While Japanese and Chinese are among the most familiar of the Asian influences to impress the North American palate, Korean food is slowly inching into the spotlight.
It's no wonder - in a health conscious society where no one wants to sacrifice flavour for fewer calories, Korean food offers a spectrum of healthy dishes with distinct personalities.
At the upcoming Eat! Vancouver Food + Cooking Festival 2011, former Whistler restaurateurs (and brother-sister duo) Sonny and Maggie Hue of Celadon will be featured for their culinary talents. They will be presenting as part of the event's World Culinary Travel Expo on the International Culinary Stage alongside the Rhum Chef Paul Yellin, Chef Edgar Grajo and Chef Andrew George. Meant to showcase world tourism through regional food, cuisine, cooking, and chefs, the expo allows festival attendees to interact directly with various food experts. Hosted by JOYTV hosts Suzanne Smith and Dean Atwal, the Hues will present their famous Bulogi Taco - a special Korean beef dish served with avocado, red onion, tomatoes and fresh pineapple sauce. Maybe the exposure will finally convince the Hue's mother that Sonny's career choice wasn't all that bad.
"Sonny made his choice after high school to be a professional chef so he decided to major in Korean Traditional Cookery in college," said Maggie. "Our mother wasn't very happy about this because in Korea, guys are not supposed to know the kitchen is in the house. Of course, this has been changed a lot for the last 20 years."
One of the reasons Korean food hasn't quite caught the attention of the mainstream is the complicated nature of some of its signature dishes and the downright unfamiliarity the Canadian public has with some of the flavours.
"It takes a lot of preparation compared to other cuisines. Kimchi, a staple dish, is one of the things," said Maggie, who manages the business side of the restaurants she and her brother are involved in. "There're 2,000 plus kinds of kimchi available in Korea and a typical one is the one with cabbage and we make and ferment it in-house. Fermentation is big in Korean food because we have four seasons and winter is as cold as Whistler with less snow so preparing vegetables for winter is very important."
Korean chefs typically use soy sauce, bean paste (miso) sauce and chili paste - all of which are fermented - in most of their dishes. Most of the cooking methods used in a Korean kitchen would meet the approval of the most stringent health nut. Blanching, steaming, stewing, braising and pan-frying are preferred cooking methods, and a good portion of raw vegetables is often incorporated into meals.
"(There is) a very healthy ratio of meats and vegetables. Koreans always eat meats with fresh vegetables as wrapping," continued Maggie. "Daily side dishes are also served with main courses - think of amuse bouche - three kinds is basic excluding any kinds of kimchi, sauces, rice, soups and we served five kinds at Celadon. It goes three, five, seven, nine and 12 - and 12 is only for the King."
Aware of the eat-local movement, as well as to familiarize some of their dishes to the public, the Hues have incorporated a number of local ingredients into their specialty dishes.
"We created many dishes using Korean elements with local ingredients so they are not too foreign to our customers to try and yet they are undoubtedly Korean such as our gourmet burger which was very popular among our non-Korean customers," continued Maggie. "We used Pemberton beef patty marinated in bulgogi sauce - very typical meat marinade sauce with soy and fresh vegetables and fruit - closest thing is Japanese teriyaki sauce served with French fries and yuzu (a fragrant citric fruit uniquely available in Korea and Japan) sauce...did I mention how healthy Korean food really is?"
It seems like a shame to order a burger when an expert Korean chef is preparing your dinner - even when it's a specialty Korean burger - so if you're willing to give it a shot, Maggie recommends sampling any of Korea's marinated meat dishes. And instead of regular beer or wine, try a soju cocktail - a classic sangria with a shot of chili pepper infused soju (Korean vodka).
Though the recession and an unfamiliar public caused the Hues to close Celadon Whistler, the pair is currently working on another venture in Vancouver - where a larger market and more diverse Korean community might better appreciate their talents. Exposure during the Eat! Festival, which runs June 10, 11 and 12 at the Vancouver Convention Centre will help drive their popularity, though they've already been featured on GlobalTV and Urban Rush.