korean food

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two of the most well-known elements of Korean food are kimchi (spicy fermented vegetables -- usually cabbage -- sometimes referred to as "Korean sauerkraut," which it is definitely NOT) and gochujang (red pepper paste). I don't like either of them.

I can tolerate kimchi only if it's cooked, like in dubu kimchi or cooked on the grill with samgyeopsal (fatty pork -- a bit like thick cut bacon). Dubu is Korean for tofu; dubu kimchi then is tofu with kimchi. Chunks of semi-firm tofu are arranged around the edges of a plate filled with cooked kimchi mixed with pork. (It can be ordered without pork, but many vegetarians have been misled. Koreans tend to eat tofu in addition to meat, not instead of it.) The tofu and kimchi mixture are eaten together, with different textures and tastes complimenting each other. The tofu tempers the spiciness of the kimchi, and the pork adds some extra flavor. This is usually considered "drinking food" as it goes very nicely with beer.

Gochujang manages to be both bland and spicy at the same time, and is, in my most humble opinion, a waste of taste buds. Thai and Mexican food are my favorite cuisines, so obviously I don't mind spicy, but I like it to have more flavor. Korean cooking tends to use gochujang in place of any other herbs or spices. Gochujang is mixed with meat, seafood, or vegetables, and is usually present in at least half the side dishes served with every meal. I don't like any of it.

With that said, there are plenty of Korean dishes I do enjoy.

Since I already introduced the topic of tofu, Sundubu is a tofu stew commonly found in our provice, Gangwon-do. Very soft tofu is cooked in a delicious broth with clams (still in the shell) and thin-sliced green onion. Of course, it's served with rice as is almost any soup here. The idea is that you scoop some rice up with your spoon, then dip into the broth before eating. (The picture is actually of sundubu jiggae. It's similar, but contains gochujang and, evidentally, a raw egg.)

My other favorite soup is galbitang, beef-rib soup. Chunks of rib meat, some still attached to the bone (and therefore awkward to eat), are cooked in broth with japchae noodles (thin, transparent sweet-potato noodles), thin-sliced green onion, and egg (reminiscent of egg-flower soup). This is the ultimate sniffle-busting meal for winter.

Galbi can actually refer to the rib meat of cows, pigs, or even horses, as we learned on Jeju Island (famous for its horse meat). When we go out for galbi, we almost always order pork, since it's half the price and twice (well, almost) as moist and tender. The meat is marinated and brought to the table piled on a platter. Galbi restaurants have grills built into the tables, so it's cooked right in front of you. The waitress usually gets it started and then the women at the table (if there are any) are supposed to keep an eye on it. (Very different from the States where men typically take over grilling duties.) Matthew usually takes over, and the waitresses invariably keep placing the tongs in front of me. The meat is cut into bite-size pieces, and typically eaten wrapped in lettuce or sesame (very tasty!) leaves with soybean paste and sliced garlic (raw or grilled). Galbi seems to be the most common favorite amongst foreigners, probably because it is just straight-up good (unless you don't eat meat).

Another non-vegetarian foreigner favorite is bulgogi, thinly sliced beef marinated in sweetened soy-sauce. At a restaurant near our very first apartment (which disappeared -- the restaurant, not the apartment -- during our absence), the meat was mixed with vegetables and served on a bed of rice. The sauce was a deliciously subtle combination of spicy and sweet. I hope to find another restaurant that makes bulgogi the same way, and hopefully delivers.

Mandu is Korean for dumpling, and refers to a variety of different types. Mandu is typically filled with meat, vegetables and chopped noodles. It can be served fried as an appetizer or in Manduguk (soup) which is similar to galbitang with the exception of the title ingredient. In both of those options, the dumpling part is pasta-like (as pictured). My absolute favorite is steamed mandu, which is more bread-like. There's a small restaurant across from the express bus terminal that serves mandu this way. I wish I could put into words how perfect these steamed mandu are. They are a little bit of culinary perfect, for only $2 for a plate of five dumplings. I'm not really sure what is in the bottles on the table, some type of oil, some vinegar perhaps, and a red-pepper powder that lends the perfect touch of spiciness. The mandu are dipped in a combination of these, which the bread soaks up wonderfully. The tragedy here is that the two times we've eaten there since we've been back, there were no mandu since the owner hurt his finger. He makes the mandu and his wife makes the gimbap...another foreigner favorite which actually comes with vegetarian options.

Gimbap is sometimes referred to as "Korean sushi," but it contains no raw ingredients. Normal gimbap contains thin slices of canned ham, perhaps crab, thinly sliced vegetables like carrot and pickled radish, surrounded by a layer of rice (bap), wrapped in dried seaweed (gim). My favorite variation is chamchi (tuna) gimbap, which usually has sesame leaves and mayonnaise in addition to the vegetables and tuna. (I prefer that it doesn't contain ham.) There's also cheju (cheese) gimbap, bulgogi (beef) gimbap, and even "nude" gimbap which lacks the gim. So it's not really GIMbap, now is it? You can buy gimbap from the refrigerator section of almost any grocery or convenience store, but you should not, unless you are starving. Gimbap should always (again, just me voicing my oh, so humble opinion) be eaten fresh, with most ingredients still at room temperature. (Please ignore the chunk of radish kimchi on the plate. I would not eat that.)

Pajeon, often described as green onion and squid pancake, is considered hiking food. It's also sometimes called Korean pizza. It's neither pancake nor pizza, although it is cooked in a round, flat shape. The batter is mostly egg, with some grated potatoes and the previously mentioned ingredients. It's usually pretty greasy, as it's cooked in a healthy amount of oil, which is probably why many people find it necessary to wash it down with soju (the evil Korean grain alcohol). I've had other variations, of which I don't know the names, since they were homemade. Our neighbor made some with kimchi (again, okay, because it's cooked and not overwhelming) substituted for the onion and squid. Two of my friends (one Korean, the other married to a Korean) make it with just potatoes and eggs (and probably some other ingredients that contribute to texture, but not really to taste). All variations are served with soy sauce for dipping, which nicely flavors the bland potato-egg base.

Finally, I come to hottoek ("ho talk"), a funny name for a wonderful, fattening, tooth-rotting treat. Unlike pajeon, hottoek could accurately be described as a pancake -- not as "pitta bread with sweet filling" as Lonely Planet would mislead you into thinking (crazy Brits can't even spell pita right!). Pitas are baked, this is FRIED, FRIED, FRIED on a griddle. The "sweet filling" part is correct, but that description does no justice to the mixture of brown sugar, honey, nuts, and cinnamon that melts in the middle. If you eat it while it's hot, the filling will inevitably drip down your arms, and you will lick it off, because it is that good. (On a windy day, you may end up wearing the filling as t-shirt decoration.) Because I am a crazy American (see, I'm an equal-opportunity insanity-labeler), I consider such a sugary concoction as breakfast food. I used to occasionally walk about half a mile (from our beach apartment) on weekend mornings to buy hottoek (3 for $1), and, yes, I could eat all three in one sitting.

Korean cuisine is very diverse, and I've tried only a small fraction of the traditional dishes. I know that I've skipped over many of the delicious dishes that I have tried, but I've already made myself hungry writing this much. I need to go find something to eat.

a few more thoughts about old people

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I forgot to mention in my previous post on this topic that old women often push their groceries and other packages around in stripped down baby strollers. The covers and padding are usually gone, leaving just the plastic frames. Matthew thinks they also function as a type of walker, since U.S.-style walkers would be much too slow for the grandmothers as they zip around.

I feel I should also mention that old people here are the group most likely to give up their seat on the bus for Liam & I. (The next most likely group are women in their 20s and 30s. Teenagers are the least likely, in their own little world with their headphones on most of the time.) I have declined ("Kontenio." That's okay.) when the seat is offered by a frail-looking old person. Come on, I don't need the seat THAT badly!

a head wound, a domestic disturbance and infernal itching

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

No, these things are not really connected. Maybe someday I'll write a story in which they are.

The head wound is actually part of the continuing (even though I said it was over) saga of Bossy Grandma. She struck again.

I met up with Min Jeong, my Korean mommy friend, at the playground one evening. I was sitting on a bench, feeding Liam a snack -- and therefore captive -- when Bossy Grandma sat down beside me. She had the nerve (THE NERVE!) to touch my belly and start telling me AGAIN that Liam is too young for me to be having another baby. She used her concerned face and everything. In English, I told her, "Yes, you've already told me that. And it's none of your business." I tried to ignore her after that, although the kids who were watching Liam eat his fruit leather kept translating for her.

Perhaps 10 or 15 minutes later, Liam started one of his favorite pastimes: jumping off a bench. His friend Jun Min quickly followed, and so did Little Chunk (grandson of Bossy). Liam probably made a dozen successful, unassisted jumps before his foot caught and he went down headfirst onto the gravelly sand. Of course, Bossy Grandma jumped on him before I could take the two steps between us. I had to practically push her off my child so that I could comfort him. I was cuddling him and heading for the nearest empty bench to assess the damage when Bossy Grandma started talking to me. Of course, I ignored her, but then one of the kids started saying "pee, pee," which means "rain" or "blood" in Korean, and pointing to Liam's head. At that point, I pulled him off my shoulder and looked at his head. Sure enough, there was a patch of bright red blood in his white-blond hair. I quickly said goodbye to Min Jeong, grabbed my bag, and headed up to the apartment with Liam, shooing away the future ambulance-chasers who tried to get a good look at Liam's head.

The conclusion of this story is that once I cleaned the blood up, the wound obviously wasn't very serious. We ran into Matthew's pediatrician friend the next day, who said it was just a "surface abrasion." He has a little scab that his hair mostly hides. I haven't run into Bossy Grandma since then, but I'm sure when I do, I'll get an earful about my poor child and why I shouldn't let him jump off benches. Oy vey.

The domestic disturbance occurred last night. Liam went to bed early and I was checking e-mail and otherwise wasting time, when I heard a man's angry voice. After a few minutes, a woman started yelling back. I realized it was our next door neighbors. The windows to the hallway were open, so I could hear (but not understand) every word they were saying. I wasn't trying to understand. Then their son (about three or four years old), started crying. I shut the windows. I find this incident worth writing about not because it's that unusual. The same thing could happen in any apartment complex in the U.S. But I didn't know what to do. In the U.S., I would either stick my head out the door and ask if everything is okay, or call the police, depending on the severity of the argument. Other than the raised voices and tone, I don't know how serious it was. I could ask if she's okay, but would I understand her reply? Is that socially acceptable here? I could call the police, but what would I say? Matthew took some fresh-baked cinnamon rolls over this evening and said the mom and son were home and seemed fine. (Hopefully they split the third cinnamon roll before the husband came home!)

And, finally, the infernal itching. Liam and I have about a brazillion mosquito bites each, including on our faces. They don't seem to bother Matthew much. He is either not as sweet as we are (very possible), doesn't visit the playground as often (but I'm positive we get most of the bites while we're sleeping) or drinks enough alcohol to keep them at bay. ("Move on! This one ain't tasty!") I cannot wait for a nice dry autumn. Death to all mosquitoes!

Photo documentation of my poor little man's bites:

And thus ends my whining. Until next time.
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