Sunday, September 12, 2010

Post 34.1: Korean-Chinese Food, Part 1 (LA: Koreatown)

Just recently Wade introduced me to Appetite for China, a blog whose writer has much of her attention directed towards the many facets of Chinese cuisine.  What fascinates me about her posts is that she doesn't just focus on the eight classic schools of Chinese cuisine (Cantonese, Szechwan, etc.) or just any random Chinese dish or restaurant that she finds.  According to her About page, she highlights some of the hyphenated styles of Chinese cooking such as Portugese-accented Macanese, Peruvian chiffa, and Indian-Chinese.  What sparked me to write a post was her feature on Korean-Chinese cuisine, a type of food that Rose took me to try at Young King in Koreatown.

So what exactly is Korean-Chinese cuisine? Simply put, it's Korean style Chinese food. 

Still hard to grasp? Well, in America we have American style Italian food... I'm sure you've had the BBQ chicken pizza from CPK.  We also have Mexican-Chinese here in Los Angeles... the wonton soup with a splash of lime juice and chili oil from China Cafe at Grand Central Market is slightly bewildering, enormously tasty, and incredibly unforgettable.

 In Japan and Taiwan, there is Japanese-Italian... have you ever had squid ink pasta or teriyaki chicken pizza topped with seaweed and mochi balls?


And in Korea, there is Korean-Chinese.

The common explanation is that this Korean style of Chinese food was developed when northern Chinese, most likely from the Shandong region, emigrated to Korea and brought their style of cooking with them.  Over the course of many generations in Korea, what was originally Chinese cuisine became adapted to the tastes of the Korean tongue using local ingredients.

Another difference between Korean-Chinese food and traditional Chinese cuisine is that Korean-Chinese is served with kimchi and the raw onions with black bean paste.  Typically, the rest of the banchan is excluded from the meal.

Most of the Koreans I know agree that the three most well-known (and arguably best tasting) Korean-Chinese dishes are:

(1) Jjajangmyeon (Korean:
짜장면, Chinese: 炸醬麵): noodles smothered with a gelatinous black bean sauce and shredded cucumbers.  Korean jjajangmyeon is similar to the Chinese zhajiangmian in that the foundation of both stem from black bean paste.  However, jjajangmyeon is distinctly different from the zhajiangmian from China or Taiwan in that it uses not only onions but also caramel in the sauce, which zhajiangmian does not.  At first sight, it is clear that Korean jjajangmyeon is creamier; the texture and feel reminds me of shampoo.  Shampoo?! Yes, next time you have jjajangmyeon, see for yourself.  It's like having Pert Plus in black bean fragrance on your noodles sans the bathroom product offensiveness.  (Apologies if I have ruined the noodles for you.)  And it has a much darker color (almost black), and the Chinese version has a brown hue.

(2) Jjambbong (Korean: 짬뽕, Chinese: 炒碼麵): a mix of seafood and noodles in a spicy stew.  Although the spiciness of the dish makes it my favorite Korean-Chinese food, it is also the spiciness and wavering kimchi taste that makes me question how Chinese this dish actually is.  I've asked many of my Korean friends to translate jjambbong for me.  I hoped that the result would sound similar to the Chinese words so that I could correlate the two dishes (like jjajangmyeon and zhajiangmian), but to no avail. Jjambbong is simply a slang Korean word meaning mixed-together, a mess, or hodgepodge.  Even the menu's translation of jjambbong to chaomamian by Lunar Restaurant is nowhere close to anything remotely Chinese that I know.

(3) Tangsuyuk (Korean:
탕수육, Chinese: 糖醋肉) sweet and sour meat, typically pork but can be prepared with beef.  While Chinese sweet and sour pork is typically stir-fried, the Korean version is deep fried with a thicker breading.  Here the sweet and sour sauce is served on the side.  When I bit into the tangsuyuk it oozed with fattiness and reminded me of a softer version of a pork rind.  The excrement of oil was fascinating for my tongue and detrimental to my heart, but thankfully, Chinese food is always served with hot tea.

But unthankfully, it is damn diggity hot in the restaurant.  No joke.  Eating at Young King was no different from eating in old school Chinese restaurants as a kid in the early 90's.  Really.  Old, shaggy, dirty carpet.  Loud, noisy kitchen.  Waitstaff in unkempt white blouses and black restaurant shoes.  You know the rubber-looking black shoes with black shoelaces in the shape of Twinkies that all Chinese restaurant staff wore in the 90's? Yeah, they still wear 'em here.  Oily tabletops.  Oh, and it's hot.  Sweaty hot.  But no one seemed to mind.

Plate after plate of tangsuyuk arrived at every single table.  It was so freshly prepared that I could see the steam billow from the plate of tangsuyuk three tables away.  Damn.  And bowl after bowl of what I can only imagine as jjajangmyeon and jjambbong arrived at every single table.  Including ours.  Four bowls, actually... one order of each noodle, split into individual bowls for the two of us.  Why? Cuz we're fatties.  And because almost every Korean I know has a hard time deciding between jjajangmyeon and jjambbong, as evidenced by jbih's blogspot.

Since many Koreans have learned of the origins of this special cuisine and order it in the Korean-Chinese restaurants they grew up with, this type of Korean-Chinese is regarded as Chinese food.  However, since many Chinese and Chinese-Americans have rarely, if ever, come across this version of Chinese food, they consider it Korean food simply because it's not the kind of Chinese food they grew up with.  Some Korean-Americans designate jjajangmyeon as Chinese (hey, it sounds like zhajiangmian), while the same ones who throw the black bean noodles in the Chinese category may question how Chinese jjambbong is.  Whether it's really Korean or really Chinese whittles down to pure opinion.  One thing is for sure though... Koreans definitely have a special place on their palate for jjajangmyeon.  Ask any Korean you know.  I'd like to meet the one Korean who doesn't like jjajangmyeon.

The only way anyone is going to appreciate the food for what it is... is to simply take the food for what it is.  Don't think about whether the food is actually Chinese or Korean... don't compare jjajangmyeon with zhajiangmian or even think about whether you like one over another.  Don't think.  Just eat.  Bae go pa.

Thanks to Wade for the link.  Funny... he's Chinese and gets mistaken for Korean all the time.  Even in China.  

Until the next meal, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100915/20100313


  1. WoW...that was a very extensive post! Great post michael! :)

  2. i think you're out in koreatown eating more than me. wait til 26th. i hope it'll knock your socks out...

  3. @Rose: thanks! more to come soon!

    @Grace: I think so too! I can't wait til next week!

  4. Dammit why DO people always think im korean???? im not drunk that often!!! wait...ok nevermind.