I searched for another way to prepare pork belly, a slow braised method, which I think brings out the best in this cut of meat.  I used a very simple recipe from justhungry.com for a slow braised pork belly mildly seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, ginger and sake (which I replaced with soju).  And I braised it in the slow cooker, a method I highly recommend, as not only was it easy to make, but it resulted in the most delectable soft jelly texture.  To put it simply, this dish is all about savoring the glory of pork belly itself and is a must-try recipe at home.

Piece of pork belly with julienned radish kimchi and ssam jang on steamed cabbage leaf.

The inner leaves of napa cabbage. They are beautifully yellow in colour and very sweet in taste. The very best for bossam.

BOILED PORK BELLY FOR BOSSAM

  • about 1 lb pork belly (in one piece)
  • 2 Tbsp Korean miso paste (duenjang)
  • 1 large piece of ginger
  • about 1L of water
  • about 15 cabbage leaves, steamed (either napa cabbage or green cabbage)

Accompaniments:

  • store-bought ssam jang
  • turnip (moo) kimchi, made fresh, not fermented
  • raw fresh oysters (optional)

In a pot, bring to boil the pork belly and water.  Add duenjang and ginger.  Reduce heat, and simmer about 45 minutes, or until meat is tender and cooked.

Separate the cabbage leaves and wash with water.  Steam in a steamer until tender.

To serve, slice the boiled pork in about 0.5cm slices.  To eat ssam, wrap a piece of pork, kimchi, ssamjang and oyster and try to eat at one go!

Gorgeous piece of pork belly and absolutely melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness.

JAPANESE BRAISED PORK BELLY
recipe adapted from justhungry.com
  • about 1 lb pork belly with skin
  • 2 Tbsp sugar — used brown sugar
  • 1 piece of leek (about 6 inches) — used large green onion
  • 1 large piece of fresh ginger
  • 1 star anise — omitted
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp sake — replaced with soju
  • 2 cups water

Cut the pork into cubes, about 1 inch or so squares.  Heat up a large pan with a heavy bottom. Sauté the pork belly cubes until browned on all sides.

Place the browned meat in the slow cooker.  In the remaining fat, add the sugar and heat until caramelized.  Lower the heat, and be careful not to burn the sugar.  Scoop out the melted sugar with some of the fat and add to the meat.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the slow cooker; cover, and set on highest level.  After about one hour, set on medium to low level for about 7 hours, or until meat is very tender.

Serve the pork belly with a little of the braising liquid and a splash of high-quality dark soy sauce.