Friday, January 8, 2016
-Donkasuh (돈가스), which actually originated in Japan, is a giant fried and breaded pork cutlet with a sweet “cur-ray” sauce. It’s very cheap and can be found almost everywhere. You can even get a version of it that’s just fried cheese.
-Jjim-dak (찜닭), which means “steamed chicken,” is a flavorful, soupy, and spicy glass noodle dish with steamed potatoes, carrots, onions, and chunks of chicken. It comes in a giant plate that you share with others, and very often, despite the presence of noodles, it’s still eaten with a small bowl of rice on the side. Sadly I’m not yet skilled enough with chopsticks to gracefully remove the bones from slippery, sauce-covered pieces of meat.
-Jajangmyeon (자장면), or black bean noodles, originated in China but are a popular dish in Korea. Supposedly it’s a tradition that people who are single on Valentine’s Day come together to eat jajangmyeon in sad solidarity.
-Kimchi chigae (김치 찌개) is a hot-pot soup made of kimchi, noodles, and pork that comes out of the kitchen literally still boiling. It’s spicy, full of flavor, and served with rice. Of course.
-Toppokki (떡볶이) and rappokki (라볶이) are my guilty pleasures. Toppokki, sold by both street vendors and small kimbap restaurants, is made of soft, cylindrical rice cakes swimming in gochujang sauce. It’s nothing but spicy, carby goodness. But even better, though I feel like I’m killing my insides every time I eat it, is rappokki: the usual toppokki rice cakes and sauce plus fish cakes, a full serving of ramen, and maybe a boiled egg on top. It is to die for.
What I really like about some Korean meals is that they’re prepared in front of you and require multiple steps. This forces you to slow down, appreciate your food, and socialize with your company. Here are a couple of my favorites:
-Dakgalbi (닭갈비) is a delicious combination of chicken, cabbage, potatoes, rice cakes, cheese (optional but always recommended), red sauce, and, if you’re still hungry at the end, rice. It’s slightly spicy and absolutely delicious. The waiter starts by putting a big pan of the stuff on the stove in the middle of the table. (He also puts a tall metal ring around it so no one gets splashed; some restaurants even supply aprons.) As it heats up and starts sizzling, the waiter periodically comes by and stirs it temptingly in front of you. After a few minutes he adds the cheese, and a few minutes later it’s ready to eat. When the food starts to dwindle, you have the choice to add rice to the pan. The waiter mixes the rice with the rest of the sauce and food and the eating continues.
1) Let’s begin with the elaborate layout of the shabu shabu meal. Each person gets a bowl, a plate, and three dipping sauces. The shredded veggies and thin rolls of raw beef are for sharing.
3) Then you pick up one of these seemingly inedible plastic-looking things (left) and dip it in a bowl of hot water. It turns out that thing is actually the wrap for your little hand-made spring roll. I’ve learned since that these are common in Vietnam. You put it on your plate and quickly add some cooked meat, shredded veggies, and sauce. If you wait too long, the wrap will get too sticky. Roll it up and start eating.
5) BUT WAIT! You’re still not done! After you finish all the noodles, the waitress comes back to your table and dumps in a small bowl of rice. Because no Korean meal, no matter how large, is complete without rice. She stirs it around in the remaining liquid until it becomes a sort of porridge. You wait for the mixture to cool down, dig in, and then finally, the marathon of deliciousness is over.
Everyone always wants to know the weird foods people have eaten in other countries, so here’s my selection:
-The strangest food I’ve eaten in Korea is hands down beondegi (번데기), or silkworm larvae. They’re a popular street food with a very distinctive smell and a very unappealing look. They’re essentially little slimy brown pre-bugs that taste like dirt. I’ve found that most people either love them or hate them. My non-Korean coworkers insisted I try one as an “initiation” for my first dinner out, and I gave them another chance a few months later, but they were gross both times.
-Next is jellyfish salad. I’ve only ever had it at one restaurant, but it’s strangely yummy. Its texture is exactly what you might expect from a jellyfish: kind of like a long, thin gummy worm. There are also stuffed pig intestines, but I was never brave enough to try those.
Koreans like to put sugar on or in everything in general, including tomato sauce, bread, and even corn dogs (along with the usual ketchup), but they also have some distinctive desserts that I’ve come to love.
-Red bean (팥) was one of the first new things I tried in Korea. It’s found in bread, pastries, rice cakes, and even ice cream. It’s a sweet mush of brownish-reddish adzuki beans that can be an acquired taste, but I quickly learned to love it. My favorites are red bean rice cakes and red bean “fish,” pastries that are sold by street vendors in cold weather for three a dollar.
|The red bean/custard “fish” truck
that conveniently parked
outside my school in the winter
|My favorite red bean
|I was so sad when I found
out these weren’t sold
in the summer
-Bingsu (빙수) is kind of like shaved ice cream, if you can imagine it. It’s not cheap and often comes in a giant, heaping bowl easily shareable between two or three people. It’s offered in different flavors and with various toppings, including fruits, brownie chunks, actual ice cream, or the more traditional red bean. The bingsu special I ordered once, shown on the bottom left, even had cheese puffs, a piece of candied orange, and actual slices of cheesecake, in addition to frozen berries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. What’s nice about bingsu is that it’s generally light and fluffy and doesn’t make you feel five pounds heavier once you’ve finished it. In fact, it’s good enough that I have to show you four pictures of what you’re missing out on.
-Finally, I’ve seen a few crepe shops around Korea that not only offer delicious savory crepes, but also amazingly good-looking dessert crepes that I somehow never tried. Other than the usual fruits, whipped cream, and syrup, these things include entire scoops of ice cream and whole slices of cake or cheesecake. It’s ridiculous. I’m not sure how you would even start to eat something like that. But at the same time it’s so, so tempting…
|(I assume the weird green color in these plastic models is
a result of age, so maybe just ignore that part.)
Have you ever eaten Korean food? If not (and you should), what do you want to try the most? Leave a comment below!
Monday, January 4, 2016
Before I went to Korea, I really had no idea what Korean food would be like. I assumed there would be a lot of rice and noodles involved, which was correct. But I quickly learned to like or at least appreciate all the variety I found, some of which I’ll share with you. But first, some basics about Korean restaurant and food culture.
-Every restaurant meal begins with side dishes. Kimchi and yellow pickled radish are standard, but you can also get soup, whipped boiled egg, sesame leaves, squid, etc. I love this because I get to try little bits of many different things.
-Many Korean restaurants are all about sharing food. You get a big plate in the middle of the table and everyone dives in. Reaching in directly with your chopsticks isn’t a problem, either. Unfortunately, these restaurants also give you only one menu for four people and you have to share that, too.
|The special sanitizing
-A few of the more traditional Korean restaurants involve sitting on small cushions on the floor instead of on chairs. I don’t mind it but I know it can get uncomfortable for longer-legged people.
-The food displays here are amazingly accurate. Many restaurants have exact replicas of their food sitting out in their windows and enticing passers-by. Although they’re made of plastic or rubber, many times I’ve had to take a closer look to determine that they’re actually not real.
|All plastic. I promise.|
|Tell me this does not look real.|
-Kimchi, or spicy fermented cabbage, is a staple of all Korean meals. It’s served as a side dish in every restaurant, and it’s an ingredient in several dishes. There are special “kimchi refrigerators” sold to hold families’ yearly supplies of kimchi. When I ask my students what they eat for breakfast, they say rice, soup, and kimchi. I went to dinner with a Korean woman once and she was upset that the Indian restaurant we went to didn’t have kimchi. When Koreans take pictures, they say “kimchi” instead of “cheese.” If you don’t like it, you’re going to be at a serious disadvantage. But for anyone who might have been told that Koreans smell like kimchi, that’s ridiculous. It’s as true as saying that all Americans smell like cheese. Just…no.
-Another staple is yellow or white pickled radishes, also a very common side dish in Korean restaurants. Sometimes there are also thinly sliced green radishes. I’ve been told they’re a sort of palette cleanser after all the strong flavors of Korean food.
-Goguma, the Korean version of sweet potato (which is neither orange nor sweet—I tried putting it in the microwave once and it was like eating pure, tasteless starch), is also a popular ingredient in various food items. My Korean coworker even snacked on them raw as a diet food when he was trying to lose weight. There are goguma noodles, the glass noodles used in dishes like japchae. There is goguma pizza, with chunks of melted potato plopped on each slice. (This became my favorite type of Korean pizza and I wish we had it in the States.) There’s even Special K goguma cereal! It literally tastes like eating flakes of sweet potato for breakfast, and it actually isn’t half bad.
|Fancy restaurant kimbap|
|All different flavors of “triangle
kimbaps” are sold for $1 or less
in convenience stores.
-The fast food of Korea among natives and foreigners alike is kimbap (김밥), the Korean equivalent of a sushi roll without the fish. It’s seaweed wrapped around rice and any combination of meat (usually ham or spam), pickled radish, stringy gray root things, eggs, and sometimes cucumber or fish cakes. There are other combinations you can get, but a basic roll is around 1300 won (a bit more than one dollar), and grabbing one for takeout takes no time at all. Kimbap is sold mainly in special “kimbap restaurants” found all over Korea. These stores are typically run by one or two middle-aged or older women, are often open 24 hours, and have a menu that covers all the Korean basics: rice, noodles, ramen, toppokki, mandu (dumplings), soup, and the like. I love these places because they offer traditional Korean food for half the price of nicer restaurants. You can also buy “triangle kimbaps” at almost any convenience store, which make a great snack when you’re on the go.
| One of the ladies whose
job it was to make
kimbap all day
|Delicious “Banwoldang chicken”|
|At the Daegu Chimaek Festival|
|Cannibal chicken wall decorations|
|My first meal in Korea|
-I should’ve expected to see ramen (“lamyeon” in Korean) everywhere in an Asian country, but the sheer amount of it still took me aback. In the supermarket, there’s a whole aisle just selling different types of the stuff. There’s a decent selection in every convenience store, and sometimes it seems like young people—even the elementary students in my school—survive on it. There’s also hot water in all convenience stores so people can buy it and eat it on the spot. It’s even incorporated into other meals; you can order several different ramen dishes in the kimbap restaurants I mentioned above.
-Other than ramen, there are so many other types of noodle dishes, too. Lots of times these noodles come in a soup. One that is particularly distinctive is naengmyeon (where “naeng” means cold and “myeon” means noodles). There is actual ice in the soup. While it’s great for summer, I’m not a big fan. However, my favorite Korean noodle dish is called japchae (잡채). It’s made of sweet potato noodles mixed with meat and various veggies, and it’s probably the healthiest noodle dish I’ve had. A lady in my neighborhood sold trays of it that were enough for two lunches for only ~$3 every Wednesday. Sadly, I ate so much of it from her that I made myself sick of it. I tried to recreate it for my family once I got back to the States but it just wasn’t the same. :-/
|As usual I forgot to take a
picture before eating
a chunk first.
-Overall, the Korean diet is extremely carb-heavy—there is rice and/or noodles in almost every dish. Rice cakes are also a very popular traditional dessert. Many Koreans don’t view their food as a full meal unless there is rice involved—even if the meal already contains noodles. They love rice so much that there are even fast food restaurants that sell “bap buguh”: cheap “burgers” that have thick rice patties in place of the usual wheat buns and which you can eat with a spoon. One of the most popular kinds, pictured on the right, has a kimchi and mayo filling and is surprisingly good.
-I have to admit that I was really disappointed when I first came to Korea at how difficult it was to find food with a decent amount of veggies in restaurants. You can certainly find plenty of fresh produce in supermarkets, but I was told that most vegetable cooking happens at home. People go out to eat meat because it’s so expensive to buy themselves. It’s also very hard to find organic food or whole wheat products.
|It’s a holiday special!
Only $13 for each pear!
|Fried fish cake|
|The top half is chicken
nuggets; the bottom half
is a slushie. Genius.