Tuesday, October 5, 2010

뚱뚱 Samples Rok-Mex

Back in Texas, going hunting for a burrito shop is about as difficult as spotting a Texan who would clearly benefit from not hunting for a burrito shop.

This is a different story when in Seoul. Our search party, led by several Californians who demanded burrito satisfacción, spent a good half-hour locating ‘Dos Tacos’ in the Hongdae barrio, one of the few burrito shops in la ciudad entera.

And there it was: the 불고기 (bulgogi) burrito. 불고기 is one of the most common dishes in Korea. It is well-known for being delicioso 하지만 simple- chopped beef marinated in soy sauce and then stewed until tender.

Stewed meat, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, and rice all wrapped in a burrito? A fission of flavors emanated out of this fusion delight.

I only hope that in the near future I will be able to enjoy kimchi nachos somewhere. How do you like THAT challenge, Korea?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Chicken? That Doesn't Taste Like Chicken! It Tastes Like Soup."

Koreans always seem to note their surprise at my love and appetite for Korean food. My plate is always cleaned by the end of every meal, and both my mouth and my belly are always smiling. This commonly leads to discussions about food because 1.) Koreans love their food, and 2.) the most refined component of my Korean lexicon (and usually their English vocabulary) revolves around culinary terminology.

This brings me to a conversation I had this afternoon at lunch with two of my co-teachers. One of these polite middle-age gentlemen was gently poking fun of the other’s pickiness when it comes to food. “He don’t like the pizza, the 치킨 (chicken), the rice cake, he don’t like,” he said, pointing to the other, both of them enjoying a good laugh over the matter.

“No pizza!” I exclaimed with exaggerated enthusiasm, attempting to make my co-teachers feel comfortable with our conversation in a language foreign to them. “No chicken!”

“No, he doesn’t like!” my co-teacher repeated joyfully, once again demonstrating his mastery of the all-to-familiar contraction within the spoken English of Koreans.

A couple of seconds later I realized something that needed immediate clarification.

“Hold up-“ I said with a calculated quizzicality, “last week we ate 계탕 for lunch- and you loved it.” (Samgyetang is Korean ‘ginseng chicken soup’ served in a piping hot claypot)

I was surprised by his admission of not liking chicken because, first of all, 삼계탕 contains an entire young chicken boiled whole, and, second of all, this baby chicken sits in a broth made from the stewed bones of its brothers and sisters. The chicken is then stuffed with rice and other goodies like small fruits, while the broth is infused with pungent ginseng and garlic. 삼계탕 is traditionally eaten in the summer, its filling yet refreshing nature believed to replace nutrients lost during the long and humid dog days of the season.

“Yes, I love the 삼계탕," admitted the picky eater co-teacher. "I like the soup.”

“Well,” I claimed smugly, “삼계탕 has 치킨(chicken) in it- actually, it has a whole chicken in it. Are you sure that you don’t like chicken?”

“He doesn’t like the chicken because it’s fried," interjected the first co-teacher. "He likes the soup.”

Now I began to believe that I vaguely understood what we were talking about.

치킨(chicken) was probably referring to ‘fried chicken’, a dish very familiar to American gullets coast to coast, and a dish that Koreans do surprisingly well. The composition of fried chicken in Korea is almost identical to that found in America: parts of a chicken are battered then deep-fried and served piping hot with a dipping sauce (except in Korea this chicken is always served with a red chili dipping sauce). I have found that in Korea the ingredients used in fried chicken are somewhat fresher than those used stateside, making it a tastier treat but with a significantly heftier price tag.

Fried chicken is also traditionally served with beer, which is my favorite part of getting to eat chicken either at home or at a restaurant or anywhere.

But I am still unsure how one of my co-teachers could claim to be a chicken-hater when just last week I watched him eagerly consume a whole chicken right in front of me.

Here are some possible answers to my conundrum:

1.) ‘Chicken’ for Koreans denotes both the type of food and the style of preparation (fried).

2.) Korean eaters place more of an emphasis on whole ‘dishes’ as opposed to ingredients within those dishes.

3.) “Soup”, “stew” and “meat” are all viewed as separate types of food that are not to be compared.

Further investigation soon to follow.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Kimbab: Official Korean 'Chow Tube'

Six or seven summers ago when was on holiday with my father in Biarritz, a French resort town situated on the Bay of Biscay in Southwestern France, I had the pleasure of enjoying one the most novel street foods I had ever tried: the panini.

Every morning during my stay I would watch as several modest vendors set up their food carts on the streets bordering the beach, and every afternoon at lunchtime I would also observe as the hungry mass of the bourgeoisie swarmed around these tiny little businesses to purchase what looked to me like skinny sandwiches.

One early evening, I ventured over to one of these vendors to buy one of their tiny toasted snacks while their adoring fans returned to the beach to work on their topless tans or discuss Satre over cigarettes.

The menu was limited: sandwiches could be filled with either tomato, ham, or ham product similar to prosciutto. As the slightly overweight teen that I was (and continue to be, if only in spirit), selected the salted-cured pork product surprise as I normally did.

I pointed to the salt cured meat and the vendor nodded his head. He took two pieces of French baguette, slathered them down with some type of aioli, and placed one slice of meat and one slice of cheese between the bookends. He placed this creation inside an electric contraption that contained griddles on its both top and bottom, as well as a lever that allowed him to lower the top griddle onto the sandwich in order to flatten it out.

The cooking time lasted only about two or three minutes. At its conclusion, I gave the man the five Euros as requested, and he gave me this grilled, melty, smushy food thing.

However, this ‘thing’ was so much more.

As I took my first bite, I totally got its appeal. First of all, any food that tastes this good and is this cheap in a location this expensive is bound to be a hit. Meat, cheese, bread, toasted, 5 euros, 3 minutes- got it. Second, I immediately realized the economic potential of this ‘thing’ for the American food market. It takes little money, time, or skill to make, would be considered 'fancy' if marketed as Italian, and has no exotic ingredients that might scare mainstream American consumers away.

Moments later, I realized that I was only of high school age and that many banks would not consider me an ideal candidate for a small business loan. So I decided to put my eureka moment on hold for the time being as I wandered back to the topless beach for imperative personal reasons.

One year following this trip, my house had a shiny new panini maker, every trendy wine-bar-sandwich shop and its sister was advertising their fancy new panini offerings, and even Jack in the Box initiated an unsuccessful marketing campaign dedicated to this Mediterranean culinary invention.

Unfortunately, my million-dollar eureka moment was probably experienced by a million other like-minded people before me who had access to millions of more resources than I did, and what I later learned was called a panini was now loved by millions of people in the American food market. Luckily, one type of Korean food has allowed me to experience the same feeling as my ‘panini moment’ on the beaches of France.

And this food definitely kicks panini’s ass (which may or not be hard to do given the delicate nature of the ‘French' panini), especially in terms of heartiness, availability, affordability, and versatility: the 김밥 (kimbab).

Kimbab is the blue-collar, Chevy-toting, redneck cousin of the Japanese sushi roll. In other words, this ain’t your mama’s sushi. Kimbab is straight up, bare-bones fightin’ fare. It ain’t got none of them luxuries of that there Jap-an-eeze crud: no uncooked fish, wasabi may-o-naize, or any of that tem-purr-ah bullshit. Kimbab is a hand-rolled heapin’ helpin’ of cooked egg, ham, fake krab, pickled daikon and kimchi all hunkered down under a pile a rice n’ wrapped in a big ‘ol’ blanket o’ seaweed’ that sure can fill you up right. You listen here now, you have two rolls of Kimbab, and you’ll be ready for the rodeo in no time, pardner.

Kimbab also comes with a variety of fillings to satify the whole family:

김치 김밥 (Kimchi kimbab contains extra kimchi)

참치김밥 (Chamchi kimbab contains tuna instead of ham)

소고기 김밥 (Sogogi kimbab contains bulgogi beef instead of ham)

비빔밥김 (Bibimbab kimbab contains bibimbap filling, to be discussed later in this blog.)

And my personal favorite:

계란말이김밥 (Kyeranmari kimbab is traditional kimbab wrapped in fried egg)

Because the ingredients in Kimbab are always cooked, kimbab is able to be served virtually everywhere in Korea for virtually any meal. Refrigerators in Koren apartments contain most of the essential ingredients, while 24-hour kimbab eat-in-or-take-out shops are rarely more than a mile away from anyone at anytime in any Korea city. Even the convenience stores in Korea sell varieties of kimbab known as 삼각김밥 (triangular kimbab).

Kimbab is outrageous affordable, bordering on dirt cheap. 1,500 won (a little more than a dollar) will but you a traditional roll, where 3,000 won will buy you any specialty roll- not to mention the triangular kimbabs at convenience stores cost a mere 700 won.

Kimbab is also the most versatile of Korean foods, especially for foreigners. Its affordability has already been mentioned, while its simple ingredients allow for even the pickiest of palates to rejoice. It remains a balanced carb and protein ‘chow tube’ providing each consumer with clean calories after a workout or, well, just because.

Additionally, Kimbab is literally the best hangover prevention method I have ever tested. Pop a couple of these bad boy rolls in your stomach before a long night at the bar or club of your choice and I promise you will have will have enough stable energy to dance and drink freely for hours into the morning sans munchie pangs or pesky indigestion.

Needless to say, I think that all of the amazing features of kimbab might make this Korean staple a future super-power in American fast food. That is, unless that shifty Jack steals my million dollar idea- again.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Leftover's Guide to 김치(kimchi): Part I of a Neverending Story

Ask any Korean what they think is the second-most important food in Korea and you might receive a long and sundry list of consumable possibilities: some might claim 불고기(bulgogi is beef grilled in soy sauce), others 비빔밥 (bibimbap is rice and end mixed with cooked vegetables), while you might hear a few Koreans advocate for 듼장찌(dwenjangjjigae is a bean paste pot stew), and still a small minority might favor as the strongest candidate for this conciliatory distinction (galbi is grilled beef ribs).

Ask any Korean what they think is the most important food in their country and their response will always roll off their tongues in a predictable, almost mechanical manner: 김치(kimchi).

Kimchi comes in all forms, shapes and colors, so this entry will be primarily focused on the most common form of kimchi, 배추김 (baechu kimchi).

According to a reputable source*, the first step in making baechu kimchi relies upon selecting the freshest cabbage. This cabbage is then salted and placed in an air-tight container for between 6 hours (summer) to 18 hours (winter). After sitting, the kimchi is then washed thoroughly three or more times in water. The 'essential' ingredients are then added once the cabbage is clean; 'essential' ingredients always include red pepper, fish or anchovy paste, rice powder, green onion, ginger, and Korean garlic. (Keep in mind that other ingredients used, processes, and varieties of kimchi are as diverse as the Korean cuisine itself.) The final step in this potent concoction is once again placing the kimchi in a refrigerated container for a period of two to three days or more to ferment prior to consumption.

Kimchi is literally a part of every Korean meal. I can honestly profess that I have not gone one sitting without enjoying kimchi in one form or another with the exception of the occasional Western-style breakfast. Kimchi is almost always used as a 반찬 (banchan is a traditional side dish served with meals that I will describe in painstaking detail in entries to come), and it is also commonly utilized as an essential component of other traditional Korean dishes (kimchichigge, kimbab, also to be described in future episodes.)

Although ubiquitous at every meal, no two kimchis are ever created equal. The vibrant color of kimchi ranges between an arrabiatta orange to a scarlet red, and kimchi's texture is similar to the crunch offered by other pickled leafy greens. The taste of the kimchi can also range greatly, from bland and processed to ripe and pungent, from wincingly fishy to sea-free, from clearing-the-sinuses spicy to milquetoast piquant.

Unfortunately, the smell of this of this national favorite is woefully unappetizing. Many Korean apartments even contain two refrigerators in an attempt to combat its unwanted odor: one refrigerator for kimchi, and one for everything else. If you want your residence to wreak of rotting vegetables, have your kimchi and other refrigeratables share real estate; if making your house smell like Fresh Kills isn't your cup of tea, segregate, segregate, segregate.

All lightheartedness aside, kimchi itself is just as much an edible representation of Korean sociocultural history as it is a staple of the Korean diet. Pickled vegetables such as kimchi have been (according to the same reputable source mentioned above) since time immemorial part of the food tradition of the peninsula due to the harsh winters making it impossible for peasant sustenance farmers to produce and later consume vegetables of any kind during the coldest months. Kimchi production in its current form (reputable source again!) could not take place until the 16th or 17th century when trade with China provided Korea the chili peppers it needed to develop the most popular kinds of kimchi that exist today. Kimchi also contains powder from rice and a paste made from fish, representing both a ready carbohydrate coupled with a consistent source of protein, as well as two staples of Korean consumption and trade that can be traced back thousands of years. In this respect, kimchi represents Korean ingenuity despite scarcity, the Korean people always attempting to make the best with limited, sometimes non-existent resources. The sour and salty flavor brought out by the pickling reminds the consumer of a painful history that binds, the trying, often desperate moments in modern Korean history such as civil war and periods of Japanese occupation.

Probably the most notable aspect of this kimchi regards the ritual with which Koreans consume this unlikely national dish. Kimchi, just like a family member, is present at every meal, in the home or at a restaurant, and there is always more than enough to share. Also, kimchi, especially to a foreigner such as myself, has no empirically ‘special’ value. It looks like pickled cabbage in red paste-like sauce, and it tastes predictably so. An outsider can only wonder why it is ALWAYS around. But this judgmental attitude neglects the context within which kimchi is the national food of Korea. It is certainly not the best tasting of Korean fare- in fact, it is not even close. But there must be many reasons why Koreans consume it as they do, and although I discovered a few of the surface reasons for why kimchi is the national dish of Korea, only more interactions with kimchi and the Koreans who love it so will allow me to better understand the Korean devotion towards their perception of pickled perfection.

*When I reference a 'reputable source', it will never be a textbook, wikipedia entry, or cookbook. 'Reputable sources' will always be Koreans who love their national cuisine, and, as the author of this blog, I will pay minimal regard to whether or not my sources contain limited or extensive knowledge on the nitty-gritty aspects within the Korean kitchen or market. They will most likely never be experts, nor would I want them to be. This blog is a forum to discuss my personal experiences with my Korean friends and family within the context of fascinating food culture that they have their created, participate in, and continue nourish with or without expertise about the technical details of our experiences.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Origin of the Leftovers:The 물냉면 (Mul Naengmyon) Story

Originally, when I came to Korea, I intended to start only one blog. This was to be a photo blog using pixels to document my journey around the Hermit Kingdom, and I liked this particular blog format because it allowed me to practice a passion that I wanted to become better at (photography) while simultaneously allowing my viewers to minimize their time keeping up with my whereabouts.

Fate rather than desire led me to become the author of this blog. During my favorite unit of Korean classes (Chapter 6: Food, obviously), our teacher provided my classmates and me with the information that his favorite Korean dish was 물냉면 (Mul Naengmyon).

This information soon began a revolution in food criticism.

The avid eater that I am recognized this aforementioned type of food immediately, probably because I had consumed an entire bowl of this delectable treat rather quickly the weekend preceding this class discussion. Our teacher quickly sensed that I knew what this type of food was, that the rest of the class had no idea what he was talking about, and that his English was far too limited to describe the complexities of the dish to a group of students that did not share his first language.

Carefully, he asked, "Justin, could you explain class 물냉면?"

I sure could.

And that was the end of this blog's beginning.

For between two or three minutes of class time I waxed poetic about the contrasts and contradictions inherent within this simple yet elegant dish: the crunchiness of the cucumber coupled with the sliminess of the buckwheat noodle, the chill of the vinegar and beef broth thickened with a warming chili paste, the refreshing nature of the small granules of shaved ice providing momentary solace from the most humid of restaurant venues.

While I viewed this impromptu description as an accurate yet entertaining analysis of a traditional Korean chilled soup with a beef stock base and soba noodles, my classmates thought it was literally the most ridiculous thing that they had ever heard. Following this episode:

1.) My classmates nicknamed me "Duung Duung", the Korean adjective for 'fat';

2.) Several members of my class decided to hone derisive imitations of my modest culinary narratives;

3.) The class even awarded me the stupendous superlative of 'Most Likely to Eat your Leftovers'.

These dubious distinctions taught me a very valuable life lesson. Sure, snapping basic pictures of Korean tourist sites might help me improve my camera skills and serve as a reminder to others back home that I still exist, nevertheless, eating Korean food (for which others have noticed my prodigal prowess) and describing the overwhelming diversity of Korean cuisine with an excess of adjectives and metaphors will, I believe, have the power to inspire the world.

Or at least entertain my friends and family for thirty to forty-five minutes a week. Who knows...

Stay tuned.