Expanding horizon for Korean cuisine
Korean restaurants can be a hard sell in suburbia, Jay Chung acknowledges.
The country’s cuisine has not enjoyed the popularity of other Asian fare — such as Chinese, Japanese, or Thai — because often the food and the service are not “Americanized,” he said. The dishes themselves — how to order and how to eat them — can also be perplexing.
So the goal of his family’s restaurant, Sapporo Korean Barbecue and Sushi in Westborough, has been to make their traditional cuisine more accessible for Americans.
“People want to learn more about the food,” said Chung. “The majority of our diners have never tried Korean food elsewhere, but they keep coming back.”
His family came to the United States from Seoul in 1992; almost seven years ago they opened their East Main Street restaurant, with patriarch Moon Chung drawing on his culinary experience to serve as chef.
The town has been both supportive and willing to experiment with an unfamiliar cuisine. “The community aspect of Westborough is great,” said Chung. “It’s very tightknit.”
Korean food is often described as rich and bold, with staple ingredients including garlic, soy beans, red pepper paste, and sesame. Signature dishes include kalbi (beef short ribs) and bulgogi (beef rib eye), which are both marinated in soy sauce.
But perhaps the most well-known Korean dish, Chung said, is dolsot bibimbap , which literally translates to “stone pot” and “mixed rice”. Rice, vegetables — such as bean sprouts, carrots, and mushrooms — and beef topped by a raw egg are served up in a heated stone pot.
“It’s a very spicy Korean dish,” Chung said. “It comes out sizzling, and stays sizzling throughout the meal.”
Of course, Sapporo is also popular for its sushi offerings. Chung said the favored dish has become a bit like fast food in recent years, transformed to suit the Western palate (take, for instance, the introduction of the California roll).
So Sapporo strives to serve up sushi (or nigiri, raw sliced fish atop rice) the traditional way, which, as he described it, takes “someone who knows a lot about fish, a lot about rice, and the preparation, which takes years to learn. A lot of it is the care put into it.”
But the restaurantalso experiments with more creative contemporary offerings, including designer rolls with various ingredients, sauces, flavors, and textures.
For example, its Hawaiian roll, which combines shrimp tempura topped with spicy tuna, shaved mangoes, spicy mayo, and macadamia nuts.
“There’s a lot going on in that one roll,” said Chung. “You take one bite and you get all the flavors.”
Overall, Sapporo’s offerings are a blending of old and new.
“We have a little bit of both — the traditional and more of the modern,” said Chung.