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(Yonhap Feature) From Manhattan, with respect for the working class food of Korea

All Headlines 09:00 December 13, 2012

By Shin Kim
Contributing writer

NEW YORK, Dec. 12 (Yonhap) -- A week before the grand opening of Hanjan, in the midst of loud drilling of the last few wooden panels in the new dining room, the chef-owner Hooni Kim's voice was filled with excited anticipation. Kim gained recognition and a Michelin star when he opened his first restaurant Danji only two years ago.

"It's like writing a new storybook. And 'Hanjan' is about authentic Korean food and drinks in an old tavern setting," said Kim.

The buzz on Hanjan has been brewing throughout the year among foodies in New York City. Kim's first restaurant Danji had quickly become a favorite Korean spot by critics and foodies alike shortly after the quiet opening in Hells Kitchen in December 2010, where its 36 seats seemed constantly occupied with an expected wait of an hour on an average night. Its tight and cozy space made the locals feel like they were hanging out at a friend's apartment. Only that this friend, along with the easy-going, professional staff, served up consistently flavorful Korean dishes worthy of a Michelin star.

As part of staying true to his culinary training in New York City, Kim routinely updated his menu at Danji, based on the seasonal ingredients and creative sparks. But he found himself with an increasing list of dishes he couldn't put on the menu because of the tight kitchen setup and space. "I really wanted some grilled food, especially grilled fish. It's a simple preparation, but a really flavorful everyday food of Korea," said Kim.

He briefly considered moving the location of Danji. But by then, it had already become a local hangout with a lively vibe of its own, which he didn't want to change.

Kim left Korea when he was three years old. However, he became well-versed in Korean food from markets, streets and eventually taverns along with its drinking culture as he spent time in Korea every year while he was growing up in New York City. Then in the last two years, he was back in Korea five times, often eating 5-6 meals a day traveling through small towns and big cities outside of Seoul. Through these trips, it became more apparent that he loved not only the bold flavors of the everyday food of Korea, but also the easy, comfortable setting where these types of food and drinks were often served.

The theme of Kim's next restaurant formed naturally during these trips, a local hangout in Manhattan with more authenticity of everyday Korean food under the concept of "joomak." "It wasn't until later I learned the word 'joomak' but it summed up everything I wanted to capture at my next restaurant," said Kim.

Joomak is an old-style tavern, often located on the roadside to provide food, drinks and lodging for travelers. Its major clientele was composed of the noble class and their servants who were headed to Seoul for the national civil service exams and the merchants traveling to regional markets. It was one of the few places people of all types came together and enjoyed humble food and drinks.

Although its traditional setup is now only seen in folk museums, its concept is still very much alive in Korean culture. Having "a drink" often means a spread of food and drinks together in a sit-down establishment with a group of friends and colleagues, which then often turns into "a night of drinking" to the wee hours.

Hanjan, appropriately named "one glass" in Korean but more generically used as a casual suggestion of "a drink," is located in the Flatiron district of Manhattan where professionals working in the neighborhood are often seen catching up at nearby bars and restaurants after work. It seemed like a good area to introduce Korean joomak culture.

Kim's menu at Hanjan reads like his travel notes transcribed into his own dishes. The menu looks deceivingly familiar to anyone who grew up in Korea with dishes like spicy rice cakes, dduk bokki.

Yet, it takes just a couple of questions to find out this particular menu is also an ambitious one, reflecting Kim's respect for the profession of cooking and for Korean culture overall.

The soondae, or blood sausage, for its spicy stir-fry dish is made in-house by filling pork intestines with glutinous rice and meat. Even the spicy ramyun, Korea's guilty-pleasure version of ramen, is made using natural ingredients, and not flavored by throwing in an MSG seasoning packet. "It can be done, it just takes more time and effort," said Kim who had often equated MSG and chefs to steroids and athletes in the past.

Grilled veal intestine with roasted garlic, known as gopchang gui, or grilled chicken gizzards, called dakddongjip, have been served in selective Korean restaurants in New York City. Yet, they would be ordered by the Korean crowd in-the-know, and certainly not by Koreans who take "outsiders" for a benign Korean food experience.

In addition to the grilled fish that he had so wished to put on the menu, his fondness for grilled food shows up in a separate section of skewers. Traditional main fares such as beef short rib, galbi, and spicy pork belly are also served on skewers.

In taking a closer look at the menu, this may also be the first time that place of origin, however humble it may be, is given due credit on a restaurant menu in New York rather than referred to with generic names in the category of Korean food.

Gwangju Market Fried Chicken is a style found at two neighboring, 30-year-old shops in a traditional market in Korea's southwestern city of Gwangju, known for its crispy skin that's fried to order. In describing the subtle garlicky flavor of this fried chicken he had in Gwangju, Kim said it tasted "as if the chickens grew up eating garlic" and turned all dreamy-eyed.

Incheon Fried Chicken is Kim's rendition of crispy chicken glazed in sticky spicy sauce popular in Shinpo Market in the city of Incheon. The humble diner that serves this dakgangjung has become a food destination in its own right, always with a line out the door.

Since the dishes served at Hanjan are Korean tavern foods that are meant to go with alcoholic beverages, makgeolli and soju, two representative drinks of the working class in Korea, are in order. Makgeolli, fermented rice drink which can be equated to beer with its 6 percent alcohol content, is served in frosted mugs. "It's a great neutralizer to strongly flavored Korean dishes," said Kim.

He also found old-style soju with 24 percent alcohol content to be served at Hanjan, which is rarely available in major cities of Korea anymore. The alcohol content of soju in Korea has come down from 35 percent in the 1960's to 19 percent in recent years for a broader appeal. "I remember the taste of soju I had in Korea from 20 years ago. And this one came closest to what I remember to be the 'real' soju," reminisced Kim.

It could easily be pointed out that some of the dishes such as dakgangjung, an evolved dish from a fusion of Chinese stir-fry and Korean spicy sauce, and grilled food on skewers, largely known as Japanese izakaya food in New York, are not truly Korean.

"Sure, some are adapted by Koreans," said Kim. "But to me, these are more Korean because they are more a part of Koreans' daily life and enjoyed often," compared to the ones that are made following the traditional methods and ingredients but are not approached by many except on certain occasions.

Similar to that of Danji, price points at Hanjan are more comparable to tapas restaurants and Japanese izakayas in Manhattan. This has also drawn criticism that Korean food at Danji, and likely to follow at Hanjan, is more expensive than most other restaurants in Koreatown.

"Why does Korean food have to be cheap?" asked Kim, in reply to the criticism. He gets regular delivery of freshly-killed chicken for Hanjan. Kim also uses fermented sauces, the foundation of Korean cooking, from Jookjangyeon which is an artisanal brand based in a mountainous village in Korea. Prices at Danji and Hanjan only reflect the care that he puts in for quality ingredients and processes. "We offer the best quality we can afford," said Kim with pride and confidence.

From Danji to Hanjan, Hooni Kim carries through the care and respect for the everyday culture of Korea as well as for the culinary profession. After many trips back to Korea and mulling over every detail, from the wattage of the light bulbs to the brining liquid for pig trotters, preparation for a joomak in Manhattan is complete. Kim's new storybook called Hanjan is now ready for New Yorkers to open and experience.


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