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Hẻm Gems: In D7, Home-Cooked Korean Comfort Food for the World-Weary

Growing up in South Korea's extremely competitive and high-stress education system, combined with strict Asian parenting, my relationship with my parents has never been easy.

Like a lot of children with similar backgrounds, I couldn’t help but ask myself constantly whether I was worthy of my parents’ love, and pushed myself to meet their standards of a perfect daughter. My relationship with my mom was especially challenging, as she was more involved in my education and daily life. One thing that has never changed in our complicated relationship, however, is my mom’s endless effort to keep me healthy. Coming up with carefully thought-out, nutritious homemade meals and lunchboxes was her way of showing her unconditional support and love for me.

Among her staples are a soup and side dish using shiraegi (시래기), dried radish greens. Shiraegi is known to be low in calories, high in fiber and also filled with calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. My mom appreciated these qualities as she wanted me to have enough energy to study hard all day, but was also worried that I would gain weight from sitting for hours on end.

Quirky posters on the wall of the dining area.

In the past, people ate shiraegi during times of struggle, especially in the winter when few fresh vegetables were available. As shiraegi was easy to find and could be stored for a long time, it was an obvious go-to ingredient. Modern-day Korea has a comparative abundance of fresh ingredients so shiraegi is less often stored at homes for trying times. Still, the humble vegetable has recently gotten more and more recognition as people find out about its high nutrition values and health benefits.

Left: A dolsot rice bowl with chwinamul leaves. Right: Perilla seeds shiraegi soup.

Because it’s such a niche Korean dish, I was very surprised to find Perilla Seeds Shiraegi, a shiraegi-dedicated restaurant here in Saigon. Located in the heart of District 7, during lunchtime the restaurant is usually packed with customers. The majority of them are Korean, though there are Vietnamese patrons here and there.

The menu is quite expansive, from shiraegi specialties to other Korean traditional dishes as well. Normally, I have a hard time putting my trust fully in restaurants with a wide variety of dishes, as most of them end up being rather mediocre, but here I could see a lot of effort and consideration in the selection and preparation of their food, as they show consistency in the theme of slow-cooked, healthy fare.

The variety of fruits and vegetables undergoing traditional processing techniques to give the food its special flavor.

The perilla seeds shiraegi soup, one of their specialties, is served in a boiling-hot bowl, full of soybean paste and perilla seeds aroma, together with a bowl of rice. This is not surprising for a Korean restaurant, but the special thing about their rice is that every bowl arrives in a dolsot (돌솥), or hot stone pot. To people who are unfamiliar with the concept, dolsot is a sizzling stone pot for hot rice dishes to keep them warm while serving and throughout the meal.

Besides this advantage, there is another beauty to having rice served in a dolsot: on the bottom of the bowl, a thin crust of scorched rice will form after a while. This golden layer of crunchy rice is a crucial part of sungnyung (숭늉), a traditional after-meal infusion made by pouring hot water or tea into crispy rice. The result is a "porridge" to be savored as a special treat at the end of the meal.

Fresh and colorful plates of banchan.

As soon as we ordered, the waiter brought out a banquet of of banchan — complimentary side dishes that are served with the main dish in Korean meals — which were very nicely coordinated, complementing one another nicely in both taste and colors. The traditional brassware adds to the neat and traditional ambiance. All of Perilla's banchan dishes are pretty impressive, but the sauce in the dubujorim (braised tofu) and bibimguksu (spicy mixed noodles) is extraordinary.

It's clear to me that the dishes aren’t readily made in large scale, but more of something my grandma would handpick and cook for family dinners. After our meal, I talked to Perilla Seeds Shiraegi's owner, Mr. Kang, and discovered that the mysterious jars decorating the staircase are the secret to this hearty feeling.

According to him, his utmost priority in running the restaurant is to recreate wholesome, home-cooked meals that many modern-day urban dwellers lack in their life. Therefore, he experimented with a lot of natural ingredients to substitute processed spices and refined sugar. He uses a variety of different fruits and vegetables to make an organic enzyme sauce that creates a sweet flavor in a healthier way. Besides, when he moved to Vietnam, he realized that local ingredients like passion fruit, bananas, oranges and red peppers work really well with Korean flavors; and has since made them staples in his cooking.

Left: A set of samgyupsal. Right: Grilled Spanish mackerel.

As we were gawking over the variety and abundance of banchan (you can even ask for more if you want), the main dishes arrived: perilla seeds shiraegi soup, a samgyupsal set (stir fried pork belly), and grilled mackerel. The signature soup did not let me down, as it tasted surprisingly similar to how my mom used to make it, flavorful and wholesome. A word of caution though: to people not used to this type of healthy cooking, the soup could taste a bit bland and flat. It takes time to get used to this flavor and develop a palate sensitive enough to appreciate its deep aroma.

The samgyupsal set is a classic K-BBQ plate, albeit somewhat more neat and healthier than those you get elsewhere. The dish is put together delicately with bean sprouts, mushrooms and pineapple pieces. The accompanying items include green lettuce leaves and ssamjang (seasoned soybean paste) for ssams, a leaf wrap with meat pieces and vegetables.

Last but not least, the grilled samchi (Spanish mackerel) dish is a new addition to the menu. It's subtly seasoned, not too subtle to go unnoticed, but not too strong to overshadow the natural flavors of the grilled fish. Again I was surprised by how similar it is to the meals my mom used to cook for me. 

At the end of the meal, diners are given portions of sujeonggwa — cold cinnamon punch — as dessert.

As more and more Korean people and businesses make their way into Vietnam, it’s getting increasingly easier to get Korean food, desserts, or services in Saigon that were previously thought to be available only in Korea. A lot of them are very well-managed and efficiently organized, almost like well-functioning wheels in a factory, making Korean people’s lives here incredibly convenient.

To me, however, one thing that’s extremely hard to replicate in such a well-organized system is the sense of home, the warm feeling of family — the kind of feeling that only a meal cooked at home with warm intention would be able to deliver. This hẻm gem was established with the aim to recreate that essence.

All told, the food objectively tastes great to me, but my experience at this restaurant also has a deeper layer than that: something more personal and emotional, evoking my own memories of visiting my grandma’s house on a weekend with my mom, watching them cook things without any rush while listening to the stories behind the preparation of each dish, their minds filled with thoughts on how to serve the heartiest, most nutritious meals to loved ones.

Being there in my grandma's kitchen, it was the only time my mom and I could put aside concerns about my academic performance to just bond solely and deeply as mother and daughter through the medium of food. “Watch and learn,” she would say with a mischievous smile. “It’s going take a lot to raise a daughter like you.”

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 4/5 — Very reasonably priced compared to other Korean eateries, but might be on the expensive side for some (VND160,000–200,000 per dish)

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Jae’s soul feeds on coconuts; she will dance her heart out after being fed the right type of food.

Korean comfort food

161 Ton Dat Tien, Tan Phong Ward, D7

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