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.


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