Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm with Alton

He wrote this a few months ago but I just discovered it and coincidentally have been discussing this topic briefly with a few people lately, so I thought I'd post it; as with learning languages or anything else (for a case in point, see Picasso's early work), a solid grounding in established techniques and the foundations of your discipline is essential if one wants to succeed in efforts at abstraction and experimentation.

Specifically with regard to molecular gastronomy: I'm all for experimenting with flavors, but at this point, when I'm hungry I would vastly prefer to tuck into something which looks like it's guaranteed to sustain me, as opposed to a few wispy pieces of intriguing but not-immediately-identifiable-as-food emphemera...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Titles

Here's a partial list of the library books I'm currently borrowing:

The Bread Bible
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen's latest novel)
6 Reasons You'll Get the Job
Mastering Knife Skills you see a theme? It's an honest question; I think people that know what I'm interested in will probably be able to identify one instantly.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

For my friend in Hualien, Taiwan (September 3, 2011)

On the way back from Qixingtan I was wandering around the open air fruit and veg stands on the outskirts of town, when you tooled up to me on your scooter with your oversized helmet and started engaging me in conversation. If you hadn't led me back into town I might've missed my train. At first I was a bit concerned and on guard because what sort of honest business does a 70something man have approaching a lone 20something female foreigner? But you took me back into town, near the station, and treated me to one of the best meals I had during my two weeks in Taiwan: tender pork intestines, simply boiled young octopus (what we called nakji in Korea), showered with slivers of fresh gingerroot and rings of green onion, and the famous local wontons, trailing skirts of wrapper in the fried garlic-sprinkled broth, and furthermore plump boiled dumplings (shuijiao) with flavorful, bright fillings. It's the kind of food that I love and treasure but that you saw as being "normal"; the highest compliment, if you could call it that, that you gave the place was that it was "reasonably priced." And we shared a large bottle of Taipi and chatted about your work in lumber and your time in Okinawa, our stream of Mandarin patter punctuated occasionally by isolated Japanese words. And I noticed your bracelet before you told me you were benshengren, probably (but still controversially) best translated as 'local Taiwanese,' and wonder whether you could trace your ancestry back to a particular tribe. When it was time for me to get back to the rental office and return my bike before heading south, you paid for our food and got on your scooter and I didn't notice you behind me until I was about to pay for the time I spent with the bike and in you walked and took care of it just like that, the most generous nameless friend I have ever met.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Quick Update

Can't believe I haven't blogged since July! Then again I can, because life has been just that full and interesting, to the point where online life has not been prioritized...I feel incredibly grateful that I have been able to travel to so many places over the past few months. I left Seoul in late August, traveled around Taiwan for two weeks on my own in September, then went to Minnesota for a couple weeks followed by a roadtrip through the Southwest back to California, where I've been since mid-October.

We have become a part of an amazing community and I have been spending lots of days having great conversations with vibrant people while starting to craft a life here.

Beef noodle soup in Dulan
There are a lot of other things brewing in my life right now, especially the life-changing career-related journey that I'm on, but I'm not exactly sure how I want to present it here yet, so for now I will leave you with a picture of one of the more delicious things I had the pleasure of consuming in Taiwan (and just trust that I will write again soon...)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fermentation Adventure, Day 2 Part 1: Saturday, June 18th

I don't know where the time goes...well, I do know that I struggle with writing sometimes, but I also have been quite busy lately. M. moved back to the U.S. last week and I started teaching an intensive class this week, so between work and life stuff I haven't had time to write...anyway so here's the first part of the second installment of my vendor story; I figured it would be better to just write something than nothing at all...

Saturday's breakfast
Saturday dawned with sunlight streaming in, lighting up the sticky floor in the living room next to where I was crashing. G. woke me up and started making strong coffee his way with instant grounds and milk - (I ended up having 2 or 3 cups that morning). We got going on our respective tasks, me peeling a small mountain of potatoes and him starting to bottle sauces until we realized about halfway into it that he'd mis-set his alarm and we had actually gotten up at 6, two hours before we were supposed to. This proved to be a good thing though because we ended up working up to the minute until 10:30 prepping and packing stuff - I boiled a bunch of quartered potatoes, let them cool and then weighed and packed them into plastic sacks. We loaded up our two ajumma carts with ingredients and cooking supplies - it took a bit of time to get everything strapped down and secured - and set off for the subway.

Fueled by a few cold croquettes eaten with yoghurt cheese, stopping periodically to re-secure the carts, stacked high with old water bottles filled with G's sodas at various points of gassiness, we made it to the subway. The soda bottles, as it turns out, required a bit of minding along the way. They started to bloat up and he told me before we got on the subway that we would need to release the pressure periodically - to prevent the possibility of a big explosion. I just sort of nodded and didn't think about it until we were sitting across from the subway, kind of chatting on and off, and he kind of reached down all of a sudden and twisted the cap and there was this big "pop!" that intruded into the subway car - and I was expecting some kind of chaos but the biggest reaction he got was the ajosshi next to him kind of curiously turning his head and then going back to his dozing. There's no way that would have flown in the States...afterwards, I told G. that he was really lucky we were doing this in Korea - they probably just passed us off as weird foreigners.

Things were going pretty well until we had to transfer lines. We were in a bit of a rush so didn't have time to find the elevator and had to navigate the escalators with our laden carts. The first time, going up, was easy - I just pulled it snug against the stair immediately behind me. It was going down that proved to be the problem. Things were going fine until about halfway down when I started to feel the wok pan handle catch on something and after that it was only a matter of seconds before there was chaos - the cart twisted out of my grasp, bottles started falling off, I lost my balance and went tumbling down the rest of the escalator to the shouts of the ajosshis and ajummas behind me - who were surprisingly civil about it - they just kind of hurried me and my stuff off the escalator to the right and then continued on their way. No one checked on me to see if I was alright but no one cursed me either - a mini miracle. I got away with a few scrapes and bruises on my legs and a tear in my skirt that I only discovered later. The stuff, surprisingly, was unharmed. It could have been much worse, but after that I told G., "no more elevators."

The rest of Day 2 soon I hope...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fermentation Vendor Adventure, Day 1: Friday, June 17

You may recall my mention of the first Fermentation Celebration here a while back. True to the name, it's basically a celebration of all things fermented: cheese, beer, kombucha, and of course kimchi and makgeolli, since this is Korea after all. After the first one I mused about how I could get involved, at some point in the distant, unspecified future.

A few weeks ago, my friend G. told me that he had signed up to be a vendor at Fermentation 2 on June 18, and approached me about possibly helping him on the day of the festival: pouring samples of his ginger beer, chatting with customers, et cetera. Since I'd had the privilege of sampling his very tasty beer not too long before during a Sunday hike and wanted to support him, I said sure, thinking I'd just show up the day of, get some free beer at the after party, you know, nothing too demanding. A good way to ease into it and start thinking about getting more involved in the next event.

Little did I know what adventure was in store for me...

About a week before the festival, G. called me up and told me that he'd had some trouble getting his festival stuff worked out – problems with suppliers, et cetera - and wondered if I could help him with Plan B. At this point, he'd decided to go with Plan B and make fermented ketchup. His plan was simple: I could make french fries to go with the ketchup. We'd have to make enough for 300 samples. He'd already ordered 10 kilograms of potatoes, set to arrive later in the week. I said okay, what kind of potatoes did you order? He said the little round ones.

“G., you can't make fries out of new potatoes; they're not starchy enough.” At this point, my cook's brain kicked into high gear. “We could do mini latkes topped with your yoghurt, or...croquettes! Little croquettes!”

G. was wary. “Well, you know, we just need to make sure they don't overshadow the ketchup. I want something complimentary. That's why french fries seemed good. Are you sure that they won't make good fries?”

I told him I would look into it, hung up the phone and went about researching potato types, which confirmed my hunch: new potatoes do not a delicious French fry make. Then I researched other options: Potato chips were too labor intensive, latkes similarly so, and home fries would most likely turn into a visually unappealing brown mush (and would take about 20 minutes per batch). Overall, croquettes seemed like the best option. I thought we could boil and even mash the potatoes ahead of time, bring them to the venue, and roll and fry the croquettes fresh there. Would just need to buy some eggs and breadcrumbs, and maybe a few things for add-ins, like chives (a.k.a. buchu). I had experience from my bento days; I was ready.

Problem was that this hit right during finals week, and though I wasn't teaching, I had a lot of work to do. I told G. I might be able to come up on Friday to his place (way up on Line 1, at least an hour's journey on the subway from my place) to help prep for Saturday's event. Meanwhile I had 46 writing exams and 46 reading exams to grade, plus individual student conferences and other work-related odds and ends. By the time Friday came I hadn't had any time to go shopping for supplies or do anything aside from my initial research. G. suggested that I come up on Friday night so that we could do a test batch of the croquettes and start some prep work. I found a recipe that we could tweak, and after an end of the year pizza party with my students, headed up to his place Friday evening around 7:30.

After getting stuck at a station partway because the train I got on didn't go all the way through to his station, I met up with him shortly after 9. The area around the station was not what I expected. Since it's near an army base (the closest to North Korea, apparently), there are lots of white foreigners around, and the area was hopping with shops and restaurants. We picked up some kimchi wang mandu for my dinner and headed back to G.'s place, where he had abandoned some homemade mayonnaise in the middle of emulsifying.

The next few hours progressed in fits and starts, with me peeling and preparing several pounds of potatoes and starting to despair that I would never make my way through 10 kilos in time, to us going to the Lotte Super to stock up on last minute supplies, stuffing two filled-to-the-brim carts in the trunk of a taxi (much to the driver's amusement) and heading back to G.'s house with Iggy Pop's Lust for Life on the car stereo.

Around 12:30 or 1 in the morning, I finally cranked out a test batch of croquettes, and we had what G. termed a 'tasting.' He, his wife and I tried them with his ketchup (me crossing my fingers that the chives wouldn't be too strong). The tasting was a success – they were tasty and complimented rather than overshadowed the (delicious and distinctive) ketchup - though we agreed that they were a bit heavy. Then we went back and forth about whether to try some kind of fry, but an experiment with one sliced potato proved me right again – new potatoes just don't work for frying. So it was back to croquettes. By 3 a.m. I had decided to make as many mini croquettes as possible and boil the potatoes in the morning. G. said that he'd get me up around 8am. I fell asleep in the living room listening to their rabbits rustling on the porch.

Day 2 soon...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Seoul Cooking: Breakfast Pasta

I have to give credit to my friend G. for this idea (whom I spent basically 24 hours with this past Friday and Saturday - more later...). He said that his father used to make it for breakfast when he was growing up. It's basically spaghetti with scrambled eggs. I made it for our brunch Sunday morning.

My take on it involved leftover eggplant and cherry tomato pasta sauce topped with curds of softly scrambled eggs and a drizzle of "plain" yogurt (the plain in quotations because this is Korea and so it's on the sweet side of plain). M. scrambled the eggs and they were nice and pillowy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Best Mul Naeng Myeon (and it's right in our neighborhood)

Procrastinating grading exams to post about a newish restaurant discovery right in our neighborhood...

Summer in Seoul means naengmyeon 냉면 - cold noodles. My first actual meal after moving here in late August 2009 was mul naengmyeon 물냉면 - buckwheat noodles in an icy broth (usually with big chunks of ice floating in it). It's a bit vinegary, fairly mild, and I love the accompaniments of sliced bae (a.k.a. Asian pear), slivers of cucumber, and egg. The yolk mixes in the broth and creamifies it; on the whole, a refreshing and delicious light summer meal.

A few weeks ago our friend A. took M. to a naengmyeon place very close to our apartment building, around Daeheung station, and he came home raving about it. So last Friday we went for dinner. The restaurant, called 을밀대 (Eul Mil Dae), is located on a quiet street behind the Mapo Art Center, and advertises Pyeongyang style naengmyeon. It's a very popular place with lines out the door on hot afternoons and Japanese reviews posted on the walls, and has spilled into another smaller space next door. As soon as we sat down we were served a silver teapot filled with warm yuksu (meat broth) which we poured into water cups and drank as a kind of savory aperitif, and a dish of thick pink pickled mu (Korean radish) ribbons, which also came with the noodles.

Decadence in a teapot
Bowl of perfection
A good bowl of mul naengmyeon is all about how the elements work together. The yuksu was rich and meaty, reminiscent of pho broth (but not as herby), which provided a great backbone for the dish. The noodles themselves had a sort of subtle bumpy texture and a slight fishy flavor (which I've found with buckwheat before). The suyuk, or brisket, that came atop was a bit dry but very flavorful. Usually when I get mul naengmyeon there are squeeze bottles of white vinegar and yellow mustard on the table for adding to your broth, but here instead we got a dish of coarse ground mustard that reminded me of the heady horseradishy shoots-up-your-nose Chinese mustard that Grandpa used to serve with his eggrolls at the restaurant.

Verdict: It was the most expensive mul naengmyeon I've ever eaten (at 9,000 won a bowl), but also the most delicious - in a class apart from anything I'd tasted before - and more filling than normal (probably because of the substantial noodles). Wish we'd found the place sooner! It made me want to seek out other mul naengmyeon places in the same category.

Okay, and now for those exams...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Things I'll miss: The chicken truck

Samgyupsal 10,000 won; Chickens 6,000 won each

These chicken trucks are always a welcome sight on street corners (even though, to be honest, I rarely patronize them). I just enjoy the idea of these portable rotisserie trucks bouncing around the city, and the glowing display of rotating carcasses grounds me where I am.

However, the trucks can be elusive. For our first Thanksgiving here, we had to resort to fried chicken (with homemade gravy) when our plans to procure a few were foiled when we couldn't track down the one that normally parks by our house. 

When you do sit down to a meal of one of these, it can be pretty satisfying, and if you pick up some ready made banchan at your local supermarket or whip up your own at home, you can make a meal of it. The chickens are typically stuffed with a tasty mixture of sticky rice, chestnuts, daechu (like red dates), and ginseng; not unlike the samgyetang chickens.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

43 Thailand #10: Jok

fleecy noodle-y delicious
I continue to slowly work my way through 43 travel stories about our time in Thailand and Malaysia this past winter...
The other night, M. and I watched the Cook's Tour episode about Thailand from the second season (the last one before he switched to the Travel channel and started No Reservations). Anthony Bourdain's in Chiang Mai looking for breakfast, and goes to a jok restaurant, calling it "jog." As he tucks in, he muses about what it's made out of - I think he guessed farina? - and narrates his discovery of a "foreign" breakfast that ends up being delicious.
It struck me as funny that something so foreign to him would be so familiar to me when visiting Thailand. I grew up eating the stuff - the Chinese version - my favorite was with hundred year old eggs. Living in Korea I've tried the sweet versions, like pumpkin, that I had never had before (jook was always savory growing up). For me, encountering jok in Thailand was like how finding McDonald's in Asia is for many Americans - something reliable and familiar.

On my first trip there I had a version with organ meats. The version pictured, which we had with A. in Chiang Mai, is pretty classic Thai in my experience: fleecy fairly thin rice porridge with a lightly poached egg, still runny, some green onions and - my favorite part - steamed pork meatballs. It also comes with little crisp-fried rice noodles sprinkled on top, and you can add fish sauce or chiles if you like.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I typically don't write about anything other than food and cooking and language-related stuff on this blog, so this is a bit of a departure for me.

Since March, I've been teaching three classes of the first semester of academic reading and writing, 46 students in total. In addition, I was also taking Korean language classes in the evening until a couple weeks ago. It's been a really busy semester, full of ups and downs, but I'm definitely going to miss my students.

One of the best ways I've gotten to know them over the course of this semester is through reading their journals. Every week, they were required to freewrite for 30 minutes (though I don't think very many of them followed the time guideline...) about what was going on in their life, on any topic. Through this assignment I got tips on restaurants and places to hang out and got to know more about student life - like what really happens on an M.T. (membership training). Most importantly, it gave them a chance to practice freely expressing themselves in English. It's my first time trying this and I've been pleased with the results; plus the students have given me some positive feedback.

As the semester wound down and their assignments and exam preparation started piling up, I made the journals optional. The dwindling pile is a reminder of what I'm going to miss about teaching and living here.

Which brings me to the big change that's happening at the end of this summer for me (next month for M.) - after nearly two years here, we're moving back to the U.S. - and I'm going to start telling my students today.

Reflecting on this has got me thinking about how little of our life here has ended up on this blog. In particular, I was going through my blog posts this morning, trying to organize them, and was struck by the lack of restaurant reviews. Eating in restaurants has been one of the most enjoyable parts of living here. There's also much less about Korean food on here than I would like. So I guess this post is a bit of a public commitment to blogging more this summer, in a last-ditch effort to record all the things I've enjoyed about living here. Plus there's my 43 travel stories to catch up on...

On the subject of another transition, we put up some maesil ju (매실주) -plum wine- the other day. Big displays of bottles of soju, alcohol, sugar, and green plums are a ubiquitous presence at E-Mart and other grocery stores around this time of year, when spring is thickening into summer. A few days ago I saw the plums while shopping and decided on impulse to go for it, since it'll be our last chance to do it in Korea in the foreseeable future. It was pretty easy - just weigh, clean, de-stem, and dry the plums, then layer in a sterilized jar and first add the sugar and then the soju, basically how you would make an infusion, like limoncello. It should be ready to sample in about a month (right around the time M. will be leaving Korea), though you can leave it for a year or more.

As it turns out, we had a lot of plums leftover after that first batch, so we put up another smaller one a few days later and used the rest to make some tart plum jam, which turned out
really well: just plums, boiled with water and sugar and some ginger root sliced into small matchsticks until it reduced to the consistency of apple butter.

Wellbeing Mushroom Bibimbap

As seen in a convenience store a few days ago..."wellbeing" (웰빙) is Konglish for health food, or at least, things that are supposed to be good for you.

I like the color scheme and the cheeky little army guy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Daelim: A Photo Essay

Well, midterms have come and gone, and as usual I have a backlog of things to write about. Here's one for starters...

A few weeks ago, on Easter, M. and I, along with a friend, went to one of our favorite areas in Seoul, Daelim, for some Northeastern Chinese food and a sunny Sunday afternoon stroll.

The area around Daelim station, on Line 2, is known as a Korean Chinese area, where many Joseon-jok, or Chinese-born Koreans, live. There's fresh and cheap produce, including cilantro (a relatively rare find here), numerous dumpling and noodle shops, dog hot pot restaurants and grocery stores selling everything from spices to dried noodles to baijiu (a.k.a. Chinese "white lightning") if you want it. I typically go there to get cilantro, plump shallots, and ginger root, and get another bottle of my favorite Chinese black vinegar when I run out (it's great stir-fried with eggplant).

Though I plan to write more about this in the near future, for my first post about Daelim I thought I'd let the pictures speak for themselves.

Promoting an international dialing code from Korea to China

Selling jewelry on the street in front of a sign for a 24-hour hot pot restaurant

Stir-fried lamb with two kinds of chiles

Beef soup noodles

Plump boiled dumplings (shui jiao 水饺) stuffed with ground pork and celery

Mixing alcohol

Produce and pickles on display outside a small shop (I bought shallots and garlic here)

Selling baozi 包子

Baijiu 白酒 on display in a shop

Mixed script sign advertising "Hometown dog meat hot pot"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Spice of Life

These days I'm not reading much of anything except my students' writing, but the other day I read something in the New York Times that M. had told me about - Food Raves Gain in Popularity. It reminded me of how much I loved running my own "food club" back in 2009...and how different things seem to be here in Korea compared to the U.S. I doubt that very many of the food carts that I have eaten at here (or in Thailand or Malaysia for that matter) would be able to afford the legal fees, and I know they're meant to protect the consumer, but as far as I know I have never gotten sick from eating at any of them (I did get some kind of food poisoning here two times last year, but I'm pretty sure it was from "recycled" banchan at a Korean diner, and undercooked chicken at a different restaurant).

Diversity in food offerings on the street is something that I think could improve in the U.S. for sure, and loosening the restrictions/curbing the fees would help. D.C., where I lived for nearly three years, is one of the worst - stand upon stand of dirty water dogs, egg rolls and pretzels on the Mall (the bulgogi cart at 14th and L provided some relief from the monotony, but it was kind of off the beaten path for anyone other than people who worked around there. There was also a small Salvadorean collection of food stalls in Mount Pleasant that was open on weekends). In contrast, before traveling to Thailand last December I came across this guy in my (food) research who was able to eat out at a different food stall for (roughly) three meals a day for a month - while losing weight and saving money on his electricity bill - as of March he was going to do it again (By the way, I've plugged his site before - if you're headed to Thailand it's a great resource for learning "menu Thai" - he's got some quizzes on there).

Though I've got so many things I want to write about on here (got quite the backlog), after reading this article I'm adding one more thing - Korean street food. With the exception of toast and sweet potatoes, I haven't really written a lot about the offerings here. As a preview and a way to commit to this, here's what I can dash off, and if anyone reading is curious about a particular thing I'll get to that first:

*hotteok - tastes kind of like a Korean cinnamon roll (but it's flat) -I've seen other varieties too that contain japchae or a mixture of sweet potato and Korean pumpkin
*sundae - not what you'd think; it's Korean blood sausage
*tteokbokki Rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce - an ubiquitous Korean street food - my visiting relative referred to it as "Korean Chef Boyardee" - don't know if that appeals to you or not but I can see where he's coming from...

*sausage skewers - I actually don't know what they call these in Korean but they're one of my favorites
*beondegi - I don't eat it (if you click on the link you might see why) but I would blog about it...
*hot dogs
*chicken cups - fried chicken nuggets layered with tater tots and ddeok (rice cakes) and topped with a spicy-sweet sauce
*moroccan sandwiches - an Itaewon specialty

(and I'll stop there for now...)

43 Thailand #9: Runny Eggs

Fried egg over easy with curries
at a rest stop on our way to Loei
With Easter around the corner, here I am writing about eggs that I ate in Thailand four months ago...

I love runny eggs, a newish development. Growing up I always insisted on "medium hard" (though I enjoyed everything from liver and onions to kimchi and was an adventurous eater compared to my peers, I was still kind of a finicky kid in some ways). Hard boiled was too dry and crumbly, but, without getting too macabre about it, the runny-ness just felt...wrong.

I don't know when my conversion happened exactly. It might have been while traveling in Japan, mixing natto with a raw egg yolk and eating it over hot rice for breakfast. But however it happened, now I only like my eggs drippy, otherwise they're not worth eating. M's the same way. The yolk basically becomes a condiment for whatever you pair it with.

Soft boiled eggs eaten with
End of the World Chicken
From my experiences, Thai cooks "get" the egg thing, whether soft boiled and served with End of the World Chicken, or, M's favorite, fried over easy and served over gai pad kapao (Thai basil chicken) and rice - he says he could eat this every day. His favorite was the takeout order that T. picked up for us in Chiang Mai to sustain us on our overnight bus to Khon Kaen (Unfortunately I was sick with some kind of food poisoning/stomach bug so couldn't enjoy it, but at least M. was able to...). It's a great combination that I'd like to try at home one of these days, when I get around to making my own: The creaminess of the yolk curbs the chile bite in the kapao.

(No chicken-egg jokes, please... )

Saturday, March 26, 2011

43 Thailand #8: End of the World Chicken

I love eating at places like this!
The spread
Nam prik noon and cabbage
On our second night in Chiang Mai, A. and T. told us that we were going to a place that served something T. and his friend had dubbed "End of the World Chicken" because it was the last thing they would want to eat if the world was ending. A place known mostly to locals, it was packed, with a line out the door (so to speak, since the whole place was open to the street) when we arrived around midnight.

After a short wait, our midnight snack arrived: A half order of pieces of fried chicken and innards and a half order of fried pork, served with sticky rice, a dank nam prick noon (chile paste) redolent of chile char and fermented fishy essence, strips of pickled cabbage, and soft boiled eggs oozing dark orange yolk. M. was particularly fond of the nam prick noon. My favorite part was dipping neatly rolled marbles of sticky rice into the drippy yolk, followed by a bite of salty, crispy chicken.

I probably would have forgotten it was Christmas Day if it wasn't for the guys in Santa hats sitting at a nearby table.

43 Thailand #7: Sukiyaki

Think there's enough scallions?
Lately, I've been thinking about Japan a lot. Originally, we were thinking about sending clothes and food, but as Maki of Just Bento and Just Hungry, one of my favorite bloggers (she's responsible for getting me into bentoing) points out in a recent post, given all the current transportation difficulties, the surest way to make sure you're helping from overseas is to send money. In her post she recommends organizations that you can donate to.

And that's a segueway to my next travel post from our trip to Thailand (getting back to my 43 travel stories).

Japanese food is pretty popular in Thailand: from sushi to sukiyaki, a hearty soup of sliced beef simmered together with vegetables and noodles in a hot pot and eaten family style. On both of my trips there I've eaten the latter with my friends A. and T., though the Thai versions I've had bore a closer resemblance to Chinese hotpot or Japanese shabu shabu, with your own individual dipping sauce and quick cooking vegetables, meat, and other ingredients that you add at different times.

However, I had never encountered a dish like the one pictured, also called sukiyaki. A. ordered it on our second night in Chiang Mai. The basic elements were thin noodles and scallions, stir-fried with egg in a sweetish sauce. Though the dish itself wasn't particularly memorable (I preferred my lad na), the name intrigued both me and M., though our friends were at a loss to explain where the name came from when we asked.

It's interesting to see how the use of an imported word develops and evolves over time (in a particular culture (case in point, mandu). I wonder how common the fried noodle dish called sukiyaki is in Thailand?

Monday, March 7, 2011

43 Thailand #6: Lad Na

On our second night in Chiang Mai, after visiting A's aunt, we went to a brightly lit cafe for dinner. M. ordered Penang curry, A. got something called Sukiyaki, and, for nostalgia's sake, I got Lad Na Moo.

My dad has been cooking Thai food since before I was born, and his dishes were a regular part of meals at home while I was growing up. For what it's worth, his Thai food remains the standard by which I judge other Thai food, and some of his versions are still my favorites. Even today when I go home for a visit I always request at least one Thai dish from Dad.

There were several dishes that were part of the regular rotation at our house: Pad thai, Larb (my favorite, especially with fresh green beans from the garden), various kinds of Tom Yum soups, Kao Pad (Thai fried rice), and a noodle dish called Guay Teow Lad Na, which I didn't really care for all that much as a kid. It was made with wider rice noodles than pad thai, in a sticky brown sauce with sliced pork and gai lan (Chinese broccoli). At the table he'd serve the finished dish with a jar of his vinegar peppers. The resulting combination of textures and flavors didn't really appeal to me. The vinegar was too pungent, the sticky sweetness not to my liking at all (I was the weird kid who would forgo dessert in favor of a second helping of peas).

However, as I got older and my palate expanded, I started to appreciate Lad Na more: the deep flavor and sticky texture of dark soy sauce, the contrast of crunchy vinegar peppers and chewy noodles, and the savory bits of slightly charred gai lan. Though I like it more now, I don't eat it very often, as it is not as common as other Thai dishes on menus outside of Thailand.

The Lad Na that I ordered in Chiang Mai was not dark brown like Dad's but in a much lighter gravy, with more of it (in Dad's version the sauce is much thicker and clings to the noodles more) and made with sen yai (thick rice noodles). It could be that this was a regional variant. However, with its contrast of chewy noodles, vinegar and crunch from the added peppers, gai lan and garlicky sauce, it evoked meals long past, and I might as well have been sitting at our kitchen table in Minnesota with the sun slanting through the atrium, eating dinner with my family. When you're living abroad and family times are few and far between, those moments count for a lot.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

43 Thailand #5: Mieng Kham

 Mieng Kham kits for sale in the Warorot market in Chiang Mai
10 baht (approx 30 cents) each
Getting back to my 43 stories from Thailand and Malaysia...

I first encountered this vibrant little snack at a temple market on my first trip to Thailand over eight years ago. Mieng means "many" and kham means "one bite."  It's a little betel leaf packet containing bits of dried shrimp, fresh lime, roasted peanuts, a teeny cube of ginger, toasted coconut, and shallot, with a spicy tangy sauce. Sweet, salty, sour, savory, crunchy - all the elements combine to create something bright and vibrant, greater than the sum of its parts, and really refreshing. It was a bit hard for me to find places to get it once I got back to the U.S., so I'd only had it once (at my dad's friend's restaurant) and it was on my must-eats list on my December trip.

While browsing Chiang Mai's Warorot market with my friend A., I found a stall selling mieng kham kits. We bought a few of these packets to take to A.'s aunt's house, where we sat next to her fish pond (getting bit by not a few mosquitoes in the process) and drank bright blue butterfly pea tea. The taste was just as I remembered, and M. really enjoyed them, too. If you're curious and want to try making them at home, here's a recipe.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Seoul Cooking: Salteñas Cakes

I created this recipe a few hours ago, and it turned out so well I had to post about it.

This came about because I wanted to make something nice for Sunday brunch at home without having to go to the store first. We've been eating out a decent amount recently so there wasn't much to build on. M. reminded me about a bag of sweet potatoes that we needed to use. With that, I decided to make a kind of potato cake using twigim flour. While I was cooking the cakes I thought about what to pair them with, since we didn't have any sour cream or plain yogurt, my usual potato cake accompaniment. We had all kinds of hot sauce to shower them with, but that alone seemed kind of boring. Suddenly, I remembered the two hard boiled eggs we had sitting in the fridge. Combined with raisins and chopped green olives, it became a salteñas-inspired topping for the sweet potato cakes, an homage to Julia's. Eating them was a bit like eating a deconstructed empanada.

Hard boiled eggs, olives, raisins - somehow, it works
Salteñas Cakes
Serves 2 for a hearty brunch

For the salteñas topping:
 *2 hard boiled eggs, chopped into bite-sized pieces
*10-12 green olives, chopped
*a small handful of raisins
*dash of freshly ground black pepper

For the cakes:
*3 small sweet potatoes, peeled and shredded
*Half a thinly sliced onion
*Twigim flour (seasoned flour for deep frying; substitute all-purpose flour with a bit of garlic powder and salt)
*1 teaspoon chili powder

Whisk the flour and chili powder with water until you get a thin batter (I didn't measure; pancake batter consistency or maybe a bit thinner). When the batter is smooth and lump-free, mix in the sweet potatoes and onion.

Beautifully browned cakes
Meanwhile, heat up a large skillet over medium heat. Add a bit of oil (or butter for something more decadent) to the pan; when the oil's hot, add dollops of the sweet potato mixture and spread them out thin, pressing them out (a measuring cup with a flat bottom works great for this). Cook the cakes on one side until they start to brown a bit, then flip and cook the other side, pressing to thin them out evenly. Continue flipping, cooking, and pressing until they are thin and crispy and the sweet potato and onion are cooked through. Remove to a serving plate and continue until you've used up the rest of the mixture. To serve, spoon a bit of salteñas topping onto the center of one cake,  add a bit of hot sauce, fold in half and enjoy. If you have some, yogurt or sour cream would be great with these too.

The Mystery of 'Mandu'

Note: This is an expanded and revised version of a post from January 2010.

I am a big fan of dumplings and other foods that come in small packages. Whether they're called pierogies, pelmeni, or potstickers, manti or empanadas, I can't imagine a more satisfying snack. Savory, sweet, served with or without sauce, deep fried, steamed, baked or boiled – I love them all. At home I enjoy making my own homemade potstickers and ravioli, and when I travel, I seek out the local varieties in street stalls and snack shops. While traveling and living in various parts of East Asia, I've enjoyed discovering dumplings in all their glorious incarnations.

Steamers at Gui Il Mandu in Sinchon
At many dumpling stalls and restaurants across the region you can see the dumplings displayed out front (usually steaming in towers of stacked baskets) and thus have an idea of what you will be ordering. That is not always the case, however, and there are many different varieties, all called by different names. When I lived in China, I became accustomed to how dumplings and their brethren were classified. Basically, there were two types of dumpling-esque foods: those made with a thin wrapper of water and flour, which I will refer to as 'thin wrapper type' and those made with a yeast-risen dough similar to bread, henceforth known as 'bread type.' If I encountered a menu item with the character jiao (餃),  I knew to expect a thin wrapper type dumpling crimped into a half-moon shape. On the other hand, if I saw a street vendor uncovering a basket crowded with round steamed breadlike buns containing a sweet  or savory filling, I knew to order baozi(飽子)and when they did not contain a filling, mantou(饅頭).

Chinese dumplings are also distinguishable by cooking method. Ordering shui jiao (水餃) produced something that was exactly as their Chinese characters predicted: “water” (水)+ “dumpling” (餃 )= boiled dumplings. If I saw guotie (鍋貼) on the menu, I knew to expect a steam-fried dumpling, crisp and golden on the pot side, pale and slightly chewy on the reverse, what we call a “potsticker” in English. Furthermore, anything labeled baozi would be either steamed or baked.

With so many different fillings to choose from, I never got bored. They ranged from the sweet: red or yellow bean paste, or my favorite, black sesame paste; to the savory: anything from Chinese chives and egg, to thin sweet potato noodles with spiced eggplant, to ground pork and cabbage, to the “three freshnesses” (sanxian 三鮮) of shrimp, egg, and pork. If I ordered dumplings in a restaurant, the filling would be included in the name on the menu, but  on the street I typically had to ask what a particular item contained.  Although the exact nature of many Chinese dishes were obscured by poetic names (once, judging from the name of the dish, what I thought to be bamboo shoots turned out to be a plate of steamed intestines), dumplings were one thing I could count on to be transparently named.

I later encountered a similar situation while traveling in Japan. There, I found gyoza, thin wrapper type dumplings, and manju, bread type buns. Furthermore, they were named differently according to the cooking method. If I ordered yaki gyoza (焼き餃子) I got steam-fried dumplings, lined belly-up displaying a golden layer of fried dough where they stuck to the pan. Asking for sui gyoza (水餃子) produced boiled crescent-shaped dumplings, whereas nikuman (肉まん) got me meat-filled steamed buns reminiscent of Chinese baozi.

After moving to Korea in 2009, armed with the knowledge that mandu (만두) meant "dumpling," I anticipated that soon the Korean classification of dumplings would become clear.

Oops, never mind...

Many tasty mandu meals and snacks later, and having added to my glossary of specific mandu types, I am still puzzled about how one can predict the type of mandu one will get. Mandu came to Korea via China centuries ago, during the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, and at that time there seems to have been a connection between mandu, a Sino-Korean word, and the Chinese word mantou, where mantou might have originally meant a jiaozi-type dumpling. However, the uses of the words in both countries have since diverged: While mandu now refers to a variety of dumplings in Korean, mantou simply refers to plain steamed bread in Chinese. On a recent trip to Hyundai department store's food hall, I discovered three different items, all called mandu. One was a flat panfried crescent similar to gyoza, another resembled a steamed jiaozi, and the third looked like a large baozi.

While I will eagerly eat any mandu offered to me, a lack of a clear classification system makes it difficult to discuss mandu matters, and sometimes leads to disappointment when ordering. Here's my attempt to sort through the chaos: by examining the factors of wrapper type, cooking method, shape, and filling.

Wrapper type
Out of all the factors, this seems the murkiest. Here in Seoul at least, simply listing mandu on a menu might refer to either a thin wrapper type or bread type dumpling. Two examples from the area around Sinchon station exit 6 will illustrate this point. Gui Il Mandu (귀일만두) offers kimchi mandu that are the thin wrapper type. However, the petite, round kimchi mandu at Rotary Bunsik (로타리분식) are bread type. So far, I have found only one exception to this confusion: the poja (포자, baozi) offered at Hyundai department store's food hall, which delivers on what it promises, a steamed bread bun with filling.

Cooking method
Gun mandu
It would be really helpful if Korean mandu were consistently labeled by their cooking method, like in China and Japan. This happens sometimes, but more often than not simply mandu is used. However, it's useful to know these words for when they do turn up on menus. Jin (진) means “steamed,” so jin mandu (진만두) indicates a steamed dumpling (whether it will be a thin wrapper type or bread type is a different story). There are many different terms that can be used for fried mandu: some places use gun (군), “fried,” while others mix Japanese and Korean, calling them yaki mandu (야끼만두) or use another Korean word for fried,  twigim mandu (튀김만두).  Additionally, there's mul mandu (물만두), “water” mandu, boiled dumplings.

This said, what I've found is that if you encounter the simple term mandu on a menu it tends to be steamed (if the stacked metal or bamboo baskets outside didn't already tell you that). Furthermore, there is one item in my experience that is always predictable – jjinppang (찐빵) always refers to the steamed bread type, like Chinese baozi or mantou or Japanese manju, and either contains a filling or is plain.

Homemade gochu mandu
Mandu also come in different shapes: in half-moons (flat or bulgy), in balls with pinched tops, or folded like tortellini, with a round of filling in the middle and a seal on one end. The half-moon shape tends to be the most common, at least here in Seoul, but there are plenty of round ones too, usually with pinched tops, like the gochu (고추 hot green pepper) mandu at Myongin Mandu (명인만두), a chain with branches around the city. These cute baby mandu (which, incidentally, are steamed thin wrapper type) look a bit like little pointed hats.

There are also mandu of different sizes. While Myongin Mandu's gochu mandu are bite-sized, and an order of 12 or so serves nicely as a light snack, you can easily make a meal out of several wang mandu (왕만두, literally “king” mandu), about two inches in diameter each.

kimchi mandu
In spite of all the confusion, one factor has been most reliable: the filling. For example, kimchi mandu (김치만두) contains kimchi mixed with ground pork, kalbi mandu (갈비만두), a specialty of Mapo Mandu (마포만두),  contains kalbi, and the aforementioned gochu mandu features spicy green peppers (like the kimchi mandu, mixed with ground pork). However, this does not solve the problem of transparency: ordering kimchi mandu from a menu, you have an equal chance of receiving either a thin wrapper type or a bread type dumpling.

Since I find them all equally delicious, the ambiguity of the term mandu hasn't been a problem per se. Actually, encountering inconsistencies can be fun and interesting, and I've come to accept it as the slightly mysterious but always fun process of ordering and consuming mandu.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hooray for fizzy funky fetid food!

I'm really looking forward to attending this event: Seoul's apparently first (annual?) fete of all things fermented, appropriately titled "Fermentation Celebration."

Apparently there's going to be a lot of different types of kombucha on offer! I hadn't really thought about that stuff since my dad was making it in the late 90's. Although I thought the name referred to the Japanese word for a type of seaweed, apparently (according to the Wikipedia article) the Japanese name is actually kocha kinoko 紅茶キノコ or "black tea mushroom" (although the character 紅 means "red" it is used to refer to what we call black tea in English) and the tea itself is derived from yeast, not seaweed (though there is actually a Japanese seaweed tea called kombucha).

From the Facebook page for the event, I found out that one vendor will be bringing two types of kombucha: ginger and rosemary, as well as...kombucha makgeolli, which should be interesting.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Day in the Life

People have been asking, so thought I'd share: a typical day at 천장사 Cheonjangsa, my life for two weeks. As anyone who's experienced a one-night temple stay here in Korea can see, this isn't really your typical temple stay regimen. For me, it felt like just the right balance of free time and structure.

3:00am ~ Wake up; sometimes the cook would do a bit of breakfast prep (떡국ddeok guk or 죽juk)
3:10-3:20am ~ 예불 (yebul) Morning service
3:30-4:00 am ~ Meditation (my choice; others would spend this time bowing and praying)
4:00-6:00am ~ Nap (usually, sometimes I'd stay up and help prepare breakfast
6am ~ 스님 (Sunim)'s breakfast followed by cleanup
6:30am ~ Our breakfast
7:00-9:00am ~ Free time - usually I'd take a hike, or if I hadn't napped earlier, nap, or sometimes study Korean. I met with the head monk and some of the laypeople once or twice to drink tea and have a chat about meditation
9:00-11:00am ~ Lunch prep: Making banchan and rice and the main dish of the day, helping with other tasks as needed
Hitting the moktak, which we used as a dinner bell
10:20am ~ Prepare and bring the 마지 maji (rice offering) to the 법당 boptang (a task usually reserved for the apprentice monks but allocated to me while there)
11:00am ~ 스님 (Sunim)'s lunch
11:30am ~ Our lunch, or if we had laypeople here for the morning service, they would eat first and then we'd eat
11:30am-12:30pm ~ Eating and cleanup (lots of dishes)
12:30-4:00pm ~ Free time. I'd study Korean for a couple of hours, or go hiking if I hadn't gone in the morning, or go to the market with the head monk and some of the other laypeople. We went to the spa twice while I was there (once a week is just about right for me)
4:00-5:00pm ~ Dinner prep (usually lighter than lunch prep since we'd serve some of the same banchan and sometimes the same main dish)
 5:00pm ~ 스님 (Sunim)'s dinner
5:20pm or so ~ Our dinner
5:30-7:00pm ~ Free time - we might chat after dinner or maybe have tea together
7:00pm~ 예불 (yebul) Evening service
7:30-8:00pm ~ Meditation
8:00-9:00pm ~ Free time; we'd usually watch a drama or two (웃어라동해야), or I'd read or something
9:00-9:30pm ~ Bedtime

A Plum Alternative

I became a bit of a beer snob while living in Seattle. It was hard not to. Microbreweries in abundance with all kinds of innovative, delicious brews on tap, beer that actually made you feel buzzed and satisfied after one instead of bloated and still sober after three or four. Then in D.C. we could get Dogfish Head. Here in Korea we basically have the Hydra of Max, Cass, Hite, and occasionally O.B. - all heads of the same boring snake (M thinks Hite is the best but I honestly can't tell the difference).

It says "tea" but it's actually more like a concentrate
However, the other night we made an incredible discovery. I had had M go to the store to look for "meshil" (basically, plum syrup/concentrate) for a seaweed banchan I was making that I learned at Cheonjangsa. Although it took a bit of work, (not as straightforward as I thought it would be), he came back with a can of 梅丹("medan" or "Plum tea" in English) which worked just fine for my purposes.

Since I only needed a bit for the banchan, we had discussed using the rest for a drink mixer - mixing the rest it with soju, which seemed natural, but then during dinner he was inspired to splash a bit of it in his cup of Hite - shades of what we used to get at Domku - and the resulting concoction transformed watery mass market beer into a slightly tart, fruity, refreshing libation. After trying that, I don't see any reason to go back to drinking plain beer here anymore.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Seoul Cooking: Moo Mu Jorim

Okay, so maybe the title of this recipe is a bit too clever. It's a crosslinguistic description of the main ingredients in this dish: pork (using the Thai word) and Korean radish (which is like a chubby Japanese daikon). While it might evoke blousy Hawaiian beachware, it's intended to reflect the main inspirations for this dish: a meatball recipe from a popular Korean blogger, a Chinese-Thai dish that my friend A. taught me how to make in Chiang Mai this past December called "puh-loh,"  and a soy-simmered Korean pickle of cucumbers, hot peppers and the aforementioned radish that I watched the early stages of making but unfortunately was unable to sample at Cheonjangsa and still need to research, called, simply, "지" (ji) (some of the monks had never heard of it).

I intended this as a banchan that you eat with rice and other side dishes. It's pretty strongly flavored. The meatballs were extra delicious with the addition of some tangerine gochujang that I got from my host on Jeju. 

Moo Mo Jorim
Makes approximately 6-8 servings as a banchan

-Ground pork approx. 1/2 pound or 300 grams
-Gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) 1-2 teaspoons
-Soy sauce, generous splash
-1 clove garlic, minced

-One large mu, peeled and cut into 1" chunks

Seasoning (to your taste):
-1-2 Tablespoons Soy sauce
-1 teaspoon brown sugar
-Several splashes apple cider vinegar

1. Mix the meatball ingredients thoroughly. Roll the meatballs into approx. 1" balls. Steam for about 10 minutes or until cooked through.

2. Meanwhile, in a large wok pan or pot, heat up a bit of oil over medium heat. Add the radish pieces and stirfry for a few minutes, then add the soy sauce, brown sugar, and apple cider vinegar, plus 1-2 cups of water (just enough to cook the radish and make a broth). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the radish is cooked.

3. When the meatballs are finished steaming, add them to the pot containing the radishes, stirring carefully to coat them in sauce. Add water if needed, then cover again and simmer to incorporate the meatballs (as long as you want but just a few minutes is probably enough).

4. Serve with rice as part of a Korean-style meal with other side dishes. Cucumbers are nice.

The shape of my Korean

A while back, M's friend, who was tutoring him in Korean, asked why he possessed such an impressive food vocabulary but knew hardly any words for body parts. What can I say? It's a reflection of our life here (and probably our generally good health).

Up until I went on my solo adventures first to Jeju and then to Cheonjangsa, my exposure to Korean was basically limited to classrooms and restaurants, and my abilities reflected that (very limited and awkward exchanges with cashiers in supermarkets and various stores doesn't count for much, in my opinion). While I might have appeared perfectly comfortable ordering 순대국, I would have been at a loss to, say, describe my personality or my meditation practices. In my daily life as an English teacher with an American husband, there weren't really many opportunities for me to broaden my Korean.

One area of my Korean vocabulary that has particularly improved after my experiences is in the realm of washing various things - words that I initially learned in the classroom but that just weren't sticking. They certainly stick now!

There were other words that I knew but didn't really have a context to use them in. I now have a Korean extended family of sorts that includes an 언니 (eonni) (woman's older sister), an 이모 (imo) (auntie, mother's sister) from Daegu, and an 오빠 (oppa) (woman's older brother).

One caveat: when I'm in a so-called naturalistic situation, it helps that I've studied Chinese and that Korean still contains many compound words derived from Hanja (Chinese characters). While modern Korean doesn't use the characters themselves, the meaning in Chinese can still be accessed from the pronunciation. For example, I just guessed that the word for progress was "jinbo" based on the fact that the Mandarin pronunciation is "jinbu" - and it worked. This gives me a bit of an advantage over Korean language learners who have not studied Chinese or Japanese - kind of like Spanish speakers learning Italian.

I thought it would be interesting to compile a glossary of the words here that I found particularly useful or that I picked up during my adventures. While not comprehensive by any means, it is a good representation of what my life was like in each place, and very personal. Each word or phrase in this list carries a certain resonance with it - images, feelings, experiences - that is in a certain way more valuable than anything I ever learned in a classroom.

From Jeju WWOOFing:
메주 (meju) - soybean brick - the first stage of making dwaenjang
배달 (baedal) - delivery
텍배 (tekbae) - package
단지 (danji) - large earthenware crocks used for making and storing a variety of fermented foods such as dwaenjang, gochujang, ganjang (soysauce), and kimchi
내리오다 (naeri oda) - to take down
장갑 (janggab) - gloves
판매 (panmae) - to sell
곰팡이 (gompangi) - mold
싱겁다 (singeobda) - bland, tasteless
점 (jeom) - point(s) (used when playing GoStop)
오름 (oreum; jeju dialect) - small mountain
아이잰 (aijaen) - spikes attached to the bottom of your boots, used for hiking in snow (I think it's a borrowing from German)
무겁다 (mugeobda) -heavy

From two weeks at Cheonjangsa:
스님 (seunim) - monk
보살님 (bosalnim) - female layperson
거사님 (geosanim) - male layperson 
"됐어" ("dwaesseo") - finished (like for a dish)
아가씨 (agassi) - young woman/miss (no children)
부저 (bujeo) - apprentice (chef)
저리사 (jeorisa) - cafeteria chef
삼배 (sambae) - three bows
행자 (haengja) - apprentice monk or nun
마지 (maji) - offering
법당 (beopdang) - Buddhist worship hall
예불 (yebul) - Buddhist prayer service
넣다 (neoda) to put in
성격 (seonggyeok) - personality
경험 (gyeongheom) - experience
방법 (bangbeop) - method
명상 (myeongsang) - meditation
참선 (chamseon) Seon/Zen meditation
화두 (hwadu) - Seon/Zen Koan
접시 (jeopshi) - plate
그릇 (geureus) - bowl
목탁 (mogtak) - a "temple block" - the wooden percussion instrument that monks use for chanting, and that the temple cook used for a dinner bell
새벽 (saebyeok) - dawn
사슴 (saseum) - deer
까마귀 (kkamagui) - crow
다시마 (dasima) - "kombu" seaweed used for making stock 
더반 (deoban) - spiritual brother/sister
정 (jeong) - an emotional connection with another person; apparently there is no direct translation into English   
설거지 (seolgeoji) - washing dishes
세탁 (setak) - washing clothes
비누 (binu) - soap
껍질 (ggeobjil) peel (of an orange or potato, etc)
미끄러움 (mikgeureoum) - slippery
책임감 (chaegimgan) - sense of responsibility책임감
해바라기 (haebaragi) - sunflower
수행 (suhaeng) - training

Note: I have tried to use the standard Romanization system with the exception of kimchi (spelling it "gimchi" just looks weird to me).


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