Tuesday, 13 April 2010
Korean kismet, or the serendipitous incident at the stupa of Boudhanath
As chance meetings go, it was up there with the very strangest. There I was, minding my own business on a hot day at Boudhanath in Kathmandu - one of Nepal’s largest Buddhist stupas - when this bloke came up to me and asked me to take his picture in front of the giant temple. Nothing too odd about that, I thought, so I duly obliged. Then he asked me where I was from. I told him England, living in Dubai. “Me too,” he gasped, amazed, in a heavy far-east Asian accent, “living in Dubai, I mean.” And he began to tell me his story.
The general manager of the soon-to-be-opened Asiana Hotel in Deira, he was in Kathmandu on a recruitment drive. He said that the new hotel - which will be the first Asian boutique concept in the city - would have a bunch of restaurants including a Japanese, a Chinese and a Korean. He told me he was originally from Korea, Jeju to be precise, and his name was MS Jahng. “MS, like Microsoft,” he quipped.
After explaining that I had more than a passing interest in restaurants, I gave him my contact details and asked him to keep in touch. A week after my return to Dubai, he called and invited me to dinner with him, his wife and two teenage daughters at Yehjun, a tiny Korean joint next to Sea World restaurant, above Safestway supermarket on Sheikh Zayed Road. The place is owned by the parent company of the Asiana Hotel, but is about as low-key as a dwarf’s front door.
I joined them in a private room with bamboo shutters. After exchanging pleasantries, the banchan or small side-dish plates arrived. There were ‘kongnamul’ boiled bean sprouts dressed in sesame oil and served cold, spongey fish cakes or ‘odeng’, ‘gaeran mari’ rolled omelette with vegetables, sauteed garlic stems or ‘manul julgi’, and ‘sigeumchi namul’ or wilted spinach with a splash of soy, garlic and sesame oil.
And of course, since a Korean meal without it would be like a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator without the mutton chops, sweat and 56-inch-waist gold lame suit, there was kimchi. Kimchi is the Korean superfood of pickled and fermented cabbage, which is low in calories, high in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and packed with lactic acid bacteria. Koreans usually eat it every day, often with every meal, but as MS and his girls confessed, sadly many younger Koreans are more interested in McDonalds and KFC these days.
Where I would have leapt upon the banchan like a starving castaway, my civilised Korean hosts politely waited until the mains arrived before tucking in. We had marinated short ribs, which were sweet and smokey, tender and moist. After being torn from the bone and dipped into some soy sauce, the meat was dispatched onto a lettuce leaf and introduced to a bit of kimchi, some garlic stems and whatever we fancied from the banchan selection, before being folded up like a parcel and posted straight down the hatch. It was a stupefying rhapsody of sweet, salty and umami flavours, and crunchy and fleshy textures.
There was also bulgogi, the famous Korean dish of beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and sugar, and barbecued with spring onions to sweet and sumptuous perfection.
What the pan-fried glass noodles lacked in aesthetic quality (it appeared to have been dumped on the plate from the top of a skyscraper), it made up for in flavour and texture. The silkiness of the noodles and black fungus mushrooms, the crunch of the carrot, courgette and spring onion, and the tanginess of the slightly spicy sauce was where it was at.
The seafood pancake sprawled across the table like a giant pizza of egg, squid, prawns, red peppers and spring onion. Unlike a pizza, it was light and fluffy and good with soy sauce.
Like most Korean blowouts, this was a feast that simply couldn’t be finished, even by me. As I reclined in my seat, fully sated, I took my friend MS back to that chance encounter at the stupa of Boudhanath.
“Didn’t you think our meeting like that was a little bit, well, strange?” I asked still basking in the post-feast haze.
“Yes, very strange,” he agreed.
“In English, we might call it serendipity, or kismet...” I suggested, searching for the right word.
“Destiny,” countered the youngest daughter with a bashful smile.
“You know, after walking around the stupa three times, I think you were sent to me by God,” added MS.
Yes, that’s me, heaven sent. Something may have been lost in translation, but I allowed myself to think he was right. Of course, God’s messengers are almost always sweaty, red-faced, puffy-eyed and slightly overweight English tourists, predisposed to eating you out of house and home (and restaurant) and writing blog entries about you and your family on the internet.
I raised a glass of ‘su jung gwa’ cinnamon and ginger tea and proposed a toast to our next meeting, hoping it would be just as eventful as the first two.
Yehjun Korean Restaurant, next to Sea World restaurant, above Safestway supermarket on Sheikh Zayed Road, 04 321 1500. The Korean restaurant Sonamu at Asiana Hotel in Deira opens after Ramadan.