Combining Korean, Irish and more cuisines, a Dublin
Before falling asleep on a Wednesday night, Kejia Zhang turned to his wife and told her that he had a new idea for a dish.
â€œBolognese,â€ he said, he announced. “But I’m going to use a different sauce and a different noodle.”
On a recent Tuesday in the kitchen of Korean restaurant Han Sung in the northern city center, Kejia said he was getting ready to try it.
Like his other dishes, he planned to seek inspiration widely, mingling the cooking methods and ingredients he could use in traditional Korean dishes with those of traditional dishes, for example in Italy or France.
â€œWith bolognese, the basic sauce is a tomato sauce. But I’ll use Korean chili paste – a similar color, but a totally different taste, â€he says. He won’t use spaghetti either. “I’ll use fresh cut noodles.”
He loves the combination of fresh cut noodles, chili paste and rice powder. â€œIt will be a little more sticky in your mouth. It will be different, â€he said.
The changing of the seasons made her mind run wild with new ideas. â€œNow that it’s cold, I’m trying to make a new dish to really warm people up. “
But other things also inspire his cuisine. â€œI just want to discover new things,â€ he says.
Invent and reinvent
Kejia’s menu has evolved based on what it includes people born in different places to be used to eating.
â€œWe build our menu, and it’s different from other restaurants,â€ he said thoughtfully.
He considers traditional Irish cuisine to be heavy with cheese, butter and cream, he says. And with that, â€œthen I just make a new dish. For example, chicken mayonnaise â€.
Chicken mayonnaise is a fried chicken fillet over fried rice, with garlic mayonnaise, traditional Korean chili paste, and a fried egg. â€œFor me, it’s good. And when we leave this dish on the menu, here is the best.
It’s not something you’ll find as a traditional dish anywhere, he says, but you’ll find it at Han Sung.
The menu is something in the middle, he says. â€œIt’s like a bridge.
Kejia Zhang is from Liaoning Province in China, which borders North Korea, so there are quite a few Korean speakers, and there is a lot of Korean food.
There he learned to cook a wide range of foods from all over the world. When he moved to Ireland he wanted to take a cooking class, but it was too expensive.
Instead, he found a job at Bleu, a French restaurant that once stood on Dawson Street.
â€œIf I go to school, I’ll learn something really good. But if I go to a restaurant, I will gain experience, â€he says.
He moved to restaurants, he says, just learning. “I really like it, I change jobs, I really learned a lot.”
Eleven years ago, he opened Han Sung to invent dishes, drawing on all of his experiences. When he thinks he’s perfected a new one, he asks the kitchen staff to try.
Then, after a few adjustments, he will release a small part of it to a few loyal customers. â€œUntil everyone says it, it’s perfect,â€ he says.
â€œI like to create flavor and taste. And the traditional is good, but I think the improvement makes a good dish, â€he says.
Like cheese rice
Server Xu Zhang brings a tray with another example of this approach. There is a bowl filled to the brim with bubbling cheese over rice, and a second bowl with red stew – kimchi jjigae.
It’s a very traditional food in Korea, says Kejia. â€œMaybe for here it’s fish and chips,â€ he says. It’s “for someone with a hangover.” When they drink jjigae kimchi, it can wake them up. “
Xu demonstrates how to eat the non-traditional Korean-Irish-han-sung version of the dish.
â€œThis is how we usually eat it,â€ she says. She lifts a spoon and takes a sample of the rice, then slowly plunges it into the bowl of jjigae kimchi. The cheese stretches between the bowls. A spoon of rice soaked in red liquid comes out.
Jjigae is a pleasant shade of orange, with a hint of creamy thickness when blended. In the center, several pieces of soft tofu, and inside the stew, the typical crunchy onion and cabbage.
It’s spicy – a tang that floats around the tongue for a moment, before gently landing at the base of the throat.
Kejia says the cheese is there to combat this. â€œMaybe people are feeling very spicy, but okay, we can put the cheese on. Let the flavor of the cheese melt, melt the chili or spicy.
Another cheese rice dish is a Han Sung version of a dish called omurice – essentially, an omelet served on a bed of rice.
It was difficult for the kitchen to keep up with the number of people who ordered the traditional version. â€œIt really takes a long time,â€ says Kejia. “I think we need to do something different.”
So he drew on what he saw in the kitchens here. “Fried rice on the base and cheese – I put mozzarella and cheddar cheese and melt it on top.”
The guest mixes the cheese into the rice and combines with the Korean chili sauce, he says. “It’s a very full flavor.”
A hubbub of chatter rises to the ceiling, but you can still hear soothing Korean music. Across the counter there is a concentrated atmosphere in the kitchen, still in its tracks after a busy Thursday lunch.
Staff members have late lunches at a side table. A line of schoolgirls storms in, dropping coins and snuggling up comfortably on a long table, before the two of them walk in to order.
When she hears her number called, Varsha Vincent trots over to the counter and returns with a tray of rice bowls and a steaming bowl of peach-red curry.
Another student, Neha Benny, waits impatiently at the table. â€œWe have our usual sweet and sour chicken,â€ she said, her eyes riveted on the curry.
The couple have been to Han Sung countless times. â€œIt’s very good, it’s very simple,â€ says Benny. “They make you feel welcome.”
Vincent likes the staff to come and check in while you wait for your food.
Next to them, a family gathers to take a photo together before leaving.
Benny pours their shared curry into his rice dish. â€œWe always come here and share meals,â€ Benny explains. â€œBecause they also have huge portions. Like, I wouldn’t be able to finish one on my own.
Other curries are usually a bit too acidic, she says. “But it looks like fried chicken with a bit like honey sauce, but it’s also a little bitâ€¦ like, it’s not just sweetâ€¦”
â€œIt’s salty, adds Vincent. â€œIt’s the perfect mix of the two bases.
â€œItâ€™s the best thing Iâ€™ve ever eaten, honestly to God,â€ says Benny. “It’s so tasty, I just have random cravings.”