On a shopping trip my husband and I sat down for a bite to eat at a cafe' inside a market.
First came small plates of salads - sliced cucumbers, cabbage and radishes. One taste of cucumber made us sit up and take notice. This was no commonplace cucumber salad - it was spicy, garlicky, bursting with flavor.
But this was not an ordinary grocery store. We were in a large Korean supermarket, full of foods that were new to us, from huge pears to sweet potato noodles to different kinds of millet (glutinous, non-glutinous and toasted). We bought tofu-like mung bean gel, soy milk flavored with black beans, and breakfast bread with sweet white bean filling. Although the market was in Los Angeles, it was as if we had stepped off a plane that had landed in Seoul.
Korean cooks have a talent for chasing away blandness. Their secret is a sauce composed of a few key ingredients. When we asked a young Korean woman doing her marketing how to use the mung bean gel, she said to serve it with Korean sesame sauce and reeled off the ingredients- soy sauce, sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, garlic, hot red pepper and a little sugar.
It turns out that this was the sauce used on the cucumbers, cabbage and radishes. The generous dose of hot red pepper made the cucumbers bright red and bold flavored, and made us glad the restaurant provided a jug of cold tea for diners to use as needed.
At the deli department, we purchased seasoned tofu and a salad of mung bean noodles (a.k.a. silver noodles, cellophane noodles or bean threads). Flavored with the same basic sauce, both were so delicious that I was sorry when we finished them.
Because the ingredients were used in varying proportions, the sauces didn't taste the same. The tofu had lots of green onion and no sugar. The noodles had only a hint of hot pepper and garlic, but plenty of sesame oil and sesame seeds, plus sweet pepper strips and two kinds of Asian mushrooms.
To me it was intriguing that Korean cooks make common foods exciting by adding variations of this simple sauce. Karen Hulene Bartell, the author of The Best of Korean Cuisine (Hippocrene, 2002), flavors a salad of bean sprouts and green onions with the sauce and adds rice vinegar and pimiento. Her saute'ed eggplant features a sesame oil sauce flavored with red and black pepper, rice wine and dried seafood.
Koreans use similar sauces on fish and meat. Our delicious entree of saute'ed seafood at the market's restaurant was so blazing hot from red pepper and fresh ginger that I had to ask for an extra helping of the accompanying steamed rice. A lavish proportion of hot red pepper paste makes Bartell's barbecued beef, the classic Korean bulgogi, exceedingly pungent.
Although Japanese cooks also make sauces by combining soy sauce, sesame seeds and sesame oil, they add sugar and sweet rice vinegar to make delicate dishes. The Koreans achieve a totally different result by completing their sauce with powerful flavors - hot red pepper, garlic and green onion.
Madhur Jaffrey described these differences in A Taste of the Far East. (Carol Southern, 1993): Korean seasonings "are not unlike those of China and Japan... But the way they are used and their proportions are entirely different. Take sesame seeds, for instance. They are used in such quantities that people buy them by the tubful...
"Or take garlic. To a Chinese person, raw garlic would be anathema. The Koreans thrive on it, recognizing its ability to cleanse the blood and also reveling in its pungent taste.
"Chillies too are used with a generous hand. Korean chilli powder... is among the best in the world... and is used by the fistful, making many foods, from pickles to fish stews, a brilliant, glorious red."
The basic Korean sauce is easy to make and requires no cooking. You simply mix the ingredients together with a spoon.
Sometimes when I'm in a big hurry I improvise with a fine bottled sauce. Recently I was introduced to some very good ones by Robert Schueller of Melissa's/World Variety Produce.
Melissa's shiitake sesame salad dressing, like the basic Korean sauce, is made with soy sauce, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil, and is also enhanced with shiitake mushrooms. Such a sauce is delicious on greens, cooked vegetables, noodles, tofu and fish.
Sauces like these make it easy to prepare a tasty meal in minutes. In order to encourage healthful eating, Melissa's created "Flavor Your Tofu" sauces that I like on vegetables too. Often recipes for using tofu are bewildering and call for a long list of ingredients. For an easy menu I put tofu on a plate, add sliced thin cucumbers, red pepper strips, shredded carrots, and lettuce or bean sprouts, and drizzle them with Melissa's ginger teriyaki sauce for tofu or shiitake sesame dressing, or with the Korean sauce below. For a more substantial supper, a bowl of mung bean or rice noodles or brown rice is a perfect accompaniment. The result is a simple-to-fix supper that's healthful and delightful.
Korean Cucumber Salad
Instead of hot red pepper, you can use Yemenite red zehug.
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 to 3 tsp. rice wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. hot red pepper, or to taste
1 or 2 tsp. Asian sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)
2 or 3 green onions, sliced
1 tsp. soy sauce, or to taste, or salt
2 or 3 slim cucumbers, peeled if desired, halved lengthwise, sliced thin In a small dry skillet toast sesame seeds over medium heat for 2 minutes or until light golden. Transfer to a plate.
In a bowl, mix vinegar, red pepper, sesame oil, garlic, green onions, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds. Add cucumbers. Add more hot pepper or soy sauce to taste. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve cold.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins) and the award- winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook (Warner).