“I thought I was going to be eating a bread product…

by

…and found out it was raw squid.”

That is a direct quote from last night’s Korean Sunday dinner.  The best part is that Emily wasn’t too bothered by her discovery.  She just reached for the next unknown thing on the table.

It is hard to take photos of food on your stove.

It is hard to take photos of food on your stove.

As I promised on my initial email invite, the Korean food I am cooking each Sunday is not limited to foods that are considered “safe” for non-Koreans.  Partly, this is because no cookbook worth its salt restricts itself to food that is “safe” for Americans, but mostly it’s because I love the food I grew up eating and I want to present it honestly, completely, and without apology.  I don’t care if my guests don’t find everything appealing as long as they’re willing to sit at a table with the funny food.

The friends and their friends who have come to dinner so far, though, have exceeded all my expectations.  They not only will sit at a table with something they can’t recognize, they’ll often start eating it before I have a chance to explain what it is.  It’s really wonderful to be able to say to a friend, “You can eat that, too,” and have him eat it.  So far, the only thing Carl has refused is a kumquat, and eh, it’s not a Korean fruit.  And despite my mother’s fears, they’ve honestly and sincerely liked a lot of the “not safe” food I’ve made.

Last night’s dinner was a classic blend of food Koreans like to feed foreigners and food Koreans like to feed themselves: 불고기, bulgogi, with lettuce and 쌈장, ssamjang; scallion salad; sautéed oyster mushrooms; cabbage and soybean paste soup; and more banchan, including the aforementioned raw squid which had been preserved in a salty, spicy sauce.

Bulgogi is probably the first thing any foreigner is fed when he or she arrives in Korea.  (It was voted the favorite Korean food of foreigners!)  “Bulgogi” translates literally as “fire meat” since it’s meant to be cooked over a charcoal grill, and a love of grilled meat is probably completely universal.  When you add to the meat a marinade of soy sauce, sugar (and/or honey and pear), garlic, green onions, sesame oil and sesame seeds, you end up with something that’s almost boringly likable.

At least that’s what I’d always thought until I started doing a little research.  As I looked into bulgogi’s history, tried different marinade recipes, and thought about which American cuts of beef would be best for it, I ended up with a lot more respect for the dish.  It’s ubiquitous now, but it was a true special-occasion food when meat wasn’t a plentiful commodity.  The very thin slices you see these days are a fairly modern invention, and a somewhat brilliant one at that, since it’s a no-fail way to cook meat quickly and keep it tender even when it’s not of the highest-quality.  There are regional variations, like the giant hamburger patty bulgogi Diane and I had in Unyang, that demonstrate what a broad meaning “fire meat” still has today.

There are a 1001 variations on recipes for bulgogi marinade because it’s ultimately a matter of taste.  What is my taste?  Less sugar, no fruit tenderizers because I like my meat to retain some chew, plenty of chopped green onions, and lots of sesame seeds.  I’m still working on the exact proportions I like best—hopefully, something fantastic will end up in the cookbook.

I don’t have as firm an opinion on the cut of meat as I haven’t strayed enough from my mom’s favorites, but sirloin and ribeye are good choices, and I’m curious about what the marinade and the thin slices could do to elevate cheaper cuts of meat.  If you don’t have a Korean grocery nearby selling “bulgogi-cut” meat, it’s not hard to cut it yourself.  Remember to stick it in the freezer for an hour or two and it’ll still be sliceable but hard enough to cut thinly.  The key thing is to cut it against the grain.  The sirloin I had sliced by a local butcher was more or less the right thickness, but they didn’t cut it against the grain and the flavor difference between their sirloin and the sirloin I sliced myself was noticeable.   Ultimately, though, bulgogi is like bacon—it’s almost never inedible.  And that is nothing to sneer at.

If bulgogi is “safe,” the ssamjang I served it with definitely wasn’t.  I wanted to make one that would be noticeably different from the store-bought kind, and after consultation with my mom and A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes, I ended up simmering together soybean paste, red pepper paste, ground anchovies, garlic, ground beef, chopped onion, and chopped spicy green peppers.  I’m also still working on the exact proportions, so no recipe yet, but the anchovies were a flagrant, unabashed Korean touch.  It made me even more gratified that people liked it.  It’s such an intense thing to eat straight, which is why it’s meant to be just dabbed onto your beef and wrapped in a crisp piece of lettuce and/or perilla leaf.

I think Napa cabbage is beautiful.

I think Napa cabbage is beautiful.

And the soup that I thought would be most challenging, made primarily of doenjang (soybean paste) and Napa cabbage, was the biggest hit.  배춧국, baechut-guk, or cabbage soup, is my favorite Korean soup, the soup that my mom always has waiting for me when I get home.  I was trying some different ways of making Korean beef stock, so this one was simmered only with brisket meat and no bones.  But the stock still had surprisingly enough body to hold up the super-strong doenjang my mother had brought from home.  It’s so simple but rewarding: beef broth flavored with a couple of spoonfuls of doenjang, more sliced cabbage than you could ever imagine is necessary, and then a last-minute addition of sweet red pepper paste, chopped garlic, and chopped scallions.  I can and will give better directions soon, once I’ve worked out a recipe that feeds less than 10, but that’s really it.  My friend Carolyn loved it, ate a second bowl of leftovers the next day, and pronounced it the ultimate manifestation of umami flavor.

The Korean government is on a kick to promote Korean cuisine as The Next Big Thing.  I hope they’re not playing it safe.  My friends can’t be the only ones who’ll try anything.  The raw squid, though, might take some time.

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One Response to ““I thought I was going to be eating a bread product…”

  1. anon Says:

    you have interesting strange photo captions — i like them.

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