A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.
Thanks to my excessive shopping habits, I always end up with a couple of special treats to take home when I travel.
During my recent trip to Korea, I grabbed a trio of artisanal sauces in fairly small jars... gochujang, the fermented chili sauce, dwaenjang, which is Korean miso, and ssamjang, a combination of the two with additional seasonings, including a touch of sugar, usually used for lettuce wraps such as ssambap.
I tasted the dwaenjang and gochujang at the department store in Korea, but I added the ssamjang mostly for completeness, without having a sample first. So when it came time to break the seal on these essential sauces, the ssamjang was first on my priority list.
To make use of ssamjang, I usually make ssambap, which involves wrapping lettuce, herbs like gaennip, or kelp around rice and other ingredients. The ssamjang is used to add flavor. Koreans regularly construct baseball-sized lettuce wraps and eat them in one bite. My jaw, however, doesn't quite have the capacity required for such a challenge.
Since I went tofu shopping at Thanh Son this weekend, I thought it would be nice to have these with tofu instead of rice. I also sautéed some sad-looking enoki mushrooms in butter and soy sauce.
Not wanting to accumulate three or four plates for such a simple dish, I went ahead and assembled the wraps ahead of time. To serve them, I used another treasure from my recent trip: An Aomori-style urushi plate in the shape of ichō, or gingko leaf.
I so jealously guard the crispness of my pajeon (Korean-style scallion pancakes) that I generally don't sacrifice valuable seconds to shoot a photograph, lest the ephemeral textural ideal be lost before I have a chance to take the first bite.
This time I made a smaller one than usual... somehow I figured, with some rice, kimchi and the tofu dish, I would have enough. It was just right... maybe even a little too much.
As I sometimes do, I followed the technique recommended by a Korean friend, who rather unconventionally replaces water in her pajeon with milk. It makes for a fluffier, more flavorful variation.
A little kimchi
Dinner wouldn't be complete without a little kimchi and rice... I cheated and used a passable imported gimchi bought at Uwajimaya, though I usually try to get kimchi made at one of a number of Seattle-area Korean markets. No time for that this time... and this did the trick, anyway...
My last reasonably complete meal in Seoul was a late lunch last Thursday... Somehow, after a week of sleeping six hours a night I didn't have quite the energy level required to search for something more substantial, and I was only moderately hungry that night... I ended up just grabbing an overpriced smoothie and some more of those addictive but deadly hoddeok.
Anyway, Thursday afternoon I found this little spot, Waelbing Buchu Nara, just a short stretch from Namsangol Hanok Village. It's extra tiny, and only has room for a bit more than a dozen people to sit. But I was drawn in because of the short, simple, reasonably healthy-looking menu. More importantly, they had gimchi-jeon (kimchi jeon), which is one of the few vegetarian-ish jeon I hadn't indulged in on this trip.
The restaurant offered up a few simple banchan, though I skipped the one that involved a bunch of fried tiny fish.
Common enough, but this pretty daikon kimchi was quite nice.
I might be wrong about this, but I believe this is minari, similar to garlic chives.
Kong namul guk
The jeon comes with a bean sprout soup... It's fairly strongly seasoned with bits of what appears to be dried mackerel. Thanks to my vegetarian habits, it was a bit difficult to for me to eat much of this, but it was a nice touch.
The main event
I ate way more of this than I should have... but the kimchi jeon was pretty nicely done. On previous trips to Korea, at a couple of restaurants the kimchi jeon I've had somehow seemed slightly undercooked. I think that owed itself to the complexity of identifying how well cooked a very uneven batter covering copious amounts of kimchi might be.
At Waelbing Buchu Nara, however, I was pleased with my order. The surface of the jeon just teeters on crispness, while the pancake itself is almost fluffy. The kimchi adds a lot of flavor without being overwhelming.
Even with my almost nonexistent Korean ability I was able to make myself reasonably well understood, and they understood my badly worded request to make sure the jeon was devoid of meat. (It's not all that common to add pork or seafood to this type of jeon, but some places might).
Although I tend to make an effort to go to a place like Pulhyanggi whenever I get a chance to go to Korea, I've long wanted to try another Seoul institution which is also known for fairly high end cuisine.
Sanchon, located in Insadong, offers an elaborate prix fixe vegetarian meal somewhat comparable to what you might find at a place like Pulhyanggi, but more firmly rooted in the Buddhist tradition. Pulhyanggi, while it was influenced by monastic cuisine, focuses more on the culinary traditions of the Korean aristocracy.
On my sixth evening in Seoul, I invited a friend to join me at the restaurant, and we arrived in the middle of the evening's entertainment. The location is a bit more intimate, and the stage is located right in the center of the dining room, which makes the experience a little more like a dinner theater than the more restrained approach at Pulhyanggi.
In fact, it was a little overwhelming... Sudden dramatic shifts in lighting, fairly loud drumming, occasional chanting or call-and-response bits, along with bursts of amplified recorded instrumentals, all presented just centimeters from our table, made the show the center of attention. It had a slight Disney vibe, though I noticed a few diners got quite into the drum performance.
Thankfully the performance soon ended and the restaurant lighting settled into something more comfortable for dining and conversation.
Small parcels of wrapped vegetables
We start off with this small serving of juk (rice porrige) and something remiscent of the crepes wrapped in the nine-sectioned dish from Pulhyanggi. The pancake dish has a bit stronger flavor than the nine-sectioned dish, perhaps from the addition of buckwheat in the crepes batter. We also receive a dish of some Korean mountain fruit, which was reminiscent of either omija berries or sansho, but didn't seem quite like either. We also have a simple mul gimchi, which unlike the previous water kimchi I've shown from this trip, was made without chilies, and is closer to the one I first experienced several years ago on my first trip to Korea.
Seven mountain vegetables
It's spring, so mountain vegetables have been in full swing. We receive a basket of them, alongside with some dressed bitter greens. In contrast to Pulhyanggi's rich, complex flavors, Sanchon's preparations and choices of ingredients tend to have a more austere, almost medicinal character.
Gosari wraps with gochujang
Another simple crepe-like dish with fresh, blanched gosari, jp. zenmai, known as bracken in the US. The gochujang made this one more exciting than I expected.
Full of daikon, tofu, scallions, and enoki, this is a very hearty miso stew.
Bellflower root in a spicy sauce
Actually, this might be gobo, but I think this dish is bellflower root. It's very nice... a little sweet-spicy.
Peanuts and honey
Peanuts with a something sweet, probably honey.
This one could turn into a dangerous habit... it's fried kombu, crunchy and slightly salty.
Fried spring vegetables
We received a plate of fried vegetables, made with a fairly heavy batter. I think one of these was fuki, and there was some renkon. It was served just slightly warm.
After-dinner rice confection
These ubiquitous sweets have a puffy, slightly glutinous, slightly crispy texture, and are generally made with various nuts. For me, they're sort of a guilty pleasure, though they don't seem so incredibly indulgent since they're only moderately sweet.
I don't know what possessed me to go to Lotte World, the megalithic shopping center, in Jamsil, complete with indoor ice skating rink and a shooting range. But I did, and of course, I needed lunch.
While touring the food-laden Lotte department store basement section, I acquired some very nice artisanal gochujang, dwaenjang, and ssamjang, which may be responsible for my sudden urge to eat dol sot bibimbap.
But I walked over acres (hectares?) of shopping madness before deciding to do that, narrowly escaping a Disneyland-like hell of a parallel universe constructed inside the 3rd floor of one of the Lotte World buildings meant to resemble a traditional Korean village. When I saw photos outside the entrance featuring bizarre cartoon-like characters in big-headed costumes, I realized that this particular tourist trap was not for me.
And so I moved on in search of food.
As it turns out, most of the building suffers from the same chain-driven mediocrity that any other big shopping mall in the world aspires to, complete with TGI Friday's and KFC and Lotteria. But it looks like it's possible to eat a decent meal even in the cafeteria-like sections of the complex. One of said cafeterias was where I ended up.
You can walk around the cafeteria perusing short menus, then you place your order at a counter in center of things that serves as a hub. The cashier dispatches your order to the appropriate shop electronically. When your number appears on a mechanical sign, you go to the appropriate vendor and pick it up.
My dolsot bibimbap dispatched with the conventional raw egg in favor of a partially cooked one. That may be because they don't heat up the dolsot well enough to completely cook the egg as you stir it into the rice and vegetable mixture. The flavor was respectable, but I've actually had a better, spicier dolsot bibimbap in a department store basement quick-service restaurant in Japan. In a pinch, it works, but I prefer to eat this kind of thing at a small mom & pop place in a decaying old building.
It may not look pretty, but this pat guksu dish is packed with protein and it's very comforting. It's basically pureed azuki beans with handmade wheat noodles. When you receive your order, you have to make a small but fairly important decision: sweet or salty?
You then add sugar or salt to taste, stir to dissolve, and then start digging into the noodles. When the noodles are gone, you eat the red bean puree until you are full.
The water kimchi, this one with more variety of vegetables than ones I've previously featured, offers a bit of heat and tartness that contrasts nicely with the hearty but plain-tasting noodle dish. Of course there's also some ordinary kimchi to share, but this one is just for me.
More handmade noodle goodness
At the same shop, my friend orders a somewhat more elaborate noodle dish topped with gim (nori, aka laver).
* This pat guksu may have a more specific name that I'm neglecting... I'll post an update later...
After a little walking around Jongro (aka Jongno) on Monday, a friend suggested we go to this nice Korean ddeok cafe in neighboring Insadong. The cafe serves teas, smoothie-like concoctions and traditional and updated Korean confections.
Clockwise, from top: Yuja-flavored (jp. yuzu) ddeok with coconut, ssuk (jp. yomogi, mugwort) flavored rice cake, red bean filled, and apple with coconut.
I could swear I detected a slight hint of gaennip (perilla, shiso) in this red-bean filled ddeok but my friend was convinced that couldn't possibly be the case.
This fairly simple frozen persimmon shake was a delight, though in retrospect I think I should have ordered some bitter tea to accompany my sweets, instead of a sweet drink.
Jilsriru take-home souvenirs
In case you need something to take home with you...
One of my lunches in Seoul... These chewy, stretchy long noodles made in part from buckwheat (like soba) but with a very distinctive texture are known as reimen in Sendai, Japan, where a local version is quite popular. In Korea, the most popular preparation is mul naengmyeon, which is made with a chilled, slightly acidic and fairly refreshing un-beefy beef broth.
On a previous trip, I didn't even know I was being served something made with a beef broth because the friend who took me out for lunch on that occasion didn't know how they were made, and the beef flavor is deceptively subtle when the dish is served cold.
Bibim-naengmyeon is essentially ovo-vegetarian, but it is typically served with a warm version of that broth, generally without the vinegar that marks mul naengmyeon, on the side. Various shredded vegetables may be added to the top, and a spicy sauce most likely based on gochujang adds a big burst of flavor to the whole thing.
Note: The precision geek in my wants to write the name of this dish as "bibim-naengmyeon", which is closer to the actual Hangeul characters used, but typical Korean slurring makes the word sound closer to "bibim-naengmyun," which is probably the most conventional rendering in English romanization.
Sunday night in Seoul I was on my own, and incredibly jetlagged. After visiting a pottery gallery, I briefly met with a friend in Gangnam station, then I went back to my hotel near Seoul National University of Education to rest a bit... I researched some dining options, but most of the interesting ones required traveling 30 minutes or more across town and perhaps a bit more careful navigation than I was able to handle with my level of energy.
I was mostly inclined to sleep, but I was getting pretty hungry.
So I walked in the area surrounding my hotel for 20 or 30 minutes, and found a little place whose menu promised nokdu-jeon, a pancake made from shelled, ground mung beans. As I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for jeon, so I went right inside.
They presented a few small side dishes, included a plain savory steamed custard, which we also had at a Gangnam station-area drinking establishment we visited on Saturday night.
These had a chewier than usual texture, so it's possible they snuck some meat inside, but I didn't recognize which one. The most common preparation of nokdu-jeon or binddaeddeok, as far as I can tell, is actually sans-meat, though many restaurants specializing in binddaeddeok serve some seasoned oysters or similar savory ingredients atop the pancakes in place of a dipping sauce.
They were pleasingly crispy on the outside, but overall I wasn't as excited by these nokdu-jeon as I usually would be.
I figured, since the place I was in was mostly a drinking venue, the polite thing to do was to order something to drink with dinner. I had noticed they had o-sip seju on the menu when I was standing outside. I really like the basic flavor notes of baek seju, which is an herbal liqueur based on soju, but I find it a bit too sweet on its own.
Baek means 100 in Korean, and o-sip means 50. Baek-seju is therefore "diluted" with higher-alcohol, lower sugar soju in a 1:1 ratio.
That would suit me fine. Or so I thought.
It didn't occur to me that ordering such a thing means I was, for all practical purposes, ordering two full 500 ml bottles of soju. And I was by myself. Oops.
I didn't drink the whole thing. In fact, I barely made a dent, although I think I had about 300 ml in total. In terms of alcohol content, That's probably the equivalent of most of a bottle of New World red wine, which I am unlikely to consume in a typical evening. But I was jetlagged... it wasn't a typical evening.
Though I was still quite functional, falling asleep that night was no problem.
I'm usually craving coffee and bread in the morning, although I'll certainly dig into a heavy Korean or salt-laden Japanese-style breakfast from time to time. Fortunately, Seoul and Tokyo, more so than Seattle, have an insane number of mostly French-influenced bakeries, all with local touches, so I often have the chance to find such treats in the morning. The main caveat is that in Tokyo, bakeries often don't really open until 10am. As for coffee, both Japan and Korea are heavy consumers of coffee, but with big chains like Dottoru and various Korean Starbucks knock-offs, it's sad to say that quality is not usually a priority.
Tokyo, in spite of an extended reign of coffee superiority vis a vis the land of Maxwell House and Folgers, is really not that great a place to drink coffee. During the economic bubble, it's said that Japan had a number of cafes with owners fanatically devoted to the art of coffee, but these days it takes a special effort to locate anything substantially better than the ubiquitous "blend coffee" or watery "America coffee". Espresso, save for places like Macchinesti, is generally more a milk delivery mechanism, and tends to be bitter and undrinkable, often even more so than what Starbucks produces.
Seoul, in my limited experience, is even worse. Most places I've had coffee (and there haven't been that many even over several trips so I may not be fair) served something that was not only painfully bitter, but tasted stale and faintly metallic.
Paris Croissant latte, Gangnam-gu station
Fortunately, I've had just slightly better luck this time. A cute little flower-shop/cafe, just inches from my hotel, suffered only from having slightly stale coffee and oversteamed milk; it wasn't the bitter mess I had encountered on previous trips. Another bakery (Paris Croissant at Gangnam station, I believe) seemed to almost understand milk foam rosettas, though the milk was also slightly too hot and the coffee had that faint stale flavor I've come to associate with drinking coffee in Korea.
I was even more pleased yesterday morning, when, in my urge to caffeinate myself, I ended up buying coffee at a chain bakery, Tous Les Jours, also a stone's throw from my hotel. It wasn't as pretty as the one at Paris Croissant, but it was flavorful without being unnecessarily bitter, appeared to be made from reasonably fresh beans, and was well-balanced enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if someone told me it came from a local Seattle indie coffee place. Even better, the drink was notably cheaper than the Big Green Monster's Seoul offerings, from what I understand.
The one constant this time for coffee in Seoul, it seems, is that nobody ever uses a thermometer to check the milk temperature and it's always life-threateningly hot.
As for the pastries (because Roboppy always wants to know)... well, Tokyo still seems to have a slightly higher standards overall, but in Seoul prices seems slightly more reasonable. Both Korea and Japan almost always cheaper than Seattle when it comes to laminated doughs and such, thanks to saner portion sizes and higher volume.
I usually try to go for flavors that are hard to find outside of Japan or Korea when I come to this part of the world, and I certainly found plenty to choose from.
Sweet potato roll
A pastry with sweet potato puree in the center from Paris Baguette, Gangnam-gu station...
Marron cherry puff
Puff pastry with the unlikely but pleasant combination of marrons glace (candied chestnuts) and cherries.
Tous les jours trio
Sweet potato-filled pastry, mini-croissant, and red bean stuffed soft bun with walnut.
Black sesame tapioca roll
Nice. Chewy, mochi-mochi, slightly salty, and, well, black sesame-y. Good with cream cheese. You want one of these.
Chocolate streusel bread
A lot less sweet than it looks, this one was a pleasant surprise.
One caveat to pastry and bread in East Asia, though: Savory, hearty breads are relatively rare, and even items that sound savory are often made with a sweet bread base or heavily sweetened laminated dough. Ham, processed cheese and sweet mayonnaise seem to be a favored combination in both Korea and Japan, as are things baked with sausages, and, of course, corn-mayo.
Rabokgi is the derelict pot-smoking cousin of ddeokbokgi, the ubiquitous Korean stewed glutinous rice cake dish.Ramyun (instant ramen), glutinous rice cakes, and spicy gochujang are the essential components in rabokgi; in this case, ours were served with a hard-boiled egg and some variety of fried hanpen, or fish cake, which is called odeng in Korean. I left the odeng for Hiromi.
Normally this is food that accompanies a late night round of drinking, but Hiromi and I didn't have any opportunity to do that before her Sunday morning departure to Tokyo. She had been craving it the entire trip, but we were so full from our three substantial meals on Saturday that even our shared hoddeok was pushing the limits of our stomach capacity.
It turns out, though, that a small restaurant in a building adjacent Gangnam express bus station not only offered rabokgi, but was open at 8am. So not all hope was lost...
We then had a small challenge getting the attention of the waitstaff (I was too polite), but service was quick, and we had this unlikely breakfast. If, however, we had been up all night drinking, like some ajeossi (middle-aged men) at the 24-hour kamja-tang restaurant who we spotted drinking soju with their stew at 7 am Saturday, it might have just been par for the course.
We did, however, observe a small part of the ritual after dinner at Pulhyanggi.
A little makgeolli
We met with a friend of ours who had studied in Seattle and his sister for a little makgeolli.
Makgeolli, sometimes rendered makkori, is sort of what beer would be if it were made from rice instead of barley or wheat, and devoid of hops. It's creamy white, and served with a ladle.
We were completely stuffed from our previous dining excesses, but this nice vegetable jeon was available for those needing a snack. I managed only a bite or two, but I wish I could have managed more. I'm a sucker for good jeon. (I'll try to remember what the highlighted vegetable was at some point and post a trivial update later).
We didn't really do much buying, aside from our Hoddeok, but Namdaemun is a crazy busy place full of tourists looking for visual drama and trinkets to take home (that would be us) and locals looking for cheap clothing and the occasional fish or vegetable.
These were stunning bottles of infused ginseng roots.
A small restaurant welcoming Japanese
We discovered that it is a very bad idea to speak Japanese in Namdaemun market.
No, there wasn't any overt hostility, but the merchants take the sound of Japanese as a cue to turn on the hard sell, and to charge higher than normal prices. Hiromi had the impulse to buy some gim (nori, a.k.a. laver) as a souvenir snack, but the price, for her, was always man-il-cheon-weon for a bundle, 11,000 Won, about $12. If I asked a shop for a similar item in the same size in English, it was 8000 Won, or about $9. The cost in Tokyo for most types of Korean seasoned laver is most likely cheaper than that.
We actually gave up on the market when we saw a sign targeting Japanese selling the exact same brand as one of our earlier overpriced places, atypically with actual price signs. I misread the sign as W2000, but was actually JPY2000; we thought we were getting a deal at about 1/5 the typical price, but it was actually almost twice as much as the same thing at other shops.
We found some very good gim at a department store adjacent to the market, for a very reasonable price.
Well, some sort of amorphous sea creature, anyway. As a vegetarian who gave up meat far before I started exploring the culinary world deeply, I'm not exactly sure how one prepares them. Perhaps like Japanese takosu?
The sea cucumber vendor hard at work
Presumably ready to grill...
Stewed silkworm larvae... not for the faint of stomach, the smell is overpowering even if you're just passing by. Hiromi spotted a little boy gleefully eating them one-by-one with a toothpick from a paper cup... She wasn't adventurous enough to try.
Inexpensive clothing, often with fake paper-labeled brand names or patched-on embroidered logos.
Ddeokbokgi and skewered fish cake stall
The ajumma at these stalls selling stewed foods always seem surprisingly relaxed.
Unlike Tokyo, Seoul still has a vibrant street merchant scene. Every subway station seems to have a few ajumma peddling some sort of medicinal mountain vegetable, bottles of some morning drinking yogurt concoctions, and the occasional roll of gimbap. The average newsstand/kiosk has a pile of popcorn or puffed barley snacks ready for the taking. And some stretches of sidewalk have an endless series of ddeokbokgi, odeng and skewered meat yatai.
In some cases, places housed in permanent buildings open up right out into the street, and these offer the best of both worlds: fresh, inexpensive street food, and access to refrigeration and handwashing facilities.
Streetside meat and sugar
We happened on this shop, where an efficient ajumma was constantly preparing fresh hoddeok while taking orders, exchanging money, and serving a steady stream of customers.
Pressing the hoddeok flat
You must have hoddeok at least once when visiting Korea. Essentially a yeasted pancake stuffed with brown sugar, often featuring peanuts, walnuts or sesame seeds, they are occasionally flavored with green tea or other ingredients. I'm almost always most impressed by the simplest versions. These are sold in molten form straight from the grill by various street vendors. Some use a flat teppan style griddle and a flat metal tamper, and a few use gas-powered waffle-iron-like contraptions that press the pancakes flat as they bake.
Assembling the next order
Each hoddeok gets a very brief rest at the side of the grill, but orders come in so fast that they still reach your little hands in a tempting but dangerously hot state.
The brown sugar-cinnamon filling bleeds right out of the broken pancake.
At 500 KRW per piece (about 55-60 cents), they are an ideal afternoon snack.
If you're properly royal, you save the rice for last. At Pulhyanggi (see part 1), you have two options: Typical steamed rice, probably also better than the average peasant mother will make, or, if you like, nurungji (scorched rice), which is prepared from roasted rice and added water. This is rice from the bottom of a metal pot that has browned from long holding. Almost all over Asia, this slightly "damaged" rice is regarded rather nostalgically because it has such a pleasing nutty aroma.
For the mass market, there are now any number of scorched rice products in Korea, sold dry or even as a microwavable product. Pulhyanggi does things the old-fashioned way, of course. We receive ours in a stoneware bowl, topped with a walnut and a couple of pine nuts.
Rice isn't complete in Korea without a suitable set of side dishes (banchan), and if you were suitably royal, and had an army of servants at your disposal, you'd expect to have something remarkable. I think we had a total of 9 or 10 side dishes.
Scallion wrapped vegetables with gochujang
Painstakingly wrapped, matchstick cut blanched and raw vegetables.
We wanted more of this lotus root dish.
These mushrooms were served very lightly seasoned and almost dry in texture.
Daikon, carrot and nori
Probably the most strongly seasoned dish in this set, this daikon and carrot dish, mixed with gim and the whites of scallions, has a bit of sesame oil, something like the muk from the previous set of courses.
This is a surprising treatmeant of the devil's tongue tuber, konnyaku... minimalist but flavorful.
And a little something sweet
After we look suitably defeated, the waitstaff comes by with a few small things to settle our palates. The meal ends with some wedges of surprisingly good Korean pears, a small serving of a sweet Korean herbal drink, and this nice little confection.