Here’s one reason why you should explore ethnic markets: if you go with an open mind and some enthusiasm you might meet new people who can guide you through the unknown — and all that anxiety over what to buy and how to prepare it. I have that experience most recently on a visit to Zion Market, San Diego’s first Korean market, located in Kearny Mesa.
I found myself in front of the prepared foods section with its hundreds of plastic containers holding the most intriguing and unusual dishes. Within minutes, a young Korean woman who pulled up her cart next to mine was eagerly pointing out her favorite items and giving me tips on how to eat them.
Here are some of the dishes she got excited about, all of which make a great introduction to traditional Korean food:
Seasoned Dried Octopus
The bright orange color immediately intrigued me and when I saw the label said dried octopus I was surprised. But it turns out that the coloring is from a red pepper powder. The dish may be my favorite of the ones I bought. Heat it up a little in the microwave and serve on rice. The texture is chewy and the flavor is reminiscent of Chinese dishes like tangerine chicken—heat and sweet blended together. $12.99 a pound.
This mix of chilies isn't particularly hot—very much like padrons or shishitos. They’re mixed with tiny dried anchovies in a subtle chili sauce. So, you get some crunch and salt in the mix, too. $5.99 a pound.
This tofu is best served hot, over rice. Heating it brings back the missing moisture and wakes up the flavors from the scallions and chili paste. It’s a nice dish that would go beautifully with vegetables. $2.99 a pound.
The container holds three main ingredients—soybean sprouts, spinach, and fern bracken, a stringy brown vegetable ("gosali" in Korean). These ingredients are mixed together with pepper paste, sesame oil, and a fried egg, then added to rice to create one of Korea’s most popular dishes, bibim bap (bap means rice in Korean). And, this isn’t the only way to make it. You could add sliced rib eye, for instance, or mushrooms, or Korean zucchinis. I mixed a little of it up at home and was tickled with the results. It’s crunchy and tastes healthful—in a good way. I felt I was eating good clean flavors, especially thanks to the cooked spinach and the soybean sprouts. The fern doesn’t have a lot of flavor but adds an interesting chewy texture. $3.99 a pound.
Other tasty items to try include prepared foods like fried chicken and fried mackerel as well as vegetable pancakes and fish cakes. The multi-colored corn on the cob ($3.99 for three pieces) is a must try item. This is glutinous corn, a very popular street food that is eaten steamed, grilled, or boiled. The corn kernels are sweet, sticky, and chewy. The corn version of sticky rice. Wonderful!
Photos by Caron Golden
About the Author: There's not much that award-winning food writer Caron Golden enjoys more than discovering unique edibles at the markets--and then turning them into memorable meals for friends and family. The official journey began with her blog, San Diego Foodstuff, and has expanded to include writing for national publications like Saveur and culinate.com as well as appearances on KPBS radio. Unofficially, it began with Mom and Dad, who still think hanging out at 99 Ranch is the world's best entertainment. Follow Caron on Twitter at @carondg.