Korea in a cooking pot

Just as Korean TV serials are hot among Chinese, so is Korean cuisine becoming a popular choice in China when people want to eat something different but not that bizarre.

Last year, after South Korean actress Jun Ji-hyun famously said: "It's snowing outside - we should have fried chicken and beer!" in the TV serial My Love From the Star, there was a craze for Korean fried chicken. Even KFC launched a special combo of that style of fried chicken with soda.

But you will find that's not real Korean fried chicken after tasting the authentic Korean cuisine of Andrew Ahn, whose runs the restaurant One Pot, formerly called Ssam in Sanlitun SOHO.

When South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited China in June 2013, Ahn cooked for her and the entourage for the state visit. "The first day I prepared cool soup with soybean sprouts and bibimbab, and the second day I cooked Korean barbecue, marinated whelk and cool carrot soup," Ahn told Chinese media at the time.

The Korean president had asked for food that wasn't extremely spicy, Ahn says, which might surprise outsiders who expect all Korean food to be spicy-hot. The ingredients and flavors vary widely, and some of the differences are regional, although Ahn says the country is small and so the cuisine is basically the same all over.

But the spiciest kimchi, for example, comes from the south - a tradition has ancient roots thanks to geography and climate in the days before refrigeration, Ahn says.

Silk Road traders passing through Pyongyang likely found that kimchi, the pickled cabbage they were packing along the way, was milder in Pyongyang than in more southern Gyeongju. Cabbage fermented too quickly in the south, Ahn says, and chilies and other spices slow the process down and also help preserve foods in warmer areas.

Korean fried chicken and carpaccio in spoons are among the menu items served at Andrew Ahn's restaurant One Pot in Sanlitun SOHO in Beijing.

Photo: China Daily/ANN

Fast forward to modern times: Our lunch this week starts with his signature garden salad, which looks literally like a miniature garden with broccoli shreds covering the nut-based sauce as the "grass" and small squashes stuck on top of it as the "trees". When you eat it, you roll the sauce into a leaf of lettuce, and enjoy the fresh taste.

Coming next is a carpaccio served in a spoon as a single bite. Ahn learned to cook Western cuisine in his early career at W Hotel in Seoul and later was chief cook in an Italian restaurant in Dubai's Burj Al Arab hotel for two years.

He can mix his mastery of Italian cuisine with Asian taste, hiding the sesame sauce behind the raw beef, for example, so when we put the carpaccio into our mouths, it really gave us a surprise!

The main courses for the lunch are traditional Korean fried chicken and bulgogi with noodles. Unlike the American fried chicken, which is dry outside, the Korean chicken pieces are served drizzled with different sauces - spicy or garlic or plain - on the crust, but the sauces never make the crisp coating soggy.

The bibimbab in the restaurant is served in a pot instead of stone bowl, a way that Ahn promotes his new concept "One Pot". There are 13 ingredients in the pot, including eggs, ginkgo fruit and cucumber.

The dessert for our big lunch is ginseng tiramisu - another meeting of Western and Asian cuisine. Unlike Chinese people, though, Ahn says: "Koreans think that people should have ginseng in summer, when people are hot outside but cold inside. And ginseng can get you warm inside."

Ahn doesn't like to use MSG: He wants the food to show off its natural taste. But he got complaints from customers who said the food didn't taste like they expected. ("I have had MSG my whole life before!" one said.) So Ahn put a small bottle of MSG on the table so customers could help themselves. "No problem," he says.

Ahn is a chef that enjoys experiment in cooking, and he is making plans to open a high-end Korean fine dining restaurant in Jeju island. He plans to offer more seasonal Korean at that seaside location, because "the ingredients are very fresh there".

"Only three dinners a week, only by reservation," says the 41-year-old. "I will use the rest of the time to develop myself - to try things and learn things. It will be like a lab."

Photo: China Daily/ANN

At a glance

Many Korean side dishes (banchan) get their flavor (and preservation) from fermentation. They have a tangy, salty, and spicy taste.

Bibimbap means "mixed rice" in Korean. If you have any vegetables in the fridge, you can mix them up with rice in a one-pot dish.

Rice was extremely pricey when it was introduced to Korea, so it was mixed with other grains to "stretch" it. This is done today in dishes such as boribap (rice with barley) and kongbap (rice with beans)

Medicinal food (boyangshik) is a wide variety of specialty foods, including seaweed and ginseng, prepared and eaten for better health, especially during the hottest days of summer. Consuming "hot" foods is believed to restore one's vital life force, as well as sexual and physical stamina sapped by oppressive heat.

Mike Peters contributed to the story.