Monday, December 31, 2007

One of my favorite breakfasts

Fried rice cake, all crispy on the outside, all chewy on the inside, dipped in a sauce of soy sauce, sesame seed oil, and a dash of red pepper flakes. (My sister prefers to dip hers in honey.)

2008 has already arrived in Korea, and in a few hours, we'll be eating rice cake and dumpling soup, and a few hours later, my mother's fabulous New Year's feast. Happy New Year, everyone!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

What about naengmyon?

“What about naengmyon? Such a wonderful commingling of parts -- chewy gray noodles! Cold savory broth! Sweet grainy pear! Salty pickled radish! Vinegar, mustard! Pretty boiled egg!”

This is how my sister feels about mul naengmyon, the Korean dish of chewy buckwheat noodles in a very clear, very fine cold beef broth. She feels pretty strongly about bibim naengmyon, too, which are the same noodles also served cold, but in a sweet, spicy red pepper sauce, rather than the beef broth.

I’ve never shared Mona’s passion for naengmyon. There’s nothing like a cool bowl of naengmyon on a hot summer day, but there is also so much mediocre naengmyon out there, I had forgotten how good it could it be. But yesterday, having lunch at Hanwoori, I had a naengmyon epiphany. It is one of “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia”.

It was easy to forget because unlike some of the other contenders, naengmyon is a difficult food. Nine times out of ten, a bowl of pho or ramen will be perfectly tasty, if not sublime. Naengmyon, on the other hand, will be utterly forgettable nine times out of ten. The tenth time, it will be sublime.

The biggest challenge with mul naengmyon is the broth. If the idea of a cold meat broth turns you off, there’s a reason. It has to be carefully clarified, skimmed of all fat, rich in flavor and yet still clear and light, without the heavy gelatinous mouth-feel of most meaty stocks. The broth and the noodles are the main players, so they must not be overwhelmed with garnishes, but a few thin slices of pickled cucumber and radish, sweet Asian pear, cold sliced beef, and half a “pretty boiled egg” add just the right amount of contrast in texture, crunch, and flavor. Even if a perfect bowl comes out of the kitchen, you the eater have to be careful with the last-minute condiments of a spicy mustard and vinegar. The perfect proportion will make the broth sing; too much of either will muddy the broth and no amount of adding the other will ever restore the balance.

Bibim naengmyon is not much easier. There’s no cold beef broth to deal with, but the sweet, spicy sauce is surprisingly hard to get right. I’ve had so many bowls of bibim naengmyon that were too spicy, too sweet, or too much of both, as if the cook hoped to simply overwhelm my tastebuds to hide his lack of skill. At Hanwoori, only a small amount to just coat the noodles was sufficient to make the noodles perfect. It was just spicy, sweet, and tart enough to tease you into wanting more.

Naengmyon is a culinary lodestar. It reminds me that the best food is made with balance, restraint, and care. The best food can’t be eaten everyday or wherever you want—there is no good naengmyon in Manhattan. Most of the time, I will still choose what is more easily satisfying—like ramen during a layover at the Tokyo airport—because warm satisfaction is good for the soul. But it’s equally good for the soul to occasionally eat and know there are foods like Hanwoori naengmyon out there.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The best galbi-tang in the world

Sometimes, I wonder if I am just another victim of the American trend for slow food, organic food, localism, and food obsession in general. And then I have a day like last Wednesday, when my mother hustled me out of the house at 10:40 a.m. so we would be sure to arrive at 버드나무집, Budnamujip to have a bowl of short rib soup before they all sold out by 11:10. I’m a victim of heredity.

Budnamujip is a grand old dame of a restaurant. It’s famous for its galbi, or barbecued short ribs, both marinated and unmarinated, with the unmarinated ones being even more expensive because the quality of the meat is that much higher. (You generally have to reserve orders of the unmarinated galbi before you get there.) One order of unmarinated meat costs about 68,000 won, about $70, and many people order more than one order per person, plus stew or cold noodles after the grilling is done. Filled with smoke, fronted with a glass butchering shop, and waitresses in ugly uniforms running around, it’s the Korean equivalent of a glorious, old-school steakhouse.

But we weren’t there to eat grilled short ribs. Its lunchtime 갈비탕, galbi-tang, or short rib soup, for 12,000 won a bowl, has its own following. As my mother puts it, for some people, eating this soup once a week is their joy in life. We actually ran into one of those people and his wife, family friends who come every Sunday and holiday, when he can close his doctor’s office. Today was Election Day, so they came with plans to eat and then to vote.

We were the first car to pull into the parking lot at 10:50, and the restaurant wasn’t open yet, so we went for a walk around the block. By the time we got back 5 minutes later, there were already 10-15 people waiting in line. When the restaurant finally opened its inner doors to the downstairs dining room, the crowd moved expertly inside and quickly spread out, claiming their tables, one, two, three.

Once everyone was seated, a waiter came by and handed out little laminated tickets with numbers on them. Four orders of galbi-tang at our table, so four tickets. There are 100 tickets. If you don’t get one of them, tough luck, no galbi-tang for you!

Once the restaurant knew who was getting a bowl of galbi-tang, no other questions were asked. Every table got the same side dishes, cubed radish kimchi, garlic scape kimchi, white water radish kimchi, and a spicy lettuce salad. Then everyone just sat there patiently for 45 minutes, secure in their possession of one of the precious galbi-tang tickets.

They arrived. Huge, steaming bowls of chopped up short ribs in a broth with chopped scallions and glistening drops of fat on the surface. The ribs crowded the stainless steel bowl that was almost as big as my head. As they say in Korean, it was time to “rip the meat off with our teeth.”

This is the kind of experience I would heartily recommend to any chowhound, but with a major caveat. You must, you must be okay with ripping meat off the bone with your teeth. You must be okay with tendon and meat and fat all crowded together on the same bit of rib, the way it grows on a cow. It is socially acceptable to eat around the parts you don’t like, but there is no way to eat this meat without picking the bone up with your hands and gnawing on it.

For about 30 minutes, there was no conversation, just the sound of us chewing and discarding our bones in the bowls left on the table for just this purpose. When there was no meat left, there was the beautiful broth to concentrate on. Like liquid gold, so rich, so smooth. I drowned the rice in my soup like a little kid, loving the way the rice grains soaked up broth, too. Whenever the richness got almost too overwhelming, there was the excellent kimchi to cut through the fat on your tongue.

Our family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, asked if there were restaurants in New York where people lined up to eat even before the restaurant opened. “Oh yes,” I said, thinking of Prune. “But not for food like this!”

(Merry Christmas! I'm off to Guam for a few days with my family. If I eat anything noteworthy on Guam, I'll let you know.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Don't be grossed out, it's really good

Be forewarned, what follows are less delicate aspects of Korean cuisine.

In Mexico, people would often express surprise when I sat down to eat barbecued goat or a spicy stew of innards. I would shrug and merely say, “But I’m not really American, I grew up in Korea,” and immediately, the questioners would nod understandingly. I wish I could say my willingness to eat all kinds of random things comes from great bravery and open-mindedness, but it’s because I grew up never really knowing what I was eating.

I love tripe. I love it cooked in tomato sauce at Babbo, I love it in meaty Korean soups, I love it in a warm Spanish stew. But growing up, I thought it was lamb. The word in Korean for tripe is 양 or yang, which happens to be the same word for lamb. Somewhere in my little kid head, I thought the curly fur of the lamb somehow got transferred to its meat, resulting in the curly, rough surface of the tripe.

I had no such excuse for not knowing what 족발, jokbal is. After all, it literally means “pig foot.” But I somehow never put “pig” and “foot” together, probably because I was so distracted by how much I loved the contrast between the simple boiled pork meat, the extremely chewy fat, and the salty, shrimpy sauce in which it’s traditionally dipped. It is really, really chewy, as Koreans just love chewy things.

Don’t knock it till you try it.

순대, soondae, I do take credit for simply being brave even if no one ever told me it was blood sausage, because only an exceptional kid, or perhaps a supremely uncurious one, would eat something so dark and strange. I have a vague memory of some kid telling me that the casing was intestine, but I thought she was just trying to scare me. The filling is mainly rice, and blood of course, though many places will also add chopped up Korean glass noodles. Actually, the noodles scared me more; I thought they might be worms. I figured out it must be blood sausage only a few years ago, when I learned about the existence of blood sausage in other cultures. (That’s liver on the left—one thing I’ve never liked.)

I am proud of my Korean heritage for many reasons, but particularly thankful that when organ meats became cool, I was ready.

Friday, December 21, 2007

My mom's fried chicken

1) Fried food is delicious. 2) Fried food is at its most delicious when it has just come out of the fryer.

These are two difficult truths, when one is eating fried food at home instead of a restaurant. It means the smell of hot oil and whatever has been fried can’t dissipate before the dinner guests arrive. It means that the cook will not be a gracious host when the dinner guests do arrive, because she will still be frying and frantic. The best way to deal with this problem is to only fry for those you love and who love you. These people will not care that you are still in an apron splattered with batter, they will not care that they will also smell like fried potatoes or chicken or codfish potato balls. Best of all, they will be willing to just stand around the stove and eat the hot little goodies with their fingers.

I know this is the best way because the best fried chicken I’ve had at home was last week with my mom, when we fried chicken wings on our portable stove and ate them right in the kitchen.

My father was out to dinner with his friends, and I wanted to learn how to make the dish I have loved my entire life. Our camp stove has never seen a campsite, but it is very useful at home when you want to avoid grease splatter all over your real stove. My mom laid out a bunch of newspapers on the kitchen table and placed her wok and the camp stove on top. She quickly made a crisp, raw salad for me, but we didn't bother to set the table or make anything else. Instead, we focused on the chicken. She showed me every step and we sat together in the kitchen, alternating frying, eating, and laughing.

I don’t know if this is a particularly Korean way to fry chicken, as it’s different from the “Korean fried chicken” I had with my cousin. My mom couldn’t remember how or why she had started frying it this way, only that we all loved it. I think the key is that the chicken is seasoned with garlic, green onion, salt and pepper, before the potato starch batter is applied. Or it might be that my mom has always used wing meat and eating such small pieces makes it as addictive as popcorn. Maybe it’s just something I love because it’s from my childhood, as it’s quite simple and sometimes a bit greasy if we wait too long to eat. But when I bite into it fresh from the fryer, and my mouth is burning from the heat and the juices squirting from the meat, I can’t stop because it tastes so good.

I'm sorry the amounts and directions are so approximate; that's the way my mom cooks.

2 lbs. chicken wings
2-3 T. chopped garlic
2-3 T. chopped green onion
1.5 T salt
pepper to taste
a little less than 1 T. sesame seed oil
1.5 cups of potato or sweet potato starch
corn oil

1. Prepare the chicken by removing excess fat and making small cuts in the chicken meat to help it cook faster.

2. Add garlic, green onion, salt, pepper, and sesame seed oil to the chicken. Let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour.

3. Prepare batter by adding water to potato starch. The batter should be slightly thick, like pancake batter. Add more starch or water as necessary.

4. Add the chicken to the batter and mix well. The batter will not completely cover the chicken and obscure its meat, though it will when cooked.

5. Heat oil for frying. The oil should be sufficient for the chicken to float in it. (My mom doesn't bother with a thermometer, but it is important to wait until the oil is hot enough and not to use an oil like olive oil that will start to smoke before it gets hot enough. When I try this back in NY, I will definitely reread the oil section in Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" and make sure my oil is at the right temperature.)

6. Once the oil is ready, add the chicken to the pan. Don’t crowd the pan and fry the chicken in batches, taking all the chicken out before putting more in as that will cause greater fluctuations in the temperature of the oil. After 10-15 minutes, the chicken should be done. It won’t be completely golden brown, more brown in spots, as the potato starch makes a mainly white batter.

7. Eat while hot!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Noodles forever

My sister and I invented a game a few years ago in which one person gives the other two foods (or ingredients or flavors), and that person then has to say which one she would give up for the rest of her life if she had to choose. Chocolate or vanilla? Salt or sugar? Basil or mint? There are no other rules, but we both get mad when someone says something like, “Bacon or pumpkin?” Only people who don’t care what they eat make this kind of error. Sure, there’s no winner, but it’s a lot of fun to play while you’re waiting for the bus, and if you’re playing with someone like my friend Leslie, you can torture her by asking, “Noodles or rice?”

It’s shocking how hard this question is for a girl who grew up in Rome, but even putting aside the category of Italian pasta, the mere existence of a dish like Korean handmade knife-cut noodles should make the answer clear. And 칼국수, kalguksu, doesn’t even belong in the "Top Five Noodles Dishes of Asia" pantheon! That is how deep that field is.

This is another dish I didn’t appreciate until I ended up in the impoverished Korean-food land of New York City. (This is one area in which Los Angeles beats New York’s ass.) My family’s favorite place to eat these noodles in Seoul is at 산동칼국수, Sandong Sone Kalguksu, which translates into Sandong Handmade Knife-Cut Noodles, located close to the Yangjae subway station. On its business card, it lists right under its name the following three words: “Giant Dumplings—Korean Boiled Pork—Cold Noodles,” but as the name declares, the knife-cut noodles are the best.

On each table, you can find an urn of kimchi, from which you serve yourself throughout the meal. This kimchi has a strong, sharp flavor, but it's still a little raw with almost crunchy cabbage leaves, and therefore not that sour. You might think you only need to fill the little dish provided for this purpose, but my family ends up emptying almost the entire urn.

The noodle soup is also clean and simple. The broth has the clear, light flavor of anchovy-broth, with some body that likely comes from dashi. The noodles have that irregularity so dear to the hearts of all those who love homemade noodles. They have that important bite, not the Italian al dente standard, but an exemplary chewiness that is so prized by Koreans in a range of foods, there’s a word for it, 쫄깃, cholgeet. You say it twice, cholgeet-cholgeet, if it’s really deliciously chewy. Piled on top of the noodles are a good number of clams, a little gritty but who’s complaining at 5,000 won a bowl? And then there are strips of dried seaweed, carrot, and zucchini, which add a little flavor and a lot of color, which is an important principle in Korean cooking.

It’s not a zingy food. It’s not the kind of thing that will make fireworks go off in your brain, and I can imagine some non-Koreans might even think it a little bland. But that’s what the kimchi is for, and there are days when nothing is as satisfying as a restorative soup of handmade, knife-cut noodles. The answer for me is always the same, “Noodles forever!”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Plastic Kimchi

You know how when you’re young, you don’t think of your parents as real people? For a long time, I felt that way about Korean food. It wasn’t food in the way Malaysian nasi lemak is food or Oaxacan mole is food, something to be fascinated by. It was like air, something I didn’t notice until it was gone, when I realized I was truly living alone and no one was going to make Korean food for me.

Even worse, I realized I didn’t even know that much about Korean food. I would start to answer questions on Chowhound and then stop because I didn’t even know the right name for that whole-radish kimchi I like so much, the one that’s shaped like an elongated pear. (It’s 총각김치, chonggak kimchi!) I can’t identify half of my favorite 나물, namul, or vegetable 반찬, banchan—I just think of them all as “mountain vegetables.” Though I should be able to identify at least one; my mom was picking it off the ground in Fort Greene Park when she came to visit.

This is why I ended up peering at plastic kimchi last week at the Kimchi Field Museum on the second basement level of the COEX Mall. My mom and I had a hell of time finding it; the mall must be designed to make you lose direction and just shop until you get out. By the time we got there, her bad knee was acting up and so we sat down next to a rack of magazines and books and kimchi, found a very authoritative one written in Japanese, and started to flip through it together. My mom didn’t need to understand the text to explain everything to me with happy familiarity. It was like she was flipping through a family album, except instead of saying, “This is your crazy Second Uncle,” she was saying, “This is chonggak kimchi, a really delicious one, your aunt loves it. She always says, “Please make it for me until I die!”

The museum turned out to be small and fairly low-budget, with clearly some efforts towards interactivity, but with almost no effort to hire a fluent English speaker to do their translations. I learned more from my mother sitting with a Japanese-language kimchi cookbook in the front room. But if you don’t have a Korean mother, and especially if you enjoy looking at plastic food (hello, Sharon!), it’s not a bad way to spend an hour.

If nothing else, you will learn that there are hundreds of kinds of kimchi. That’s why it’s not quite accurate to describe kimchi simply as Korea’s national pickle—it just can’t be described in the singular. They can be made of napa cabbage or regular cabbage, cucumbers, green onions, eggplant, big radishes, small radishes, etc., etc. Even my mom saw types she had never tried, as specialties vary from region to region. My new kimchi cookbook divides its 105 recipes into “Refreshing Northern Kimchi, “Simple and Tasty Seoul Kimchi,” and “Intensely Flavored Southern Kimchi.” There’s some that are fiery red and others that are so mild, you’re supposed to drink the clear, sour juice with the cabbage.

Sadly, the kimchi museum has no samples, though the plastic kimchis do glisten in their glass cases. (Apparently, you can sample and even make kimchi on certain days--oops.) There’s an odd sort of closet where you can open doors and smell the key ingredients in kimchi, like ginger and garlic, but the intense national pride seems to have stopped at putting a dish of fish sauce or dried shrimp in one of the closets. (This is always a revelation I make to vegetarians with mixed emotions—nearly all kimchi includes some sort of seafood-derived ingredient.)

The exhibits also explain how kimchi is made, how it was traditionally buried in clay jars in the ground during the winter months, which would control the temperature and keep it from fermenting too quickly. Thus my ancestors ate vegetables through the winter and avoided scurvy. There’s also a funny but poorly translated dig at U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea during the war for stupidly thinking that Koreans were eating food straight out of the ground. Now, nearly all Koreans have special kimchi refrigerators that are colder than regular refrigerators for year-round kimchi preservation. We have one that’s almost twice the size of the washing machine, and my mom says it’s a small one.

Sadly, though, younger families rarely make their own kimchi. Sometimes, they’ll buy their kimchi in grocery stores, but as the change is recent, most still get to eat their mothers’ and mothers-in-law’s kimchi. The question, of course, is what will their children eat? I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was young, and I yearned to live in a world where people canned and pickled and preserved things. I didn’t realize it was happening in my own home.

But I doubt Koreans will ever stop eating kimchi, no matter how trendy hamburgers and pizza get. My mom and I had a dinner today of rice, two kinds of kimchi, and kimchi stew. And they can always put it on their hamburgers and pizza! Koreans feel no fear in adding their favorite food to all their new favorite foods, as the wall of “kimchi foods” attests.

In any case, the Korean government seems to have funded a significant amount of research on the health benefits of kimchi, just in case you don’t like the taste of food, which you can read all about at the museum. It is an excellent source of vitamin C, though could it really help you lose weight? Apparently, people are already selling chile-laced nasal spray as a weight-loss aide.)

It’s a pity that the museum isn’t more exciting. Perhaps I was focused too much on the poor English translations, but given how central kimchi is to Korean life, the most likely audience would be foreigners, not Koreans. With my newfound enthusiasm and pride in Korean food, I can imagine a museum with truly rich exhibits on the science and the culture. I mean, pickles can be seriously exciting. And then their cross-cultural display could include more than weirdly chilling laboratory jars of sauerkraut and Filipino pickles.

But I can’t completely rag on the existing Kimchi Field Museum. After all, you can take pictures with a mannequin ready to feed you kimchi from her chopsticks!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Korean fried chicken with my cousin

I don’t know anyone like my cousin Young. She’s a writer, a former award-winning journalist who’ll urge me to read James Salter and Henry Miller, almost in the same breath as she’s pressing upon me a mix CD consisting mainly of Charlotte Church. She’s a good Korean girl, a daughter who respects and honors her parents in a way that makes Mulan seem selfish, and yet she also holds her liquor better than anyone I have ever met. She once did an oil painting of a bag of Funions—without irony. The girl loves Hot Pockets. The most amazing thing is that she doesn’t surprise herself at all, nor is she trying to surprise anyone else. Young is simply who she is.

It’s hard to say what I enjoyed more the other night, her company or the delicate, crispy skin on the fried chicken we were eating. It may sound as if I am not respecting my cousin as much as I claim, but Korean fried chicken is spectacular. I could explain how it is different from the Southern-style fried chicken Americans know, except the New York Times already did it last winter. It caused a minor sensation, at least in my food-obsessed world. Chowhounds from all over the world were asking desperately, “Where, oh, where can I find Korean fried chicken?” Although in New York, you have to go specifically to Koreatown in midtown Manhattan, or to Queens, it is possibly in Seoul to simply decide, as we did, that you want fried chicken and wander until you find it.

This particular place was called TO:UR Fried Chicken, a classic Korean-English abbreviation of “Top Our Fried Chicken,” close to the Shinsegae Department Store in Myungdong, a very young neighborhood of energetic shopping and drinking. (As a general tip, any place with the sign “Hof,” a bastardization of the German word “hofbrau,” will serve beer, soju, and fried chicken.) As hofs go, it was spiffy, with a bright red and black décor that was reasonably clean and attractive. As the night went on, it got more and more crowded with a good mixed crowd, businessmen, middle-aged women, and us, all happily eating fried chicken and drinking beer.

The chicken was just as it should be, moist, ungreasy, and delicious. Koreans fry the whole chicken and then cut it up into pieces, serving it unadorned with just a dish of salt and pepper for dipping or coating it in a sticky, sweet, slightly spicy sauce. For 14,000 won, or about $15, we got half an order of each, as well as the usual accompaniments of shredded cabbage-cole slaw and cubes of pickled radish. We each got a big stein of beer, simple and refreshing. The more we drank, the hungrier we got, so we ordered another half order of plain fried chicken and shared another large mug of beer. I am not ashamed to admit we ate one and a half chickens in total.

It was a lovely dinner. We talked, we laughed, we drank, and we ate. Even though I’ve always loved and admired Young for all the ways in which she differs from me, it was nice to learn that we do share a key core value, a passion for Korean fried chicken.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just for you, Lina!

As promised.

But the better 호떡, hodduk, makers were in Kangnam, who used some newfangled metal mold, so that the outside was perfectly crisp without being greasy, the inside chewy and sweet.

(For those of you who have never tried this, it’s a ball of dough filled with brown sugar and sometimes nuts. The sugar melts when the dough is flattened and fried and you end up with one of the best street food snacks in the world.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Korean noodle hot pot--so hot, so good

My friend Diane has a brother who is even more obsessed with food than I am. A couple of years ago, we were talking about the essays he was writing for business school applications, including one on the biggest dilemma he had ever faced. He said he was having trouble because in all honesty, the biggest dilemma he had ever faced was on a Singapore Airlines first-class flight to Hong Kong, when he was served a beautiful, truly gourmet meal, and he had to decide whether he would eat it, or forego it to save room for the astonishing food that would be waiting for him as soon as he landed.

During that same conversation, we began talking about “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia.” This was a running list Michael kept in his head. He told me that Numbers 1 through 3 were clear to him, but he had been going back and forth trying to settle in his own mind what dishes occupied 4 and 5. If I remember correctly, one through three were pho, ramen, and soba, and four was some Chinese noodle dish, maybe chow fun. In any case, nothing in the Top Five was Korean; in fact, he said to me in horror, “Can you believe some people say 잡채, chapchae?” (Michael is Korean.) I admit I am also horrified that some people would consider that slippery, simpering glass noodle dish to belong in the pantheon of “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia,” but a recent meal at 한우리, Hanwoori, has made me decide that among my personal top five, I would have to include 국수전걸, guksujungol, or Korean noodle hot pot.

(I can hear my sister protesting, “What about 냉면, naengmyun?”, which is her second-favorite Korean food in the world after braised short ribs, but that is another blog post.)

Hanwoori is one of those restaurants that’s been around forever. Several stories high, it serves traditional Korean food that’s famous for its clean, uncluttered flavors. Our family has always been particularly fond of the kimchi, the shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot), and noodle hot pot. It’s not cheap, but it’s so good, especially when my parents are paying for it.

If you have never had hot pot, Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, you should run out and try it. It’s good party food, where people who don’t know each other have to get comfortable fast, since they’re circling a big pot of broth in which, depending on where you are, thinly sliced beef, strong Asian greens, meaty mushrooms, and assorted fish and fishballs cook lightly and quickly. I wonder why it’s not more popular among the ethnic-hipster-foodie set—it’s just as DIY as Korean barbecue without being as smelly. And the legends are fun—all about hordes of invading Mongols having to cook their food quickly on the march.

The Korean noodle hot pot at Hanwoori isn’t quite DIY, but the principle is the same. A big shiny pot of broth is placed on the burner set into the table. It’s an anchovy-broth, and Hanwoori’s epitomizes all that anchovy broth can be, clear and clean, not meaty and yet full in flavor. (If you think anchovy-broth sounds gross, it’s similar to Japanese dashi broth, which you’ll find in every bowl of miso soup.)

Once the broth starts to boil, the waitress slides into the broth a platter of sliced vegetables—napa cabbage, mushrooms, green onions, and firm greens that hold up well in boiling broth; very thinly sliced beef; and a big pile of toothsome noodles. The broth is then flavored at the table with plenty of minced garlic (this is what makes it Korean!), Korean red pepper flakes, and salt.

After 10 minutes or so, the pot is ready. The noodles have released some of their starches, the meat and vegetables have added another dimension to the broth, and so now the broth is thicker, almost more like stew than soup. The noodles are soft but not mushy, the beef still has the kind of chewy texture I love, and the greens clean your palate. It’s a wonderful one-bowl meal.

This kind of food doesn’t need much accompaniment. Rather than a spread of 반찬, banchan, Hanwoori sticks to a few dishes, meant to provide some light, pickled contrast to the bowl of hot noodles in front of you. There’s spicy cabbage kimchi, of course, some sweet and spicy dried squid, some non-spicy cabbage kimchi, and then individual bowls of white kimchi, again napa cabbage that hasn’t been spiked with red peppers and instead is served in its own light, slightly sour juice.

If I were to really raise Korean noodle hot pot to Michael as a serious contender for one of “The Top Five Noodle Dishes of Asia,” I think he would shoot me down. To be completely honest, it doesn’t have the complexity of pho or the almost mysterious flavor of soba. It’s simple food, where each component announces itself and nothing more, but this is why it’s so satisfying.

Wearing a stuffed animal on your head must be popular this winter

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Who doesn't love something tasty wrapped in dough?

It gives me a warm feeling to think about how so many cultures love to eat foods wrapped in dough. Pierogies, dumplings, wontons, empanadas—the list goes on and on. In Korea, our national dough-wrapped food is 만두, or mandoo. The most traditional version involves a thick doughy skin, more like a pierogi than a wonton, with a filling of mainly crumbled tofu, lots of green onions, perhaps some bean sprouts and/or kimchi, and a bit of meat. We like to eat them bobbing in soup, sometimes with sliced ovals of 떡, dduk, or rice cake. They are as comforting as all foods that are doughy and warm.

One of my favorite places to eat mandoo in Seoul is called, simply enough, 만두집, Mandoo Jip, or Mandoo House, a tiny little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Apkujongdong. Apkujongdong is probably Seoul’s most chichi neighborhood, full of cafes serving 10,000 won (over $10) coffees, bars serving even more expensive drinks, and hip restaurants for ladies who lunch. It’s wedged into a little shed-like building that is itself wedged into an alley right next to the new Uniqlo, which occupies the space where McDonald’s used to be, right across from the glossy Galleria Department Store. It would look like a little bewildered thing, surprised by what’s sprung up around it, except that it has spruced itself up a bit lately so that everything is shiny and new.

For 7,000 won, you get cabbage kimchi, a refreshingly spicy and slightly raw julienned radish, and a big steaming bowl of fat mandoo. It’s all very bare-bones—there’s nothing in the beef-broth soup than a sprinkling of Korean red pepper powder that gives it a heartening bite.

Such a fat little bundle that has been boiled in beef broth is likely to be scalding hot, and so you are supposed to take one mandoo out of the soup, place it in the little side dish provided for you, and cut it with your spoon into pieces, adding a bit of scallion-spiked soy sauce with each bite. The dough here achieves that perfect, difficult balance, thick but not starchy, satisfying rather than stupefying. The chopped green onions in the filling are not just a side note, they take up a lot of room, adding a clean, green sharpness to the crumbled tofu. The filling is seasoned so well, you only need a dab of soy sauce to make it complete.

This is the kind of Korean food I miss the most when I am in New York, a small restaurant making one thing so well, it becomes a minor masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kimbab is my favorite food in the entire world

My favorite food in the entire world is 김밥, kimbab. Kimbab is rice, meat, and vegetables wrapped up in seaweed, and then sliced to form neat, round, colorful cross-sections. The meat is traditionally beef marinated in the ubiquitous Korean bulgogi marinade, salty and sweet, and when combined with ribbons of egg, pickled daikon radish, sautéed spinach, and julienned carrots, it’s a very happy looking dish. Now, it’s become trendy to replace the beef with canned tuna, to add processed American cheese, which makes me ill, and other modern ingredients. It's Korean picnic food, the kind of food that kids love, which is why you'll never see it on the menu of a big Korean restaurant. I love it intensely.

Unfortunately, I only get to eat it a couple of times of year, in the few compressed weeks that I’m at home with my parents in Korea. It’s simple food, with no sophisticated searing or deglazing. But it’s the kind of food that in Korean is literally called a “handful.” The rice has to be good, each grain distinguishable and yet sticky, and carefully seasoned with salt, a little vinegar, and sesame seeds. The unsalted seaweed is easy enough to buy. But the carrots have to be sliced and slivered and sautéed in oil. The spinach needs to be blanched, squeezed of excess water, and dressed with sesame seeds and sesame oil. The pickled radish, even though it comes packaged, still needs to be cut into neat long strips. The eggs have to be beaten, salted, and cooked into thin pancakes that are carefully sliced, also into neat long strips. If you are my mom, you will also have to julienne and sautée burdock root, which adds a wonderful slightly sweet, chewy element. And this is all pre-assembly.

To assemble, you need a clean bamboo roll, on which you place a sheet of seaweed, spread some rice, and then lay out the rest of the fillings. It’s not difficult work, but it takes a little practice knowing how much rice and various fillings you can comfortably stuff into a neat seaweed roll, and my rolls always come out sort of square. If you’re going to go to all this trouble, you might as well make ten or twelve rolls, which means you can spend all morning making kimbab. In other words, I rarely make kimbab for myself. So when I come home, one of the first questions my mother asks me is, “How many times do you want to eat kimbab?” And she always makes sure it is on the menu at least two times while I am at home, little caring that it’s kiddie food to my dad.

Growing up, I ate kimbab all the time. It was a frequent lunch that I took to school, that my mother carefully packed for me. My sister and I left for school at 7:30 a.m., which meant she got up at 6 to make my favorite food, after prepping the night before. I didn’t even know what this meant until I was in law school, five years after I had left home for college, when I decided to make kimbab myself for a party. It wasn’t right, the rice wasn’t right, the rolls weren’t round. My back ached from standing, chopping, rolling for so long. I had no idea. It really is the most delicious food in the world.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Koreans love pork

There are a few things from my past that I am deeply embarrassed about. One is that as a teenager, long, long ago, when I didn’t know much about anything, I was a big fan of New Kids on the Block. The other is that also when I was a teenager, long, long ago, when I didn’t know much about anything, I spent most of my time eating out at TGI Friday’s. At least with my bad taste in music, there wasn’t much lost other than my dignity. But with my bad taste in food, while growing up in Seoul, Korea, I lost a thousand and one opportunities to eat a meal as delicious as the one I had last night.

Last night, my cousin Young and I went to 사월에보리밥 , or Sawhuleh Boleebap, which translates into something like “Barley Rice in April.” The fact that it has a name that sounds sissy in English is a hiccup of cultural translation; it doesn’t say anything about the food, which is as simple and assertive as the best Korean food has to offer.

Koreans love pork. We love it so much some people have convinced themselves it prevents hypertension and eliminates toxins. It’s true that 보쌈, bossam, one of the best manifestations of Korean pork, has a surprisingly clean flavor. It’s simply boiled, sliced pork, with nothing on it or under it or in it, not even salt. I think it also tastes purer than it deserves to because of the way we eat it. Like many Asian cuisines, Korean food values a contrasting balance of flavors and textures. If you’re eating a tender hunk of pork with glistening lumps of fat, you’re not supposed to douse it in gravy and eat it with potatoes. You’re supposed to place it in a crisp piece of napa cabbage or spry shiso leaf or even just a very fresh piece of red-leaf lettuce with a good piece of spicy bossam kimchi. Some people might even add a small piece of hot green pepper or raw garlic, or raw oysters dressed in spicy sauce, or just a bit of soy sauce to add some acidic saltiness. In any case, the raw, bright, fresh flavors in your mouth make that fatty pork taste almost as virtuous as salad. And it may even make your skin glossy!

While we ate our pile of pork, we also cleansed our systems with bowls of barley rice, into which we mixed various sautéed vegetables and red pepper sauce, a variation on the bibimbap many Americans know. I loved the nutty flavor of the barley, especially combined with the slightly bitter greens, the bean sprouts, and the chewy root vegetables.

And since Koreans rarely eat rice without soup or stew, there was also a very good bowl of hot 된장찌개, daenjang jjigae, a stew made from Korean fermented soybeans, filled with potatoes, squash, and cubes of firm tofu. Daenjang is a good example of a Korean food with the fifth flavor of umami, beyond salty, sour, sweet, and bitter, the unmistakable sense that a food tastes full.

We washed it all down with a comically large jug of 동동주, dongdongju, a creamy, sweet liquor made out of rice. My cousin, like the good Korean she is, had most of it.

I have so much lost time to make up for! I gained 10 pounds in Spain. I may just have to gain another ten here.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Home, Seoul

I’m home. I'm lucky I have two places to call home: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., and Seoul, Korea. Brooklyn has its obvious charms, particularly the absolute joy of living alone without one’s parents, but as I get older, being at home with my parents in Seoul has its own incomparable sense of comfort and ease. There’s the twin bed I slept in from the age of 9 through high school graduation, the little yard I used to run around with our dog, and most of all, the ugly, ornate, wood table on which I ate so many of my meals growing up.

Before I left New York, my mom called to see what I wanted to eat for my first meal when I arrived home. I knew if I gave her even the slightest encouragement, there would be an almost-obscene amount of food waiting for me. So I said to her over and over, I really can’t eat that much just getting off the plane, just a bowl of my favorite Korean soup will do.

It’s hard for me to describe what 배추국, or baechuguk, tastes like. How would your average American describe the taste of mac and cheese, of meatloaf? (Meatloaf, incidentally, remains one of the most bewildering food items to me.) It’s a fermented soybean soup, made from daenjang, which is a more aggressive, Korean version of the Japanese miso, with a beef broth-base, in which sliced Napa cabbage is simmered until it’s tender and delicious. That’s really it. You can throw in some minced garlic and green onions to add a bit more bite, but you don’t need much else. With a bowl of rice and a few small plates of banchan, maybe some spicy, chewy anchovies or black beans cooked in soy sauce and sugar, it is the perfect meal for someone who has been traveling for almost 24 hours.

I didn’t take a picture because I was too busy basking in the warmth of my mother’s love. But here are some pictures of a spicy 나물, namul, of greens dressed with garlic and sesame seeds, with fresh homemade 김치, kimchi, in the background.

And then there is my sister’s favorite food of all time, Korean braised short ribs with chestnuts, or 갈비찜. I ate all this for lunch the next day. I am lucky that my mother is who she is, and that I am her daughter.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Going home

You know that there is something not quite healthy about your life when you find yourself thinking, "I just cannot eat another bite of foie gras." Or when you eat 14 delicious razor clams by yourself and still don't really feel happy. I had some additional fabulous pintxos in San Sebastián before I left, including a pistachio croqueta with a buttery-smooth interior and an excellent crunchy exterior at Bar Garbola and an unbelievable special foie dish at Hidalgo 56, as well as their award-winning "volcan de morcilla" with crumbled blood sausage, a just warmed but still runny egg yolk and a smooth sauce made of apples. (Todo Pintxos is an amazing site, no? You can find an English version by clicking on the top right-hand corner.) But my very last day, instead of going to the famed Aloña Berri, I went to a classmate's apartment where she and her roommates served spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce. It tasted great, too.

So I think all this means it's time for me to go home, which is appropriate as I am going home today. In less than 12 hours, I will be in New York. I'm not really going back to real-life yet, as I will be in Seoul, Korea for most of December visiting my parents, and I hope to rectify the dearth of posts about Korean food on this blog while I'm there, but I doubt I'll be blogging with the fervor I've been for the past 6 months. This blog didn't start as a travel-food blog and so will continue life as it started even when I get back from Korea, but I can't imagine I'll be nearly so prolific.

So dear family, friends, friends' mothers, and a few random people who don't know me but have kindly read my blog, thank you for helping me feel like I have someone to talk to while traveling alone for so long.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Oh, the French (in Spain)

Like many people, I can only keep one foreign language in my head at once. At one point in my life, I knew quite a bit of French. I never did speak it gracefully or even well, and I never really could hear it properly with all those mushy syllables, but I understood it well enough to pass out of Yale’s undergraduate foreign language requirement. Now it has been completely crowded out by Spanish. (Korean, thankfully, is in a separate part of my brain.) This became particularly apparent when the nice young French family next to me at Zurriola Marítimo noticed I was taking pictures of my food and started to talk to me, asking if I spoke French. Although it literally took me a whole minute to remember how to say “trés bon,” the “un peu” French I do have enabled me to understand the husband’s very French assessment of food in Spain: “La cuisine française est la meilleure de Europe!” (French cuisine is the best in Europe!) So modest of him not to proclaim, “de tout le monde,” n’est-ce pas?

I also did not love the food at Zurriola Marítimo, although it was much better than it should be, given its spectacular view of the surf at Playa de Zurriola. Most restaurants with astonishing views tend to have terrible food, and it’s a testament to San Sebastian’s gastronomic standards that the food was good and reasonably priced, if not great. But I doubt the French homme thought what I did while eating my roasted oxtails: “It would be so much better in a hot Korean soup!”

The first course I ordered, a vichysoisse of leeks with a poached egg and poached bacalao was tasty, if not quite hot enough. (Is it because I’m Korean that I want my soup to be piping hot?) The soup was very smooth and clean-tasting, despite its rich creaminess, and the salt cod was as soft as butter, almost melting in my mouth. They need to be a little careful with the sea salt on the poached egg, though; I almost choked on a small pile of salty granules.

The second course was not as good, though there was nothing really wrong with it. The oxtails had been browned until they glistened, almost caramelized, and the meat still fell easily from the bone. They sat on a surprisingly light bed of soft, long-cooked potatoes and carrots, perhaps celery as well, and there were interesting tasty blobs of orange sauce that I couldn’t identify. The fried strips of green pepper were wonderful, so much sweeter than any green pepper I’ve ever had in the U.S. So perhaps it was me, not the oxtails. I couldn’t help but yearn for oxtails just simmered straight in a very hot beef broth, perhaps a handful of glass noodles, scads of chopped scallions, and a big pinch of sea salt…Korean oxtail soup! I also sat there pitying cultures that didn’t enjoy spicy, picante food, thinking how just a little bit of a spicy condiment, like Korean red pepper paste, would have enlivened the stew. So who am I to think the French are snobby about food?

Especially since the family was very nice. The maman directed her little boy to give me a bisou, or a kiss on the cheek, before they left. Qué cariñoso!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

More txangurro, please

I remember the first time I saw a crumb-catcher. You know, one of those thin, metal implements waiters use in fine restaurants to sweep away the crumbs at the end of the entrees and before the desserts and coffee are served. I was so wowed that someone would think of that detail and even invent an instrument for that purpose and that purpose alone. It made me feel special, because I was a person who shouldn’t have crumbs on her table as she ate her dessert.

In a way, I’m much more cynical and jaded now. I only consider one or two meals as having been absolutely perfect, from the perfectly cooked food to the perfect service, where everything was like magic. I’ve been around the crumb-catcher block. But I am proud to say that I am a woman who can still enjoy an imperfect meal and with gusto.

After my gluttonous meal almost killed me on Monday, I set Tuesday aside for the three-course menu del día at the Restaurante Kursaal, housed in the modern, glassy building of the same name on Playa de Zurriola. The restaurant is owned and managed by Martín Berasategui, one of the giants of Spanish nueva cocina, though it's clearly not his crown jewel. But for 18 Euros or so, we mere peons get to choose from a broad menu of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.

I was excited when my first course arrived, the “arroz cremoso con mejillones” or risotto with mussels. Sadly, it was inedible. The rice was cooked to just the right consistency, maintaining integrity in each grain while being creamy, but, oh and such a big but, there was too much salt. And I like salt. A lot. I was pretty sad, actually. I don’t like to get disappointed by legends.

And then my second course arrived, "txangurro a la donostia," or spider crab in the style of San Sebastian. There was the requisite foam, which I actually quite enjoyed because it was interesting to taste the unique flavor of parsley in a different form. But more impressively, the txangurro! It had been shredded and then cooked in a tomato sauce that was both interesting and comforting, a difficult balance to be sure. I loved it. Honestly, just to have someone pick out the meat for you is worth a small fortune. According to Mark's Kurlansky, “A Basque History of the World,” the Basques are the only ones to eat this tiny crab with its sweet but challenging meat, and I thank them for having discovered how delicious it is.

The dessert was another surprise, a cross between a bread-pudding and a tres leches cake, super soft and sweet in the middle, the sweetness saved only by the very distinct and sure flavor of burned sugar. It was full-on burned sugar, too, not the caramely top of crème brulee or crema catalana. I was impressed how the two flavors worked together, not just balancing each other out but almost aggressively pushing against each other. Yummy. The lemon ice cream was wonderful too, so creamy it was more like crème fraiche than lemon.

All in all, I was quite happy. It wasn’t a perfect meal, but neither am I.

(A tip: if you want to have every culinary choice available to you in San Sebastian, do not visit in November. It seems like half the restaurants and tapas bars here have gone on vacation and in the European-style, for three weeks to a whole month. I am anxiously awaiting the reopening of Aloña Berri tomorrow, but I’ve had to tell myself, “próxima vez” to La Cuchara de San Telmo, El Fuego Negro, and other celebrated dining establishments.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Death by the tasting menu

I’ve never had a tasting menu before. I’ve always understood it to mean a menu designed by the chef to show off his skills, providing a range of flavors in one meal. I never knew it meant death by gluttony, albeit a slow and pleasurable one.

I’ve finally woken up to the fact that I only have a few days left in Spain and even fewer left in San Sebastian. I’ve spent less money than I expected, and so it is time to spend my surplus! But the cheapo cynic in me still isn’t interested in spending 100+ Euros at Arzak, or even 55 Euros at Kokotxo. Another student at Lacunza, a retiree with enough money to spend at more expensive places, said one of his favorite meals was the 36-Euro menú de degustación at Casa Urbano. And so off I went.

On a Monday afternoon, Casa Urbano was quiet, just a few pairs dining in the calm, cream-colored restaurant. There was abstract art involving wood branches and cream-colored squares on the walls, nothing very interesting, but nothing very offensive either, and the waiters were very kind. Even if it isn’t a Michelin-starred restaurant, it declared itself still to be some place special, with white tablecloths, strong napkins, and even buckets of ice for white wine at each table. After all the inner strength I’ve mustered to enter bustling and noisy tapas bars solo, it was a breeze to sit down in that quiet restaurant by myself. I didn’t feel like everyone was having so much more fun than me. The middle-aged couple in front of me barely said a word to each other throughout their entire meal.

The menu was more intricate than I’d understood from reading it outside—you got to try all three appetizers listed, with the option of switching one out for the daily special; your choice of an entrée or two half-portions of two entrees; and then your choice of a dessert or two half-portions of two desserts, plus wine, bread, and bottled water. Of course I maximized my options, which meant I had seven plates set in front of me. So be warned, the following is very long.

But I’ll start with the wine, which was a choice between house white, house red, and txakoli, the very drinkable, slightly fizzy young Basque white wine. When I chose the txakoli, I was presented with the entire bottle, so it sat dangerously in front of me throughout the meal.

First came the pastel de esparragos y langostinos, a little soft mousse-like cake of pureed asparagus and shrimp, with a delicate little shrimp on top. It sat in a little sauce that was so good, I sopped it all up with my bread, little understanding what I had ahead of me. I loved that it was nouveau but still soft and comforting, though my first bite indicated that there was one big problem with the restaurant—prepped food isn’t properly being allowed to come to room temperature.

Then came the ensalada temporada de chipiron, a warm baby squid salad. I loved the crispy grilled legs and the olive oil generously dressing the squid in its own ink. But again, sadly, the potatoes were cold, though the olive on top was fantastic.

I swapped the third appetizer for the daily special, pimiento relleno con queso y anchoa, and was glad I did because it was my favorite of the three. The roasted red pepper encased a perfect cylinder of a firm, white cheese, but what made it special was something that I couldn’t quite place, that nagged and nagged me until I realized they had somehow caramelized an anchovy! It was the perfect combination of sweet and salty. I’m not clever enough to figure out what the white sauce underneath was, some sort of emulsion, but it was also good enough for me to eat the rest of my rather large roll. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end.

Ha! The “Gilda” de bonito fresco con refrito al vinagre de sidra, or a tapa of fresh tuna with delicious fried bits of garlic, little green peppers, and dried red peppers, in olive oil and Basque cider vinaigrette was not a “tapa” as described on the English menu. The “Gilda” refers to a famous San Sebastian pintxo of olives, pickled peppers and an anchovy, all skewered together and created in homage to the Rita Hayworth movie, “Gilda.” It’s supposed to be as surprisingly sexy. It was delicious, and the tuna was fantastic also, just seared so that the inside stayed a warm red. It sat in a literal bath of olive oil, but it didn’t overwhelm the simple, fresh flavor of the fish.

By the time my second entrée arrived, I was starting to feel ill. But I couldn’t stop; it was like I was in a trance. Besides, it was magret de pato al agridulce de frambuesa, or duck, one of my favorite meats in the world, in a raspberry sauce. I normally hate the words “raspberry sauce,” but the sauce here was delicate and tart, as well as sweet, and my aching stomach didn’t stop me from eating all of the butternut squash puree, too, which had a strong, tart apple flavor. I did leave one chunk of potato.

When the waiter came to take my dessert order, some part of me knew I had to stop, but the rest of me didn’t want to listen. At this point, I couldn’t plead ignorance of what this restaurant considered a “half-portion,” but I still ordered two desserts. The pantxineta crujiente “Gorrotxategi” was a flaky, crispy almond tart layered with a lovely rich cream. As if that weren’t enough, it was served with a scoop of nutty ice cream that I think was also almond-flavored.

Given how truly ill I was feeling at this point, I thought I should have some fruit: fruta asada de temporada con su subayon, or roasted seasonal fruit of pineapple, peach, and strawberries in subayon. Again, the fruit was a little too cold, but the “subayon” turned out to be a frothy, almost foamy (Spanish foam again!) tart sauce that must have had some milk or cream in it, because caramelizing the top had created a little skin. I wanted to die and I was drunk.

The waiter was surprised when I ordered my espresso before the second dessert arrived, saying, “But you’re still missing one dessert!” But I needed it immediately, some injection of caffeine and energy that would allow me to carry my bloated body back home and into my bed.

The really scary thing is that four hours later, I thought, hmm, I should buy some bread to eat for dinner with the duck pate in the fridge.

(If you’re wondering if you should subject yourself to this particular slow death the next time you’re in San Sebastian, I thought the coldness of the food really was a problem, with the insides of all the seared meats and even the roasted fruits being just too cold. I don’t want to sound like a restaurant critic, but a fine restaurant should not let that happen. That said, it was a lot of excruciating fun at a very good price, and if you don’t want to die eating seven courses, the a la carte menu is quite reasonably priced as well.)