MANILA, Philippines – Filipino food may date as far back as hundreds of years ago, but Korean delicacies date back thousands. The kimchi, also spelled as gimchi or kimchee, a traditional fermented vegetable dish, dates as far back as 3,000 years ago! Food references say its earliest form consisted only of salted vegetables. Then in the 12th century, people began to include spices, and in the 17th century, they started started using chili peppers. The kimchi that we know today as staple Korean fare, called baechu kimchi, only gained popularity in the 19th century and is actually only one variety of this jurassic appetizer.
I include these details because every Korean restaurant begins the meal with a party of kimchi. Called banchan, the party may have as few as four bowls of side dishes or as many as ten. At the Korean restaurants here, the frequent partygoers are the baechu kimchi, mul kimchi or water kimchi, toge or mung bean sprouts, and dilis or long-jawed anchovy. Sometimes the Pinoy in me makes me want to just ask for water and a bowl of rice to go with the free appetizer spread (“Jas woh-ter plis, teynkyu!”) because there’s just so much to begin the meal; at the same time the Bulakenya in me makes me want to try every item on the menu and assess how it’s cooked. Personal stories aside, whether the reason be health—as kimchi is believed to be a healthy side dish with many nutritious benefits—or simply to whet the appetite, with its characteristic spiciness, serving kimchi to start off the meal is definitely a part of Korean culture.
This is what I had to understand as I toured what I now call Koreatown at the Bel Air Gillage (“GILid ng villAGE”). The area I am referring to is that stretch from Jupiter to JP Rizal bound by Makati Avenue, Rockwell and Bel Air. This area, countrymen, is now owned by Koreans, who have been quietly building their Makati community lot by lot.
Although the malls present only Kaya, Koreatown has Korean restaurant beside Korean restaurant. How do you choose? Why, ask the “Gillage People,” of course.
The neighborhood and corporate favorite is Ma San Garden on Polaris. Ma San has been in existence the past seven years and has built a steady and loyal clientele among Koreans and Filipinos alike. Ample parking space is provided but it would be wise to bring a driver if you want to make that lunch. It isn’t hard to find as its distinctly Korean facade, which is matched by its distinctly Korean interiors, is quite obvious. To complete the Korean experience, Ms. Lee, who manages the restaurant with such warm hospitality it’s almost Filipino, welcomes each guest in her full Korean attire, even if she can hardly speak Filipino or English.
Koreans usually order the Sogogi Gukbap, a hot soup with beef and vegetables, and Bibimbap, which is a a bowl of warm white rice topped with sauteed and seasoned vegetables, beef, a fried egg, and gochujang (chili pepper paste). Another favorite is the Lapu Lapu Sashimi Set which is, as its name states, raw fish, but served “Korean-style,” with the entire fish, fresh out of the aquarium, served to you on a platter.
I was quite impressed by the tenderness and tastiness of the beef in their galbi chim, which the menu translates to “broiled beef rib”; not so much, however, with their squid and octopus dishes, which, to my pedestrian taste, seemed to simply be Korean seafood chopsuey, as these were drowned in veggies and capped with the same chili used for kimchi.
For Korean barbecue, visit Dong Won Garden on Jupiter. Let me just plug in a quick briefer on Korean barbecue: it is not enjoyed on a stick. Whether it’s samgyupsal (pork), dak gui (spicy chicken), woosul gui (ox tongue) or jango gui (eel), this is enjoyed sandwiched in a lettuce leaf after dipping the barbecued meat in bean paste and cushioning it with garlic. Do avoid the inclination to create a Korean burrito with the lettuce leaf and do enjoy your selection of banchan (small plates of kimchi, pickled vegetables, and other side dishes) alongside your barbecue for extra flavor. Dong Won offers a whole array of meats—pork, chicken, seafood—to barbecue so all you have to do is take your pick, watch them cook it in front of you, and enjoy. The ox tongue is very thinly sliced, unlike the lengua we Filipinos are used to, making it lettuce sandwich-easy; the pork is sliced a little thicker, each with a slab of fat which I skeptically believe is for their Filipino clientele; but the chicken is the winner in this restaurant, as it’s tender, cut in bite-size pieces for maximum juiciness and with just the right hint of Korean spice.
This Korean barbecue may also be enjoyed at Lee Jo, which is on Orion Street, just off Polaris. Lee Jo is another neighborhood favorite. In fact, I enjoyed their barbecue more than my barbecue experience at Dong Won. But what I would come back for at this restaurant is something called doganitang, a broth with the kneebone of cattle. Now nothing beats bulalo for this patriot, but this Korean delicacy comes close. I can still feel the soft, sticky kneecap on my back teeth! Ah, to eat with reckless abandonment and betray yourself by camouflaging fat in broth.
Health deception aside, what I admire most about Korean cuisine is the method and culture involved in enjoying it: how the kimchi is served before the meal, how the barbecues are fumelessly cooked before you; and most of all, how greens are injected in almost every dish to balance off the spice and, in other dishes, the fat. After my tour, I dare say Koreatown is worth a spicy, healthy, kimchi-ful food trip. •
Dong Won Garden. 53 Polaris cor. Jupiter Sts. Tel. 898-3558.
Ma San Garden. 29 Polaris St. Tel. 896-93-95.
Lee Jo. 4 Orion St.