This warm grain salad of deeply toasted barley with savory kombu and crunchy roasted pumpkin seeds is a nod to my deep love for nurungji, a Korean rice porridge made by loosening burnt grains of rice stuck to the bottom of the pot with hot water. It’s also influenced by my lifelong long for boricha, Korean toasted barley tea, which is so flavorful that sometimes I think I’m sipping on a rich broth rather than a grain-based infusion.
For this dish, hulled barley is toasted in a dry saucepan until it lightly puffs and takes on a deep, nutty aroma. The barley is then simply simmered in water with a few pieces of kombu. The natural salinity and savoriness of the dried kelp is the only seasoning for this dish, along with salt from roasted pumpkin seeds, which are folded into the barley before serving. The kombu itself is fished out of the pot once the barley is just cooked through, cut into small pieces, and stirred back in with the grains, pepitas, and a splash of olive oil.
This dish is an exercise in seasoning restraint. Chefs and home cooks are often taught to season everything they touch with salt. Here, I pull back on seasoning and rely just on the oceanic savoriness of simmered kombu, the smokiness of slow-toasted grains, the nuttiness of pepitas, and the subtle pepperiness of olive oil.
The light touch with seasoning is intentional, as this salad is meant to be enjoyed as a component of a larger meal, alongside more assertively flavored dishes. My chef mentor, Sohui Kim, taught me the importance of balancing the flavors of a large meal when I was learning how to make the wide variety of banchan served at her Brooklyn restaurant, Insa. If the table was filled with too many dishes that were strongly seasoned with acid, heat, salt, fat, and sweetness, she said diners would quickly succumb to palate fatigue before finishing their meal. Chef Kim impressed upon me that eating a Korean meal should feel like a dance, and each dish on the table needs to be in harmony with the other plates, complementing and balancing one another. So whether you are making this barley salad as part of a weeknight dinner or as part of a holiday feast, think of it as a dish that brings balance to your table.