Archive for the ‘Gurae’ Category

The power of beans and sticky rice cakes on the shortest day of the year

December 21, 2009

Photo by Diane Choo

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and in Korea, people are eating 팥죽, patjuk or a red bean porridge with sticky rice cakes.  Like a lot of old customs, it’s not so strictly observed now.  I don’t remember ever marking this day in any way with my family, and you can find red bean porridge year-round. But I like the spirit of this day, the idea that the redness of the beans signals some good power that will ward off bad spirits.  Here in New York, we’re still buried under the remnants of this weekend’s snowstorm and the days are so short and so dark, I want to believe in some powerful beans.

So what is this dish?  It’s very, very simple.  Korean pat beans (pronounced “pAHt”), also known in Japan as azuki beans, are soaked and then boiled until they turn soft.  The porridge is ground or pureed until smooth, though it doesn’t have to be refined and strained.  Usually, it’s served with small sticky rice cakes made out of glutinous or sweet rice, which are called sae-ahl, or birds’ eggs.  There’s almost nothing else that’s added to this dish, maybe chestnuts or dried red dates if you’re feeling fancy.  Sugar or honey is added if you like it sweet, but there are those who just like that earthy, bean flavor and want nothing more.

At its best, it tastes like purity and wholesomeness.  Not the kind advocated by religious fanatics, but the kind that makes the other little details of life sharper.  At least that’s what I think, because the best patjuk I’ve ever had was in a little town in the mountains under a persimmon tree.

The day was still warm, and we sat down on the wooden table outside.  It was a lucky find for us, recommended by the Buddhist layperson who had prepared our lunch.  She had told us, almost clutching her heart, that it was the most delicious patjuk in the world.  (Just because they’re Buddhists doesn’t mean they don’t take joy in sensual pleasures.)  But with vague directions and the assurance that we would simply find this 옛날팥죽, or Old-Fashioned Red Bean Porridge, we hadn’t been counting on it.

The restaurant was short and squat.  Inside, there was a cast-iron stove, rough wood furniture, and a tiny piano.  Outside were jars of doenjang, gochujang, the essential condiments of Korean life, with flowering plants piled around and on top, a garden of pastes and blossoms.  The food was served in the kind of traditional pottery I love most, thick, strong, and effortlessly functional.  I saw some paintings this weekend that reminded me of these plates–how good do you have to be to make something that looks so casually right?

The woman who served us wore a skirt with natural dyes and a deep purple sweater.  She was beautiful, with an aesthetic you don’t see much in Seoul these days but is still popular in Korea.  Modern Koreans aren’t so good at living harmoniously with nature, but there’s still some persistent hope, I suppose, that it’s possible.

We ordered a big bowl of patjuk with both sticky rice cakes and kalguksu or knife-cut wheat flour noodles.  I’d never had kalguksu with patjuk before, but it was surprisingly good.  They tasted even chewier and more delicious in contrast to the smoothness of the beans.  The patjuk came with a little bowl of light brown sugar to add to taste, which meant we could see the flavor change from earthy to round.  The kimchi was very good, too, lightly salted with just a slight sourness that made us want to eat more of everything.

We were very happy.  It would be good to have those powerful beans now.

경남 하동 화개장터의 옛날팥죽, Gyeongnam Hadong Hwagae Jangteo Yeotnal Patjuk, 055-884-5484

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No meat, no fish, no garlic — Could this really be Korean food?

December 16, 2009

I love garlic.  I love garlic more than I love meat, though I love meat as well.  In that way, I am a proud child of Korea, where we eat more garlic per capita than any other country in the world.

So I was shocked when I found out recently that devout Buddhists in Korea generally eat a diet that avoids not only meat and fish, but also garlic, scallions, onions, and leeks.  I was even more shocked that I hadn’t missed the garlic when we ate lunch at a Buddhist temple during our trip.

The morning after eating still-wriggling live octopus, we drove to Chirisan National Park to eat a lunch of 사찰음식, sachal eumshik, or temple food.  Diane’s great-aunt is a devout Buddhist, and she has long had a relationship with this temple and its monks.  So when we told her that we would be driving through South Jeolla Province, she generously arranged for us to eat lunch at this temple, where meals aren’t normally open to the public.

Photo by Diane Choo

Korea is too small a country to really contain wildernesses.  Our national parks often surround Buddhist temples, as the Buddhists retreated into the mountains when persecuted during the Choseon Dynasty.  Chirisan National Park houses seven temples, including Sanggyesa and Hwaeomsa, two of the most famous temples in Korea.  That’s really all I can say about temples.  I grew up an ignorant Presbyterian.

But I do have an opinion on what we ate.  Temple food is popular in Korea even among those who are neither Buddhist nor vegetarian.  Koreans love their meat, but they’ve always eaten their vegetables.  Before the Buddhists were driven into the mountains by the Choseon Dynasty, Buddhism was the favored religion of the preceding Goryeo Dynasty, which encouraged the development of vegetarian Korean cuisine.  But the Buddhist elites weren’t ascetics.  Temple cuisine developed with influences from royal palace cuisine, which I could see in the delicate tofu-stuffed spinach packages we were served.  For them, their dietary prohibitions were no reason not to eat a wide and varying range of foods, and I think we have the Buddhists to thank for the many wild greens, like fern bracken and bellflower root, that are common in a Korean diet.  That, and the hunger borne out of bad harvests and poverty.  Michael Pettid, in his book on Korean culinary history, cites a 1554 text called “A Concise Reference for Famine Relief,” describing 851 types of edible plants and herbs.

The lunch we were served was a beautiful example of the Korean love of namul, the catch-all phrase that describes most vegetable side dishes, whether lightly cooked and seasoned or raw, crunchy, and fresh.

On one plate was a trio of namul, which is the way they’re often served, to better show their contrasting colors, spinach or sigeumchi-namul, fern bracken or gosari-namul, and wild aster or chi-namul.  The spinach was tender, just slightly blanched.  The gosari was obviously freshly gathered rather than dried, as it was chewy without the toughness of dried fern bracken.  But my favorite was the wild aster, which has a strong, somewhat bitter taste that goes so well with just a bit of soy sauce.

There was a salad made almost entirely of fresh cilantro, which was surprising because I’d never seen it in Korean cooking before.  There were pickled maesil plums, the firm, sour green plums pickled with sugar as well as salt; pickled cucumbers, darkened and preserved with soy sauce; and shiraegi-namul on the left, a cooked and seasoned salad of tangy-sour radish leaves, those leafy tops that grow out of Korean radishes.  (Koreans, at least traditionally, never threw anything away.)

Photo by Diane Choo

Here, you can see something that looks like cut-up brown towels.  They’re neungi mushrooms, also known as koutake mushrooms in Japan and apparently known nowhere else, as the only other name I can find for them through Google is the Latin sarcodon aspratus.  They’re rare and expensive but were served to us in luxurious quantities.  They were a little spongy.

Even more luxurious, and more delicious, were the songi or pine mushrooms (also known as matsutake mushrooms in Japan) we were served.  (You can see the tofu-stuffed spinach leaves behind them.)  Sauteed with half-moon slices of Korean summer squash, they were firm and sweet.  Diane’s father marveled at how they had that true pine mushroom smell.  When we got back to Seoul, I saw boxes of them being sold at swank department stores for $100 a pound.   There was so much food, we couldn’t eat it all, but when we left the songi mushrooms, we were told, “You can’t leave the precious songi mushrooms!”  So we ate them, every bite.

Photo by Diane Choo

The vegetables we ate were proud to be vegetables.  There was a clarity of flavor, an assertiveness of texture that was both impressive and calming.  They weren’t hiding behind butter, cheese, or even garlic.  One of the guests, a local practitioner, had brought homemade lotus leaf packets of sticky rice studded with chestnuts and beans.  It tasted wholesome but not aggressively so, the way whole-grain foods sometimes feel.  The same was true of the soup, a vegetarian yukgaejang that was spicy and full-flavored even without the meat.

Photo by Diane Choo

This kind of flavor doesn’t come easily, though.  With so little added, the ingredients have to be of the highest quality.  All around us, we could see what kind of work went into this kind of food—buckets of pine cones from which pine nuts had been painstakingly plucked and broad platforms where red chile peppers were drying in the sun for the best kind of gochukaru.

I’m not giving up my garlic.  I don’t have the purity of mind or the energy of body to do the work I would need to do, which might explain why I will never be a Buddhist monk.  Instead, I am the kind of girl who will run an entire bucket of peeled garlic cloves through a food processor to store and use in the freezer as necessary.  But I might have some garlic-less days every once in awhile.  I think it’s easy to eat and eat and eat, and not even taste what we’re eating any more because we’re so used to it.  Pork tastes better when you don’t eat it everyday, and the same may be true of garlic as well.