The Olympics in Seoul offer millions of people around the world a chance to see the innermost workings of athletic competition at its best. From the participants to the judges, the coaches, athletes' families as well as their cultures, almost every imaginable aspect of the Olympic games is profiled.
I am also intrigued by the dietary needs and the many complex menus needed to satisfy the 15,000 athletes, whose tastes range from bagels to borsht. The National Restaurant Association explained that from Sept. 3 through Oct. 5, almost 800 cooks and servers will dish out 13,000 meals daily, each containing 6,000 calories, to the world's finest athletic performers. The kitchens will serve a broad range of international dishes, complying with religious and dietary preferences. Kosher and Moslem kitchens as well as other facilities will serve almost every imaginable dish.Certainly the cuisine of Korea, the host country, will be served, but for most of us it is a cuisine that is relatively unknown. Except maybe for the famous kimchi episode on "M*A*S*H" in which the fermented cabbage dish is buried in a mine field, many Americans and many of the Olympic athletes and visitors have had little exposure to Korean cooking.
With the recent opening of the Korea House on South State in Salt Lake City, the ignorance, at least locally, should be short-lived. The small, spotless interior, decorated with a few pieces of oriental art, is filled with aromas that are both familiar as well as different. Oriental cooking is the dominant style, but the unique touches and preparations offer a special experience that broadens one's understanding of the country that is not only hosting the Olympics, but predicted to be the Japan of the 21st century.
Kimchi, the fiery national dish of Korea, is colorfully presented at Korea House, as one of several dishes included with the dinners. Along with the fresh napa cabbage of the kimchi and sliced turnips, both just sparingly pickled and then laced with red pepper sauce, the other selections for our visit included bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers and spinach seaweed, each dressed with mild vinegar. The fresh vegetables were crispy and flavorful and served in an individual bowl that our waitress offered to refill.
Bulgogi, the marinated and grilled beef dish that is also a well-known Korean specialty, was tender and more subtle than beef teriyaki, it's Japanese cousin. Served with a rich broth, white steamed rice and the above mentioned vegetables, it costs $7.95 on the dinner menu and $6.50 on the lunch.
Rather than order another popular dish, kalbi, or Korean style spare ribs, ($7.50), we tried the bibimba ($6.25), described as Korean chop suey. Served in a large bowl, the dish included a fresh cooked egg and all kinds of stir-fried vegetables with a spicy sauce on the side added to suit one's individual tastes. As was the case with the other vegetables, all the ingredients were fresh, crunchy, and full of distinctive tastes and textures.
Even the side order of the mitjun ($2.75), or miniature Korean hamburgers, had a pleasing taste. Small, about half dollar size, they are little ground beef patties, with various seasonings, covered with a delicate egg batter.
Because one of the husband-and-wife chef pairs is from Japan, the other from Korea, there are several Japanese dishes on the menu, such as tempura, tonkatsu (or lightly sweetened pork cutlets), chicken teriyaki, and udon soups. While more familiar to us, the shrimp and vegetable tempura plate ($7.95) still had a special appeal.
Several of the charbroiled fish specialties, also recommended by our well-informed and attentive waitress, sounding tempting, like the sensor gigay ($7.95) as well as the Naeng myun or cold noodle special ($7.25).
I am not sure that Salt Lakers are going to match the expected consumption of kimchi by the Olympic athletes in Seoul - 30,000 pounds. But I am convinced that there are other Korean dishes served at the Korea House which will please the palate and help further acquaint us with the cuisine of a country destined to play a major role in the world.
Rating:**** Korea House, 1465 S. State, Suite 15. 486-8535. Open Monday through Friday, for lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and from 5 until 9 p.m. for dinner. Saturday lunch served from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 until 9 p.m. Sunday dinner only, also 5 until 9 p.m. Checks with guarantee card accepted as well as major bank cards.