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Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View

* 2000 COLUMNS

27 August, 2001


I was recently reminded that not all Asians are familiar with the cultures of other Asian countries, including food.

I would not be surprised if many Japanese have not experienced Vietnamese or Thai cuisines, which are among my favorite.
Erin brought several trays of sushi to a meeting of mostly Asians a few weeks ago, and the feast was welcomed by the group. Later, it was apparent that at least a couple of people had never had sushi before, even though everyone had some. I realized the same thing several years ago when I was involved in a pan-Asian event where different Denver-area Asian organizations brought samples of their food to share with other Asian groups. I served sushi at the Japanese table, and found that some Vietnamese, Hmong, and even Chinese had never had sushi, and didn't know how to eat it or that sushi is served with soy sauce and wasabi.

Many non-Asian Americans are familiar with sushi because it's trendy, but that many people in Asian communities tend to stay within their own culture. This is certainly true of Japanese - some Japanese have not tried any other Asian cuisine besides certain popular types of Chinese dishes, which are historically popular both in Japan and with Japanese Americans (large Japanese American family banquets are invariably held in Chinese restaurants, not Japanese). I would not be surprised if many Japanese have not experienced Vietnamese or Thai cuisines, which are among my favorite. I've also dined at Indian, Singaporean and Mongolian restaurants.

Still, I have limited knowledge of some Asian food.

I've never had the opportunity to try Filipino food - mostly because I don't know of any restaurant that serves dishes of the Philippines. And, I have only had Korean food a few times, even though my sister-in-law Pok Sun is Korean.

Not anymore. One of my new favorite places to dine is Restaurant Seoul.

I've heard for years that Restaurant Seoul, an 11-year old eatery in the eastern suburb of Aurora, is the best Korean restaurant in the area. So Erin and I decided recently to make the drive. It lived up to all the recommendations, and more.

Seoul is located in a large building on a corner strip mall, and it looks like it was once a 1970s family restaurant. Each table features a small inset circular grill in the center, which is used to cook its specialty: Korean barbecue.

What little experience I have with Korean food has been with bul gokee (thin sliced marinated beef served with a variety of side dishes) and bibimbob (marinated beef served over rice with a salty-hot bean paste sauce, sesame oil and vegetables).

We started by ordering a bean dae duk appetizer, which turned out to be an omelet of sorts, with meat and vegetables cooked in an egg pancake. For our entrees, we ordered bul gokee (I've also seen this dish spelled "bulgogi") and deiji kui (thin-sliced pork marinated in a spicier sauce than the bul gokee and served with the same side dishes). Then, I ordered a bibimbob to go, so I could have it the next day. It seemed more sensible than ordering three entrees for dinner -- our server noted with caution that we had ordered quite a bit of food.

The food was delicious - hearty and filling. As the meat simmered on the smokeless grill between us, we munched on the selection of side dishes in small bowls that came with the meal. They included eggplant, seaweed, soy bean sprouts and spinach, pickled daikon radish (which was very similar to the Japanese dish takuwan), and of course, the pungent and spicy signature Korean dish, kimchee.

Jane, our young, Korean-born but Americanized server, was extremely helpful and patient with our many questions. She also served us a wonderful Korean wheat tea, which tasted like roasted barley with a hint of sweetness added. At the end of the meal, Jane brought us a traditional cold, sweet dessert tea, which was made from rice. It was a perfect light ending to a fantastic and satisfying meal.

The bibimbob the next day was also delicious, and accompanied by the same side dishes as dinner. Seoul's menu is large and varied, featuring many other types of grilled barbecue dishes, plus noodle dishes and a variety of traditional favorites - most of which I have never heard of, and look forward to trying.

I was particularly glad to have experienced such a fine Korean meal as a personal way of acknowledging the ongoing controversy between South Korea and Japan.

The Japanese Ministry of Education this spring approved a new history textbook for middle school students that had been written by a group of nationalist academics who believe that Japan did nothing wrong in the years leading up to and during World War II. These educators believe the shame of losing the war has led to a loss of morals and a lack of pride in young people for their country. The book denies the scope of what is now called "The Rape of Nanking" and the enslavement of thousands of women - mostly Koreans - during the war.

China and Korea have officially protested the publication of the book. Both countries still conduct a lot of business with Japan, and Japanese popular culture has become very popular with young Koreans, so the rift is unfortunate.

If there's any good news in the book controversy, it is that very few Japanese schools have adopted the new book. According to Japanese media, not one school district is using it, and only a handful of private schools and schools for the disabled are using the text. Still, this doesn't condone the Japanese government's troubling decision to approve such a book in the first place.

The move reflects a resurgence of nationalism in the country, which was also made clear with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine earlier this month to ay tribute to the country's war dead, including the top war criminals of WWII. That visit also elicited protests from Japan's neighbors.

With such tensions being caused by the country of my heritage, I figured that the time is ripe for some dinner diplomacy. So I'm ready to plan another trek to Restaurant Seoul. Anyone want to come along?

Restaurant Seoul is at 12091 East Iliff Ave. at Peoria in Aurora, Colorado, 303-671-0003.


Copyright 1998-2002 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
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