Fascination with the venerable art of fermentation has been bubbling up amongst those concerned with nutrition and health.
A taste for kefir and kombucha is still a minority pursuit, but sourdough bread is becoming quite mainstream. Lately, Sandor Katz, the US self-confessed fermentation fetishist, was in the UK to promote his latest book, The Art of Fermentation, so you can expect a further wave of fervour for the health-enhancing properties of foods bursting with friendly lactic bacteria. Forget cupcakes, they're so last century. Making your own sauerkraut is where it's at.
Lots of food and drink we consume - beer, yogurt, chocolate, soy sauce, tea - involves fermentation, but it's fair to say that the technique occupies less space in our culinary psyche than it does for Koreans, for whom no meal is ever complete without kimchi, that's fermented vegetables, often, but not exclusively, cabbage.
Loading article content
At Ong Gie in Edinburgh, you'd not be entering properly into the spirit of the cuisine if you didn't order the chilli-red, pungent, sour kimchi made from Chinese leaves, but it's hard to miss it anyway, since as a core ingredient in Korean cuisine, it has a habit of turning up everywhere.
I like kimchi, so much so, I'm having a stab at making my own. As for Korean cuisine in general, I'm reserving judgment. From my experience of Korean restaurants in the UK, it's not going to make my Top 10 of the world's gastronomies. Whereas Japanese food is discreet, refined, delicate, Korean comes across as a "look at me" cuisine, almost oafishly loud on occasion. Dishes seem to me to fall into two camps, either attention grabbing and unsubtle, or plain, plain, plain, like old-school Scottish cooking. Sometimes the two are combined: the bland with the exhibitionist. I stand to be corrected. Perhaps a trip to Seoul would put me right.
Ong Gie is popular; we were lucky to get a table. Portions are huge; you can't fault the value. I felt nearly full after tackling the starters, four fried Korean chive pancakes, slightly smaller, but much thicker, than an Indian puri, and five kimchi and vegetable dumplings, shaped like alms purses. Both were quite pleasant, if heavy, and not rivetingly exciting. A side of kimchi, a small salad of seaweed and cucumber with a sweet-sour dressing, chilled with ice cubes, and the complementary soy-dressed beansprout salad, helped them slip down, neutralising their fried stodginess.
"Crispy rice with seafood stew" was a description that didn't really do justice to the reality, a sizzling hot plate spilling over with prawns, squid, vegetables and fungi on a rice that was delightfully matted and crusty. The rice was a crowd pleaser; the "stew", more of a stir-fry, tasted as though it had been made with at least some frozen seafood. Green-lip mussels are not, to my knowledge, native to these aisles. Another dish - squid again, this time fried with carrot and green pepper, in vivid, chilli sauce - had the tasteless bounce I associate with the frozen article. A plate of boned beef rib in a lustrous brown glaze with glass noodles was entertaining, and not unpalatable, but the meat itself had the stringy texture of a lean cut boiled for hours to make stock. Tasty, certainly, but dry and chewy, like an overcooked Italian bollito.
If ours were anything to go by, Korean desserts are stick-to-the-ribs, and unlikely to share the life-sustaining nutrient profile of kimchi. Best of the two was deep-fried green tea buns filled with sweet bean paste, lubricated with fruit coulis and served with ice cream, but nevertheless, too close for comfort to the deep fried Mars bar. The other, one of those toothsome Asian confections that looks like stuffed Scottish drop scones, doused in a sugar syrup and with ice cream, was a stomach sinker.
Ong Gie is a fun place to eat where you get a warm, welcoming reception. It certainly makes a change from eating Thai or Chinese. An interesting anthropological experience? Yes. A culinary experience I want to repeat? Hmmm.