On the menu

Korean fare is definitely on the menu this time of the year.

South Korea might be at the center of the universe this month for bobsleighs and biathlons—but for me, it’s all about the bibimbap.

Throughout the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, I had an insatiable craving for piroshki.  Two years later, during the games in Rio, my consumption of caipirinhas qualified me as an honorary carioca. And this winter, I’ve been all aquiver just thinking about those fermented flavors of PyeongChang.

The Olympics brings out the global gastronome in me, and I’m certainly not alone. Truth be told, Tucson’s Korean restaurants are likely to see record-breaking business in the days leading up to the closing ceremonies on Feb. 25.

To prepare my palate for the games this year, I recently caught up with chef Paulo Im, whose work is representative of his own heritage as the son of Korean immigrants.

“Historically speaking, Korean cuisine comes from a ‘make due with what you have and stretch it’ kind of place,” said Im, brand chef at Fukushu Restaurant Concepts and executive chef at Obon, 350 E. Congress St. “It’s a focus on working with what’s available and getting creative with it,” from a palette of proteins, vegetables and spices.

I get it. Think kimchi. Packing veggies into a pot and burying it underground for weeks until it ferments. 

According to Im, many chefs have tried to make Korean cuisine more accessible to the western palate over the years, which he says runs the risk of the cuisine falling flat.

“Some of the food was losing its funk, its offensive spices and its fermentation flavors,” he said. “We weren’t seeing the spicy cauldrons of offcut meats anymore, and that loses the essence of what Korean food is.”

Encouragingly, Im is observing what he calls “a huge turn,” as South Korea becomes a bigger player on the international stage.

“Korea is turning into a legitimate influencer globally; I mean, if you don’t have an iPhone, you probably have a Samsung,” he said. 

And with that positioning, he has seen a corresponding return to the roots of Korean cuisine.  

“The good news is that we haven’t lost the soul and the funk of our food, and people are starting to explore more and become more adventurous, and that’s starting to spread,” he said.

The Obon menu is a tribute to Asian cultures, from steam buns to sushi. The story of Korea is best told by the aforementioned bibimbap, however, a bowl of rice topped with a medley of marinated Korean vegetables and beef, Korean spices, sesame oil and a sous-vide egg.

The spice in this dish is anchored by the traditional Korean gochujang, a sweet and savory fermented chili paste made with ground chili flakes. Im then brings in the sesame oil for what he calls “the personality of Korean food.”

That’s Im going for the gold.

So, what does it mean for this local chef to have his parents’ homeland serve as the global athletics focal point for these two weeks?

“To me, it means that we’ve finally found our way, and as the world’s eyes are on us, we can be distinctly ourselves.”

That very spirit speaks to the traditions of Korean cuisine. It’s a surrender without that funk and soul, and thankfully there are people like Paulo Im who are working to ensure that their heritage food remains distinctly itself.

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.