In my country this was a condiment. There were two reasons for that — price and spiciness. When shopping at a farmer’s market, I used to walk along the aisle of pickled vegetables, rows upon rows of pickled cabbage, marinated tomatoes, “soaked” apples, stuffed eggplant… And at the end of that aisle, atop of the tall massive counter were laid mounds of Korean carrot salad. You could smell them from far away. They were mountains of fire that came in three levels of intensity — mild or weak, as they called it, medium, and spicy. You could tell the spicy one from others, because the amount of cayenne pepper packed in it lent carrots its fiery color. We were afraid of the spicy. We called it “thermo-nuclear”. Spicy was a territory where only mythological creatures would venture. But those who dared, legend says, would never go back to medium again.
Rumor has it that Korean carrot salad isn’t Korean in origin at all, but is, in reality, an invention of the Russians with an exotic twist. I don’t know. All I know is that it emerged in the 80s and instantly became a staple. We would buy small quantities of Korean carrots to serve as enticing condiment for meat or fish. We also stuffed them inside sandwiches. In the United States, you can find the orange mounds of spiced carrots in Russian stores. They typically have one level of spiciness — a politically correct one — one size fits all kind, which most of the time is the wimpy kind, slightly spoiled because no one is buying. Unless, of course you live in New York, where all things Russian are made the right way and the sheer volume of customers takes care of the freshness.
Since I don’t live in New York and have no access to any kind of Russian store, I am prone to sudden bouts of gastro-nostalgia. These are the times when borscht, eggplant caviar, stuffed cabbage, and other such things emerge in my kitchen, evoking intense memories in my brain and occasional cringes in my all-enduring husband. Korean carrot salad, however, had a very positive effect. My husband seemed to like it, even when I accidentally ventured into the fiery spiciness due to some awkward hand positioning while measuring out cayenne. While I am in the thirty-salads-in-thirty-days marathon, I choose to call this a salad, not condiment. And as such it will be served tomorrow for lunch, side by side with the all-American grilled chicken breast.
Korean Carrot Salad
- 1 lbs of fresh carrots, peeled
- 1/2 of medium red onion, sliced very thinly
- 4 cloves of garlic, slivered thinly or finely chopped
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 tbsp vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
- fresh juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 tsp whole coriander seed, crushed
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp cayenne (makes medium)
- fresh cilantro, chopped [optional]
Here is a true test of your knifing skills. The goal is to slice carrots into thin long strips. No one except Japanese chefs can do that; ordinary people like me use julienne cutter. So, using a tool or your incredible knifing skills, cut carrots into thin long strips. Sprinkle some salt, stir, make a “hill” out of carrots and let rest for about 10 minutes.
Heap all the spices and garlic at the top of the carrot hill.
Slice onion as thin as possible. Heat the oil in a skillet, add onions. Cook for a minute, not longer, until oil is boiling. Carefully pour the oil over the spices. Toss onions with the carrots, add vinegar, lemon juice and fresh herbs. Toss everything together well, don’t mash. Let cool and put in a fridge for 1-2 hours at least.