Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
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.

Pat guksu

This is hearty, extremely simple lunch fare.

Pat guksu *

Pat guksu

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.

Mul gimchi

Mul gimchi

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...

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Bibim naengmyeon: Extreme elasticity in noodles

Bibim-naenmyeon

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.

Pulhyanggi: cuisine of the imperial court, Part 2

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.

Scorched rice

Nurungji, scorched rice with water, walnut, pine nuts

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 accompaniments

Banchan and Pulhyanggi for the rice course

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

Scallion wrapped vegetables with gochujang

Painstakingly wrapped, matchstick cut blanched and raw vegetables.

Simmered renkon

Simmered renkon

We wanted more of this lotus root dish.

Seasoned greens

Seasoned greens 

Shiitake mushrooms

Korean shiitake side dish

These mushrooms were served very lightly seasoned and almost dry in texture.

Daikon, carrot and nori

Daikon, carrot and gim

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.

Marinated Konnyaku

Marinated konnyaku

This is a surprising treatmeant of the devil's tongue tuber, konnyaku... minimalist but flavorful.

And a little something sweet

Korean sweets

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.

 

Pajeon and ssamdubu: Pancakes and lettuce tofu wraps

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.

Ssamdubu

Ssamdubu

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.

Simple Pajeon

Simple pajeon with sauce

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.

Simple pajeon

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...

One last gimchi-jeon in Seoul

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.

 Waelbing Buchu Nara restaurant

The restaurant offered up a few simple banchan, though I skipped the one that involved a bunch of fried tiny fish.

Mu gimchi

Mu gimchi (daikon kimchi)

Common enough, but this pretty daikon kimchi was quite nice.

Minari

Minari

I might be wrong about this, but I believe this is minari, similar to garlic chives.

Kong namul guk

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

Kimchi jeon (gimchi jeon)

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).

 

Seoul Bread and Coffee

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

Kapae Latte, a cafe latte in Seoul 

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

Sweet potato pastry roll

A pastry with sweet potato puree in the center from Paris Baguette, Gangnam-gu station...

Marron cherry puff

Marron (chestnut) cherry puff 

Puff pastry with the unlikely but pleasant combination of marrons glace (candied chestnuts) and cherries.

Tous les jours trio

Sweet potato filled danish, croissant, anpan with walnut

Sweet potato-filled pastry, mini-croissant, and red bean stuffed soft bun with walnut.

Black sesame tapioca roll

Black sesame tapioca bun

Nice. Chewy, mochi-mochi, slightly salty, and, well, black sesame-y. Good with cream cheese. You want one of these.

Chocolate streusel bread

Chocolate streusel bun

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.

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