Translating food

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A friend bought me this stick-on chalkboard.  It keeps peeling at the edges, but it’s sufficient for me to write in my first-grader Korean handwriting what we’re eating each Sunday night.  Last night, everyone got strangely fixated on the word jeon, which I had translated as “pancakes.”  They couldn’t understand how a word as small as 전 could translate into something as long as “pancakes.”

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But I don’t think it’s really the length of the word that was bothering them.  It was the incongruity between what we were eating and the English word “pancake.”  What does a half-dollar-sized slice of Korean zucchini fried up in a pan have in common with an American breakfast pancake?

Translation is hard, but I like that it’s hard.  I like that it forces you to think about how certain languages categorize and understand things one way, while others choose a different system.  In another life, I would have loved to have been a literary translator and spent my days thinking about how to communicate nuance and art from one language into another.  In this life, where I only really speak one language fluently, I’m lucky that I have this project.  I get to sit around thinking about words like “jeon.”

The translation “pancake” was really lazy on my part.  (I blame jet lag.)  “Jeon” generally means a food that’s been pan-fried.  Because it includes things like pa-jeon, green onions pan-fried in batter, and kimchi-jeon, kimchi pan-fried in batter, it’s easy to say “pancake.”  These types of “jeon” are fried in a pan and shaped into a round cake.  Maybe not like buttermilk pancakes, but not that different from potato pancakes, right?

But jeon also includes meat, fish, and vegetables that have been battered and pan-fried, but not necessarily resembling anything like a latke.  In fact, the three-volume old-school Korean cookbook I borrowed from my mother includes 29 kinds of jeon, and almost none of them are “cakes.”  What they have in common is a very simple cooking technique—small pieces of food dredged in flour, then dipped in a beaten egg and pan-fried.  (Well, except the bindaetteok, also known as nokdujeon.  That’s just mung bean batter, the exception that proves the rule.)  Pretty much anything can be made into a “jeon”; lotus root, stuffed perilla leaves, meat balls, stuffed green peppers—all of them can be battered and fried.

It doesn’t sound like much, to dredge in flour and dip in egg, but it’s a surprisingly tasty way to cook food.  The egg adds an easy richness, the flour a nice, firm, contrasting texture.  They’re usually served with a little dish of soy sauce and vinegar, sometimes with a pinch of crushed red pepper, chopped green onion or slices of hot chiles, which adds another sharp, contrasting flavor.  Personally, I’ve always preferred my jeon straight-up, so I make sure to add enough salt to the beaten eggs and sometimes to the flour as well. Traditionally, they’re served warm or at room temperature, but I love them best when they’re so hot you have to be careful not to burn your tongue.

They’re also very easy to make, the only challenge is keeping them warm for your guests. If you do something like make three different kinds—beef, fish, and Korean squash—like I did, you will end up standing by the stove much, much longer than you intended.  But I’ve found that keeping them in a low oven, about 200 degrees, or even reheating them hours later for five minutes in a 350-degree oven makes jeon almost as delicious as when they come straight out of the pan.

Thinking about all this, I’ve been wondering if it would be better to call “jeon” fritters.  Meat fritters, fish fritters, veggie fritters.  But the word “fritter” itself has such strong Americana connotations, it just sounds too cutesy to me.  I’m considering a more literal “pan-fried fish” and “pan-fried meat,” though I also like the idea of calling them “patties.”  Why that would be less cutesy, I cannot tell you.

Ultimately, though, my secret hope is that words like “jeon” will enter the American vocabulary.  It’s one of the things I love best about American English, how good it is at absorbing new words and new ideas.  “Taco,” “fettucine” and even “pad thai” have become words as everyday as “ dumpling,” “ donut” and “apple pie.  It’s a bit of a cop-out, as translation goes, but it’s one of the best things about translating food.  In the end, the food can just speak for itself.

As easy it is, I don’t have a recipe this week.  I was too discombobulated to measure anything–I just sprinkled salt and pepper on pieces of hake, beat a few eggs together, and dumped half a cup of flour on a plate for dredging.  Soon.

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2 Responses to “Translating food”

  1. Leslie Says:

    Looks like you have a little restaurant at home. I like that stick on chalkboard. I think “fritters” sounds like things that are deep-fried. And patties, to me, seems like some kind of mashed up thing that is put together and fried. I guess there really is no good translation.

  2. Diane Says:

    There’s this restaurant in Glen Ellen that makes apple fritters (covered with batter then deep-fried) served with vanilla ice cream. I know, totally random and only tangentially related to your post, but Leslie’s comment made me think of them. I agree with you two that there really is no great translation for jeon and am also secretly hoping that the word will catch on.

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