Just how important is kimchi, the pickled cabbage (or radish) seasoned with chile peppers, garlic, ginger and herbs, to a Korean? “A Korean man can live without a wife, but never without his kimchi” states Kyung Bok – Kim in that tone of undisputed truth. With a knowing smile she proceeds to tell me in well-spoken Spanish of her journey to Bogotá. She left Korea twenty nine years ago with a suitcase in one hand and a kimchi recipe in the other. Without getting into too many specifics, it was a story of love.
Mrs. Kim’s husband, Man Kung Kim (or Mauricio in Spanish), had left Korea thirteen years earlier looking to immerse himself in the culture and language of Colombia and perhaps find love. As a student he met many beautiful Colombian women, but none who could prepare his much missed kimchee. Correspondence increased with his native country, specifically with then Ms. Kyung Bok who he managed to convince to take the long journey to Bogota. In marrying Ms.Bok, Mr. Kim was rewarded with both the wife and the kimchee.
Two decades of Korean for Cachacos
As the founder of Casa de Corea, Mrs. Kim has been serving traditional Korean cuisine for close to 22 years. Her first locale was on the Carrera 15 and the 74. High rents forced her to relocate to a more modest space in the Santa Barbara sector of Bogota, on the Calle 104A#11B-61. With its pleasant outdoor garden and small dining room upstairs comfortable enough for private events, it is a regular stop for Korean businessmen and intrepid Bogotanos.
Four small bowls containing kimchee, tofu in a sweet soy sauce, namul or steamed mung bean sprouts topped with a dash of sesame oil and a cool vinegary cucumber salad were gently placed at our table as were the elegant stainless steel chopsticks. A cold beer was in order.
Uncertain as to how to proceed with the menu, but aware of the noodle slurping around us, we asked our helpful Colombian waitress Liliana for an order of chapchae ($25000). A steaming bowl of noodles graced with shredded carrots, mushrooms, green onions, and sesame seeds arrived. These glass noodles are actually made from sweet potato starch that turn translucent when cooked. “These are not fattening,” insisted Mrs. Kim which when one eats for a living is definitely a consideration. The chapchae was heavenly, not greasy, not overly sauced, but full of that hard to explain flavor of sweet, spicy and salty all at once.
For the main course, we went for the beef bulgogi ($24000). The menu describes the dish plainly as carne asada or roasted beef with a special sauce. There was nothing plain about it. Imagine the surprise when this large, hot, cast iron discus arrived at the table. It is a dish whose origins date to times of war when Korean soldiers were said to use their helmets to prepare their suppers in the battlefields. Vessels filled with sauces, mushrooms, ssam or romaine lettuce, and thin strips of beef with small tongs to aid in the searing of the beef, were placed alongside the disk. Bewildered, we sought the advice of Liliana who whispered a set of bulgogi instructions.
“It’s just like making a tamalito or little tamal”, she said. Sure enough, we cradled the lettuce in one hand (my left) and with the pincers placed a cooked piece of beef in the crisp lettuce, added copious amounts of doenjang or fermented bean paste, some vegetables and wrapped it all into a dainty tube that quickly found its way in the center of my mouth.
Wow, that was good. It turns out that the secret is in the sauce. Doenjang, the fermented soybean paste, is made for the restaurant by Mrs. Kim. It is a year long, very involved process, that she would never consider delegating. This essential Korean sauce according to Mrs. Kim possesses “anticarcinegetic properties” and provides the base for many of Korea’s rich stews. She believes in the nutritious qualities of Korean food and its philosophy of balanced sensible eating.
Casa de Corea needs several visits to truly explore the range of foods Korea has to offer. Short of a trip to Seoul, this is as close to Korean food that we can get.
Calle 104A No.11B-61