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hem gem Korean Shiraegi – Saigoneer

Growing up in a typical extremely competitive and high stress Korean educational system combined with strict Asian parenting, my relationship with my parents has never been easy.

Like a lot of other kids with similar backgrounds, I couldn’t help but ask myself constantly whether I was worthy of my parents’ love and push myself to meet their standards of a perfect daughter. My relationship with mom was especially more challenging and unstable as she was more involved in my education and daily life. One thing that never changed in our complicated relationship though, was my mom’s endless effort to keep me healthy. Coming up with carefully thought out, nutritious home made meals and lunchboxes was her way of showing her unconditional support and love for me.

Among her staples were soup and side dish using shiraegi(시래기), dried radish greens. Shiraegi is known to be low in calories, high in fiber and also contains calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. (http://bburikitchen.com/shiraegi-dried-radish-greens) Wanting me to be energized enough to study hard all day, but also worried that I will gain weight from sitting all day long at the same time, such qualities of shiraegi were deemed highly desirable by my mom.

In the past, shiraegi was something that people had to eat in times of struggles, especially in winter when there was very little fresh vegetables available. As shiraegi was easy to find and could be stored for a long time pretty easily, it was an easy go-to ingredient. In modern day Korea, with comparably much more abundance in fresh ingredients and food, it has become less common to have shiraegi stored at homes prepared for struggling times, but it’s getting more and more recognition as people found out about its high nutritious values and health effects.

Because it’s such a niche Korean dish, I was very surprised to find a shiraegi dedicated restaurant here in Saigon. Located in the heart of district 7, during lunchtime the restaurant was packed full with bustling customers, majority of them being Korean people excited for a hearty home cooked meal, while some non Korean customers were spotted here and there, mostly Vietnamese.

The menu was wide ranged, from shiraegi specialties to other Korean traditional dishes as well. Normally, I have a hard time putting my trust fully in restaurants with a wide variety of menus as most of them end up being rather mediocre, but for this restaurant I could see that they put in a lot of effort and consideration in the selection and preparation of all of their menus as they showed consistency in the slow-cooked, healthy theme and ingredients.

The perilla seeds Shiraegi soup, one of their specialties, was served in a boiling hot pot, full of soybean paste and perilla seeds aroma. It was served together with a bowl of rice, which is not surprising for a Korean restaurant, but what was special about their rice was that every bowl of rice was served in a dolsot(돌솥), hot stone pot. To people who are unfamiliar with the concept, a dolsot is a sizzling stone pot for hot rice dishes, to keep them hot while serving and throughout the meal. Besides this functional advantage, there is another beauty to having rice served in a dolsot: on the bottom of dolsot, a thin curst of scorched rice is formed to be made into sungnyung(숭늉)-a traditional infusion made from boiled scorched rice, with hot water or tea poured into it and can be savored as a special treat at the end of the meal.

As soon as we ordered, we were served dishes of banchan(complimentary side dish that is served with main dish), which were very nicely coordinated, complimenting one another with both taste and colors. The traditional brassware gave them a neat and traditional ambience. All of them were pretty impressive, but the sauce in dubujorim(braised tofu) and the bibimguksu(spicy mixed noodles) gave me an extraordinary impression that they weren’t something readily made in large scale, but more of something like my grandma would hand pick and cook for family dinners. Later after talking to the owner Mr.Kang, I found out that the mystery jars that decorated the staircase were the secret to this hearty feeling. His utmost priority in running the restaurant was to recreate a wholesome, home cooked meal that lacks in a lot of modern day urban dwellers’ lives, so he experimented with a lot of natural ingredients to substitute chemical processed spices and sugar. He uses a variety of different fruits and vegetables to make an organic enzyme sauce that gives the healthy sweet flavor, and especially since he moved to Vietnam, he found out the local ingredients like passionfruits, bananas, oranges, and red peppers worked really well with Korean flavors and has been sticking to them.

As we were gawking over the variety and abundance of banchan(you can even ask for more if you want), the main dishes we ordered arrived- perilla seeds Shiraegi soup, samgyupsal set(stir fried pork belly), and grilled mackerel. The signature perilla seeds shiraegi soup did not let me down- it tasted surprisingly similar to how my mom used to make it, flavorful and wholesome. Although I have to warn you, to people not used to this healthy spiced foods, it could taste a bit bland and flat- it takes time to get used to this flavor and develop a palate sensitive enough to appreciate its deep aroma. The samgyupsal set was a classic Kbbq plate, but felt somewhat more neat and healthy than the usual ones, as they were put together delicately with bean sprouts, mushrooms and pineapple pieces. It was served together with green lettuce leaves and ssamjang(seasoned soybean paste) for us to make ssams(a leaf wrap with the meat piece and vegetables in it) ourselves. Last but not least, the grilled samchi(Spanish mackerel) dish was something they have recently added to their menu, and again I was surprised by how similar it tasted like the one my mom used to cook for me. It had subtle seasoning on it, not too subtle to go unnoticed, but not too strong to overshadow the natural flavors the grilled fish itself held.

As more and more Korean people and businesses made their way into Vietnam, it’s getting increasingly easier to get Korean food, desserts, or services that were thought to be provided only in Korea. A lot of them are very well managed and efficiently organized, almost like well functioning saw-toothed wheels in a factory, making Korean people’s lives here incredibly convenient. However, one thing that’s extremely hard to imitate solely with a well organized system is the sense of home, the warm feeling of family- the kind of feeling that only a home cooked meal with the warm intention would be able to deliver. This restaurant was targeted towards creating that essence, and through their efforts ranging from more straightforward and visible like hand carrying Korean ingredients twice a month, to spending weeks studying and experimenting the natural ingredients to make natural sauces and flavors. All together, the food objectively tasted great to me, but my experience at this restaurant had a different layer than that- something more personal and emotional, arousing my memories of visiting my grandma’s house on a weekend with my mom, watching them cook things without any rush listening to her stories behind preparing each dish, full of intentions to serve hearty, nutritious meals to their loved ones. The only time my mom and I could not worry about my academic performance, and just link solely and deeply as a mother and a daughter with the medium of food. “Watch and learn”, she would say as she added with a mischievous smile, “It’s going take a lot to raise a daughter like you.”

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