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September 20, 2009

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More than a barbeque

WHEN talking about Korean food most people think about kimchi and barbeques. Some also think about dolsot bibimbap, a rice mix with assorted vegetables and meat in a hot stone pot.

But actually Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables and meat. Traditional Korean meals are noted for the number of side dishes that accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice. Kimchi, a fermented, spicy vegetable dish, along with rice, accompanies almost every meal. Rich seasoning with sesame oil, doenjang (fermented soybean paste), soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, and gochujang (red chili paste) are also an integral part of Korean cuisine.

Shanghai, long celebrated for its multi-national gourmet food, boasts many kinds of Korean eating establishments, ranging from street vendors and hole-in-the-wall restaurants to high-priced, formal restaurants with full-course meals.

Last week, on the strong recommendation of a friend loyal to all Korean-related things, I had a hearty and authentic Korean meal at Benjia in Minhang District.

This restaurant is one of Korean-based Benjia's few Shanghai outlets. It has earned a great reputation among the Korean expat community for its authentic and delicious taste, fresh food, generous proportions, excellent quality, swift service and, very important, reasonable prices.

Although I had tried most styles of Korean restaurants in the city, I was impressed by the generous complimentary side dishes served as you were seated around the barbeque in a simply decorated and clean dining environment.

The table was loaded with different fresh vegetables including lettuce, roquette, turnip slices and green pepper, various forms of kimchi and soy-sauce beans, a delicious secret-sauce salad. There was also a cold, tangy kimchi soup to refresh the palette and balance the hot food to follow.

The bill of fare is limited mainly to three parts: hot pot, barbeque and main course. This doesn't make the selection any easier as each dish has an alluring Chinese name and picture. But with my friend's guidance, we ordered the signature dish -- Benjia Tender Sliced Beef in Special Sauce (60 yuan/US$8.79). A special creation of the restaurant, it consists of rolled up beef that the waitress helps to cut with scissors and put on the barbeque.

As the menu promises, it is "tender" and "special." Thin and with snowflake marbled fat it had been pickled in a sauce which had a semblance of honey. The sweet flavor countered the grease of the meat. If you are not a meat fanatic, take some kimchi or fresh vegetables with it, adding some freshness to the heavy flavor of the barbeque. The beef is barbequed over a charcoal grill as opposed to an electric one, which allows it to retain the full smoky flavor. The result is a juicy flesh which absorbs the fat during roasting.

Grilled Pork (45 yuan) is another signature dish not to be missed. Choose a vegetable, then dip your barbeque in the specially prepared soy sauce, add the sliced garlic cloves and the spring onions, wrap it up together then pop it in your mouth for a flavor explosion.

For the main course, we chose the typical Korean-style noodle and bibimbap. Also, Cold Buckwheat Noodles with Vegetables, Meat and Sauce (35 yuan) and the Seasoned Vegetables and Beef over Steamed Rice in a Hot Stone Bowl (35 yuan).

All were served in large portions, with fresh noodles, heavy flavored rice with thick beef sauces.

The cold noodle is very suitable to eat after barbeque to balance the grease of meat thanks to the fresh flavor of apple slice, cucumber cubes and its light sweet sauces.

The large stainless steel containers here are evidence of an authentic Korean meal. The noodles and the rice are all served in large stainless steel pots.

Benjia is well worth a trip if you are craving some authentic Korean cuisine.

Address: 1339 Wuzhong Rd

Tel: 5118-2777


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