Thursday, October 1, 2009

Korean food comes to Costco

Korean food is becoming trendy in North America. Whether it's Debbie Lee, from last season's The Next Food Network Star, or Guy Fieri's strange version of kimchi — it features honey, tamari and apple cider vinegar — if you put the word Korean in front of your dish or call your cabbage pickle-type salad "kimchi," Americans seem to be willing to try it.

Another sign that a particular cuisine is gaining popularity in America is when you can find Americanized versions in large grocery stores, such as King's Asian Gourmet kimchi at Wal-Mart.

I found another large American grocery chain offering packaged Korean food. I've known for some time that warehouse club store Costco Wholesale has been selling a line of pre-made Korean meals, featuring galbi, bulgogi and a dish called "spicy bulgogi." (The latter actually is dwejikalbi, which is made from pork.)


But quite frankly, I didn't make a mad dash to Costco to buy them, because I already know how to make galbi and bulgogi. However, because of the recent media attention surrounding the South Korean government's push for the popularization and standardization of Korean food (hanshik), I thought I'd perform a public service and buy some of the Costco food items and let the world know whether these mass-produced Korean foods would make First Lady Kim Yoon-ok proud or cringe in horror.

So, I went to the Costco store in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Monday and bought two items that one could call either Korean or Korean-inspired meals. One package was Bamboo Lane galbi and bulgogi. Costco started stocking these items for a while last year. Then items disappeared from the freezer section. They recently re-appeared, and I'm glad they did.

I found a few relatively minor faults with the galbi from Bamboo Lane.
  1. The word galbi (formerly transliterated as kalbi) literally means "ribs." If it is not on the rib, it is not galbi, it's a Korean steak. Jack Kerouac said, "One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple." Well, the word for this dish is not galbi. How's that for simple? That's the language teacher in me coming out.
  2. The first ingredient in the Bamboo Lane marinade is soy sauce, which to me, is not a good sign. The flavors of soy sauce and salt in this dish overwhelmed me. However, many processed foods have much more salt than necessary for flavor, often for the sake of preservation. This dish suffers from similar issues.
  3. The main ingredients that make people notice of authentic galbi are Korean pear, sesame seed oil, onion and garlic. This dish had no sesame seed oil at all. My dear husband said, "They were thinking about sesame seed oil when they made this dish." The galbi did have some garlic and onion, but it was toward the bottom of the ingredient list. Both were barely noticeable and were deeply missed.
  4. There's no sweetness to this galbi — no sugar, pear juice or honey. Almost every galbi recipe has some type of sweetener included, even if it's Sprite or Coca-Cola soft drinks.

The Bamboo Lane bulgogi was a little better but still suffered from the same issues:
  • It was heavy on the soy sauce and salt. 
  • The onion and garlic was pretty faint. As my husband said, "I think they waved a bulb of garlic over the top of the dish."
  • There was no sesame seed oil.

I recommend either of these meals the next time you crave Korean barbecue but have no energy or time to make your own from scratch. For a more authentic Korean flavor, add a few drops of sesame seed oil to the galbi or bulgogi and, maybe, half a chopped onion in a skillet. Serve it on your favorite lettuce (wrapped in the leaves) or over rice.

However, if you want the real thing with less salt, make your own bulgogi or kalbi from scratch. It's not that hard, but once you make your own, you'll never eat it any other way.

Korean Kalbi on Foodista

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