Lots of cultures find beauty in burnt rice. In Spain it's socarrat, the crispy layer of bomba that adheres to the paella pan. In Persia it's tahdig, the saffron-stained crust of basmati that scrapes up from the bottom of the pot. In Senegal, the chef treats herself to the xoon, the dark matrix of broken rice that lurks beneath her thiebu djeun, the national dish of fish and rice.
Koreans call it nurungi, and they, like the rest of the world, know that this is the very best part of whatever dish it appears in. In this case that's dolsot bibimbap, which is the apogee of Korea's most popular culinary export outside of barbecue and kimchi.
If you've flown in or out of Korea, you've probably been served bibimbap on the plane. That's the dish's lowest form, but it still beats steamed salmon and peas. Bibim means "mixed." Bap means "rice." And the infinite forms bibimbap takes suggests that there are no limits on what can contribute to it. In rare cases it comes with raw fish, or beef tartare, or snails and soybean paste, but most often it's topped with a combination of steamed and/or pickled vegetables and very often a fried egg or some other kind of protein. At the point of service you're meant to squirt it with a thick, hot, sweet sauce made from long red chile peppers, then mix it all up and spoon it in in great mouthfuls, because its warm, wet, spicy, sweet, crunchy comfort makes you lose all inhibition.
But nurungi adds another dimension to the mix, a toasty, chunky crunchiness that takes it to another level. Prepared properly, it's pleasing to all the senses. Usually you can hear it snap, crackle, and pop before you see it leave the kitchen, but when you do it's in a blazing hot stone bowl—a dolsot—that would crush your foot if your server dropped it. Hopefully he doesn't, and when he places it in front of you, its billowing steam fogs your eyes and bathes your face with its perfume. You can get dolsot bibimbap at lots of Korean restaurants, barbecue and otherwise, but the quality of its execution can be just as variable as the bulgogi and galbi can. Haste, sloppiness, and insufficient heat are the enemies of a good nurungi.
It's rare to come across a specialist, so when I hear of one I investigate. Sleuths at LTHForum recently found one in an unlikely place. Moccozy is a small, five-month-old restaurant in Boystown that does dolsot bibimbop extremely well. At times it sounds like there's a brush fire in the tiny kitchen behind the register, where 46-year-old Kim Young Hee heats her dolsot to a ferocious temperature, which produces an extraordinarily thick nurungi that, when you dig at it with your spoon, lifts from the bowl to be distributed among the softer rice and vegetables in chunky mouthfuls of crispiness. It's a relatively minimal presentation—steamed spinach, bean sprouts, mushrooms, shredded raw carrot, and cucumber—but the sesame-seed-sprinkled proteins offered are a little more varied. In addition to the common fried egg, you might try it with tender, sweet slices of short rib or squid, shrimp, and a fat green-lipped mussel. Anyway you take it, what's key here is the rice, which after all is the foundation of the Korean table.
Some people don't take nurungi in its crispy form. They refuse to scrape the rice when it's served, and when they've eaten to the bottom of the bowl, they pour hot tea or water into it, extinguishing the scorch and creating a thin porridge called sungnyung. Personally, I can't relate to this, but if it's the way you roll, Kim's husband, Kwon Young Sok, works the front of the house with gentle deliberation, pouring refills of the roasted corn tea that will start your gruel.
Moccozy is a minimalist mom-and-pop shop. No vast array of banchan, side dishes, will supplement your meal (bibimbap historically was seen as a way to dispatch leftover banchan). But with whatever you order you'll receive a few—a small dish of kimchi, perhaps a salad of cauliflower and brussels sprouts, perhaps some sliced fish cake. Much of the remaining menu is straightforward: sizzling-hot platters of galbi, beef or chicken bulgogi, fried rice, chap chae, and dumplings, steamed or fried. But there are two other common dishes that are uncommonly well prepared.
Pajeon, the thick, savory pancake that too frequently arrives gummy and undercooked, takes after the dolsot bibimbap, arriving with a fetching, smoky char. Here it's haemul pajeon, so it's bulging with seafood—squid, shrimp, and strips of surimi—and sliced into wedges you dip in the vinegar-soy cocktail to the side, then savor their crispy edges and soft interior.
There's a single soup on the menu, an ordinary version of the soft-tofu soup sundubu, but unlisted and lurking within Kim's kitchen is a secret stew, a roiling kimchi jjigae, thick with tofu, pickled cabbage, and chunks of fatty pork belly in a bubbling broth, whose predominant spiciness is undercut with a delicate sweetness.
I'm a partisan of specialists, and though they may not think of themselves as such, the husband-and-wife team behind Moccozy are specialists of rare power. v