Irresistible dishes like smoky kalbi barbecued ribs, savory bulgogi grilled beef and tangy kimchi fermented vegetables can be found on practically every Korean restaurant menu in the U.S.
What makes these Korean dishes so popular? Traditional Korean cuisine uses fresh ginger, garlic, green onions, sesame oil, chili flakes, soy sauce and fermented chili paste to create bold and distinctive flavors we can't help but crave. Salty, spicy and tangy flavors are often tempered and balanced with sweet ones. While traditional Korean recipes use sugar in America you'll find another surprising secret ingredient: Sprite.
You may be wondering, why Sprite?
The answer is complex, but it's the refreshingly sweet and tangy flavor that Korean American cooks seem to appreciate most. Judy Joo, author of the upcoming cookbook Korean Food Made Simple (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and host of “Korean Food Made Simple" on the Cooking Channel says Sprite became a substitute for mirin, a Japanese rice wine similar to sake, but lower in alcohol content and higher in sugar. Mirin was once harder to find and expensive.
“Even in Korea, you will see many recipes referring to ‘cider’, which is the Korean version of Sprite," Joo says.
Ji Mil Liu, whose family ran a popular Korean restaurant in San Francisco says that while “old-school Koreans use alcohol and fruits such as pear, other Koreans resort to shortcuts." Korean-American chef Clara Park concurs. “It's the ultimate shortcut for a lot of cooks,” Park writes. “It's a very savory cuisine, but we do add sugar to a lot of things. A lot of restaurants use it in marinades and sauces because it adds sugar, citrus flavor and effervescence. It ties back to the traditional way Koreans use fruit and alcohol in their cooking."
Sohui Kim runs Insa, a critically acclaimed Korean barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn. “Koreans use mirin, fruit juices, rice or corn syrup to balance the heat or salt," says Kim, who employs a team of professional cooks to help peel and grate fresh Asian pear for her kalbi marinade, but notes, she has tried marinades with Sprite before and has even heard that soda tenderizes meat.
Recently published cookbook Koreatown captures recipes inspired by restaurants in Korean enclaves across the U.S. Two of the recipes in the book use soft drinks. It's used in a sweet and spicy sauce and in a recipe for donghimi, a short-fermented radish kimchi. The authors note that this radish can be use used to make a refreshing cold noodle dish. Simply boil white wheat somen noodles, drain and chill the noodles in cold water and serve them in a bowl with the pickled radish and its liquid poured on top as a soup then garnish with cucumber, scallions, tomato and chile pepper slices.
Dongchimi (Water Radish Kimchi)
Unlike the spicy red kimchis, dongchimi is a white “water kimchi." The pickling liquid is more of a broth and is slurped up with the tender radish. It's wonderful—sour but without an overpowering pop, a little sweet and spicy.
When buying the radishes for this kimchi, it's important to distinguish between Japanese (daikon) and Korean (mu) varieties. Japanese daikon is longer, thinner and slightly sweeter—and likely what you will find at your usual grocery stores. Korean radish is shorter and rounder and contains more water. A good Korean radish has a distinctive crunch and strong vegetable flavor, which is smoothed out after a couple days in the liquid, and they are strongly preferred for this. The kimchi will be ready in a week or so, depending on the season, and will keep for several months, evolving in flavor over time.