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Chicago’s Bill Kim hoping Olympics will shed new light on Korean cuisine

Chef Bill Kim is photographed at his urbanbelly restaurant on Friday, January 26th, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

With the winter Olympics officially opening Friday, Chef Bill Kim will be serving up some Olympic-inspired dishes at his Chicago urbanbelly and bellyQ restaurants for the kick-off. “Seoulful Fried Chicken” and Korean Fried Chicken will be served at both urbanbelly locales on Feb. 9, (while patrons can continue to savor Korean Fried Chicken at bellyQ year-round).

The South Korean-born Kim hopes people will get a better understanding of what Korean food is, through the Olympics coverage and through doing a little research and of course, local tasting.

Some Korean foods may taste familiar during the Olympics

“Everybody thinks Korean food is super spicy,” Kim said. “Like you’ll put it in your mouth and fire will come shooting out. I can attest to it being garlicky, but it’s really not spicy. I think it’s earthy, it has a lot of umami. A lot of stews and broths are made with fermented soy beans and chile flakes and such. These are main drivers of Korean food, which in Korea is fermented and dried in the sun to preserve it.”

The Seoulful Korean Fried Chicken from Chef Bill Kim at his urbanbelly restaurant. | James Foster/For the Sun-Time

Modern Korean cuisine has evolved, Kim said, but still maintains that earthy nature, with flavors that will “stick with you” for a while.

“When I was a kid I would bring instant ramen and kimchi for lunch and I thought everybody had kimchi, so I never realized the aroma it created,” Kim said with a laugh. “I was on the baseball team and the other guys would say, WHAT are you eating? [laughs] Let’s just say I chewed a lot of gum after lunch.”

While authentic Korean food has yet to reach the mainstream in a sizable way, Kim sees the Olympics as a teachable moment when it comes to food.

“The Olympic fried chicken we’re serving for example, is brined overnight, vapor-cooked, which keeps the moisture in (unlike frying, which dries it out), then it’s seasoned and cooked again. That’s as Old-World Korean as it gets. I remember when I was 7 and my dad would come home with this chicken and I remember that flavor to this day. It was part of our culture in Korea and we stayed true to it in America.”

Chef Bill Kim of urbanbelly cooks up his Seoulful Korean Fried Chicken, Friday, January 26th, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“You also have to realize that World War II had a lot of influence on how Korean food evolved,” Kim added. “There were a lot of Army bases here and the food reflected a lot of Southern comfort food. Fried chicken was definitely a military-inspired food. Korea didn’t cook with Spam until the war because it was in the soldiers’ rations.”

Kim’s “Seoulful Korean Fried Chicken” ($14) will include (in addition to the chicken), some mini savory donuts, kimchi, cucumber onions and picked green papaya. Patrons of bellyQ can belly up to the grill table for a traditional meal of Korean beef short ribs with fixings.

“Everyone should try Korean barbecue, at least once,” Kim said. “First of all it’s aromatic. Grilling a piece of meat that has things like garlic, ginger, sesame, soy sauce, and then it’s tossed on the grill. Wow! That’s deliciousness that you can’t get form any other culture.”

And Kim hopes the Olympics will put a spotlight on South Koreans’ love for a good dessert, too.

“Korean people LOVE pastries. I had my best croissant ever in Korea at a hotel. You’ll see coffee and pastry shops all over Korea. I think our American athletes will be very surprised and happy about that!”

Kim will release his first cookbook, “Korean BBQ: Master Your Grill In Seven Sauces” (co-written with Chandra Ram) in April. The book’s 85 recipes highlight 7 “master sauces,” Kim said, how to create your own versions, and how versatile they can be for myriad cuisines.