Central Asian Koreans and their gastronomic gifts. Plus, some bibimbap.
Updated: Jun 16
This is not a historical account by any means. This is a personal reflection and a tribute to Central Asian Koreans. All views expressed here are my own.
Growing up, I had many Korean friends - Vlad, Kolya, Valya, Alyona, Petya, Andrey - their first names were Russian, but the last names - Kim, Tsoy, Tsai, Pak, Yun, etc. - withstood Russianization and the ending 'ov/ova'. Having Korean friends was a natural and organic fact. In our school, we had Tatars, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and many others. I never thought of asking anyone 'how did you end up here?' - everyone just was. When you are a kid, you perceive the world as a given and things around as static.
Around 500,000 Koreans live in the former-Soviet countries, with the majority residing in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Koreans were deported to Central Asia from Russia's Far-East during the 'Red Terror' of the 1930s. People obsessed with the glorification of the Soviet past tend to be particularly uneasy when this period of history is discussed. Masking the horrors of what the Bolshevik terrorists had done to the people while constructing 'peoples' friendship' is just as much of a crime. Cargo trains filled with humans were cruising around the vast territories of the USSR as the fate of the many was in the hands of the few in other otherwise 'egalitarian' society.
Deported from the seaside to landlocked Central Asia, the Korean diaspora withstood hardship and made significant contributions to the development of local agriculture. In the new surroundings, they adapted the traditional cuisine and utilized the available local produce: carrots, onions, cucumbers, eggplant, beats, etc. These gastronomic inventions, especially the 'Korean salads', are popular all across Central Asia. The most famous one is 'morkovcha' [carrot salad], which, of course, did non-exist in traditional Koren cuisine and was created as a kimchi substitute.
Growing up in Uzbekistan, Korean salads were my favourite! We would go to the open-air market and get a variety of these magical goods. Row, after row, every salad is a beautiful masterpiece. Oh, the opiating smell!
"Morkovcha today is like never before!" - tyotya [auntie] Sveta would exclaim.
We believed her. She loaded the plastic bag with the set portion and added a bit more on top, as a reward for being the frequent clients. She was right, it was amazing! If you were lucky, and one of your Korean friends would invite you home for, say, a birthday celebration, you were in for a real treat. After the relatively blend dishes served on a daily bases in the average household of Central Asia in the 1990s, the Korean cuisine was an explosion of flavour.
Fascinated with Korean cuisine, I liked to play restaurant at home. I would take white rice, top it with Korean salads and eat with the home-made chopsticks (they were nowhere to be purchased, so I cut them out). Years later, when I was living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I discovered bibimbap. It is one of my all-time favourite dishes, which I tasted in different countries since then, but the best one is still in Bishkek, at the Korean restaurant 'Chon Gi Va' on Shopokov street (between Zhumabeka and Jibek Jolu). If you love Korean food and find your self in Bishkek, run there. This is NOT an ad.
Celebrating the beauty of diversity, Plovism considers its duty to feature the Korean Diaspora and its gastronomic gifts to Central Asia and the world. The Uzbek cuisine without the delicious Korean salads on the side is not complete...
I am in no position to even try to give recipes here. All I can offer is my passion about the Korean cuisine, my admiration of the Korean diaspora in Central Asia and the hard work of its members, and my gratitude to them for enriching the Central Asian cuisine and transforming it for the better. This post is intended to spotlight the Korean diaspora and its incredible role in the great puzzle of Central Asian mosaic. Celebrate diversity. Cook!
The promised bibimbap
Now, I do like to recreate bibimbap at home, my version is simple and it does not claim authenticity. Although there is already a great variety of approaches to bibimpap, which usually happens with all great dishes. The name translates as 'mixed rice' and, put in the simplest terms, is made of rice topped with a variety of deliciousness, such as spinach, zucchini, cucumber, sprouts, mushrooms, egg and red chilli paste 'Gochujang', which you mix at the table and enjoy. You can add meat, or keep it vegetarian. This here is my personal version, which I hope has a right to exist. I view recipes as guides and methods, they are not and should not be solidified in stone.
Top down and left to right: kimchi, eggs, gochujang, fish tofu, spinach, morkovcha (carrot salad), rice, cucumber salad, more kimchi, sprouts, zucchini, mushrooms.
If you are in Central Asia, you are lucky and can access all the beautiful Korean salads to use as toppings. Here, in the Netherlands, I go to the Amazing Oriental store for gochujang and kimchi. I use Japanese rice and cook it in unsalted water. I make a replica of morkovcha salad by slicing the carrots into thin julienne, salting and squeezing them a bit to get rid of the excess juice. I then add some minced garlic and all the juices from the kimchi package to marinate the carrots. That's my cheat version of morkovcha. For the cucumber topping, I julienne cucumbers and slice onion on the bias. In the hot oil, I saute the onion, add cucumbers. Toss, toss, toss. After 3 or so minutes, I add garlic and then a bit of soy sauce and cook for 30 more seconds. Off the heat. I use the same method for the sprouts. Mushrooms are just sauteed, as are the spinach and zucchini.