Archive for the ‘Seoul’ Category

Duck, duck, beer

July 5, 2012

Sometimes when my sister and I are visiting Seoul, my parents seem to forget that we used to live there. They’ll say, “We’re taking you to this great noodle place,” forgetting that we’ve gone there every year for the last ten years. Which is why I think my dad was so happy to think of a place I’d never been and a food I’d never eaten: 오전명가 (Ohjeon Myeongga) for grilled duck.

We drove about an hour and a half out of the city and ended up on a long curving road up and around Namhansansung, a walled fortress with a long history near Gwangju City in Gyeonggi Province. (If you’ve clicked through to the Namhansansung website, please don’t mention the English translation. I’d make fun of it, but it would be too cheap a shot.) As we drove, my father told a story as meandering as the road about how the king ran away to hide during an invasion. It didn’t sound like it ended too well, but the mountains are now a lush and lovely place popular with weekend hikers.

When we drove up to the restaurant, I automatically walked in the front door and thought, “Where is everyone?” The restaurant was empty because everyone was sitting out back by the creek.

While the adults eat and grill and drink beer and soju to their hearts’ content, their kids wade in the creek and try to catch tadpoles. It made me intensely nostalgic for the days when I was one of those kids.

Luckily, there’s much to enjoy as an adult. Who knows how much I would have enjoyed grilled duck as a child? As an adult, I can attest I enjoy it very much. The meat came marbled and meaty, including some cuts of a tough, hard organ my father said was probably duck heart. I’d never seen raw duck before — its color is obviously richer and redder than chicken, but more burgundy-hued than beef and definitely richer in color than pork. The duck came completely raw and unseasoned, with a giant bowl of chive and onion salad, lettuce, perilla leaves, a couple of tart kimchis, and plenty of salt and fermented bean paste for wrapping everything up.

The food was excellent. As much as I liked the duck, I was enamored with the wild sesame sujebi or torn pasta that was served at the end. I’ve had sujebi before, which are chewy bits of dough cooked in soup, a very cheap Korean lunch. But I’d never had sujebi cooked in wild sesame broth. The seeds had been ground, the broth was thick and almost gritty, with a wonderful, nutty flavor and smell. I was so full of duck by the time it came out, I thought I’d just have a bite or two, but I could not stop eating it. It’s been a while since a Korean dish has really surprised me like this.

Best of all, as new as the duck and the stew and the restaurant were to me, the experience was not. It’d been a long time since I’d been to a restaurant like that, but it was as warm and familiar as my grandmother’s house. I felt like I recognized the creek, the plastic tables, the beer glasses printed with “Cass,” and even the other people enjoying a long and hearty lunch on a balmy Sunday in June. The next time a friend visits me in Korea, this is where I want to take them, to show what my Korea is like.


Gyeonggi-do, Gwangju-Si Jungbuhmyun Ohjeonli 309-1

(031) 746-4425

You can find much better photos, including photos of delicious dishes we didn’t try, and a little map on this Korean blog.


Summer soybeans

July 1, 2012

I always knew Sandong Kalguksu makes the best knife-cut noodles I’ve ever tasted, but I didn’t know they also made one of the best versions of konguksu. Konguksu is a very popular summer noodle dish in Korea, where plain wheat noodles are served in a large bowl of ice-cold fresh soymilk, usually garnished with a few strips of cucumbers. Normally, it’s served with a little dish of salt for you to flavor to taste. You wouldn’t think it would taste like much. It’s a completely vegetarian, even vegan, meal, but it’s filling and sustaining, and much more enjoyable source of protein than a big piece of fatty meat on a hot summer day.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the noodles in this konguksu were superb — they were — but what really surprised me was the broth. Most konguksu broths are thin. When I make soymilk for this dish, I push soybeans that have been briefly cooked and then pureed through a strainer. I don’t know how Sandong makes theirs, but they end up with an insanely thick puree of beans that enrobes each bite of noodle. It’s still a soup, but more the consistency of a thick pureed soup than a thin stock.


1365 Seocho-2-dong, Seocho-gu

Tel: 02-3473-7972


June 22, 2012

I go to Seoul, Korea, at least once a year, and each time I go, I try to figure out what’s going on. Not with real issues like South Korean attitudes toward North Korea, or who is likely to win the next presidential election. I’m on vacation —  I’m only interested in things like, what is the latest trend in patbingsoo, or Korean shaved ice?

In Korea, patbingsoo, or shaved ice with sweet red beans, is so popular that it’s on the menu at KFC. When I was growing up, patbingsoo was colorful and bounteous — shaved ice with milk, then a big pile of sweet red beans, a scoop of some terrible low-grade ice cream, mass-produced little mochi cakes, and lots of little fruit jellies and/or fruit cocktail. I always pushed my ice cream to the side. It was delicious but tacky.

But patbingsoo now seems to be trending minimalist and classy. My sister Mona and I were in Seoul for over a week before we finally sat down to our first shared patbingsoo (and patbingsoo is always shared, another example of how communal Korean food is), but when we did, we were wowed.

The first was at a cafe chain I’d never seen before called Mango Six, which sells fruit shakes, tapioca drinks, and baked goods, as well as a tremendous shaved ice. My sister’s been obsessed with a new Korean drama called 신사의 품격, (something like “A Gentleman’s Dignity”), and Mango Six clearly has a product placement deal with the show. One of the main characters, who has a haircut that is so bad it’s awesome, runs a Mango Six franchise.

Their version is very simple and beautiful. First, the ice flakes are very fine, barely flakes at all. There’s a good sprinkling of my favorite traditional ingredient, toasted soybean flour. The sticky rice cakes are very high quality, and the round ones that look like hard-boiled eggs cut in half actually have a mango-flavored center. Best of all, what is normally crappy ice cream has been replaced with a scoop of tangy frozen yogurt.

The second patbingsoo we shared was very different but equally inspired. Our cousin Ron told us that the best patbingsoo in Seoul was at Deux Cremes on trendy Garosu-gil. It did not disappoint. I have no idea if their tarts are any good, but if I’m going to judge them by their patbingsoo, this is a cafe that thinks carefully about the small but important things.

It looks almost like a modernist sculpture, no? We ordered the green tea bingsoo, and when we saw other tables getting their patbingsoo, my sister and I panicked, thinking maybe it didn’t come with any red beans. Silly us.

It’s buried in the middle! How brilliant is that? It means you don’t end up eating too much pat with your first bites; the ratio of red beans to ice stays more constant as you dig deeper and deeper into the bowl. The flakes were not nearly as fine as at Mango Six — they were actually a little coarse and the only thing I didn’t like — but the green tea flavor was real and the scoop of ice cream high-quality. Plus, they add salty honey-roasted peanuts. So brilliant, I didn’t even miss not having little rice cakes.

Both versions are a little pricey, about 12,000 or 14,000 won, but as I mentioned before, they’re supposed to be shared. Two is a good number, but really, three or four friends could be pretty happy sharing one as well.

And it’s not just the fancy cafes that are doing these stripped-down bings. Paris Baguette, the ubiquitous bakery chain, was advertising an “old-fashioned” bingsoo with just ice, beans, and injeolmi, the soft squares of rice cakes dusted with soybean flour.

Soju made even more convenient

June 7, 2012


Soju in a box! In an individual portion-size juice box!

Our food, with drinks

June 5, 2012

For a long time, coming home to Seoul was all about nostalgia. In the two weeks out of the year I spend in my hometown, I wanted only to make the rounds of all my favorites, eating my fill of cold noodles, dumplings, and all the other basic, beloved foods that are never as good in New York as they are at home. And then when Diane and I started working on the cookbook, I wanted to eat through all the traditional favorites that were never my family’s traditions, like stinky cheonggukjang stew and spicy dakgalbi.

But now, I’m a little more curious what’s new. Seoul has changed so much since I lived here. It makes me a little sad to go shopping in Myeongdong and see edgy design stores selling Toms shoes and Baggu totes — when you live in New York, you want to travel somewhere that reminds you nothing of New York — but I’m hopeful, in food if in nothing else, that Koreans will put their own stamp on whatever they adopt.

수불, or SuhBuhl (my stab at a transliteration), declares, “Our food, with drinks,” on its business cards. Near the top of the winding street at the center of 서래마을, or Seorae Village, in Banpo-dong, SuhBuhl is one of many airy and open restaurants, cafes, izakayas, bakeries, and wine bars that’s transformed this part of town into past ten or so years. Seorae Village is known as the French part of Seoul, the location of the Lycee Francaise and the residential base of the several hundred French expats who live in Seoul, and the proliferation of these hip new places is often attributed to the chic population’s influence, though the famous Paris Croissant bakery, which reportedly sells authentic French bread with imported French flour, feels more uniquely Korean than French (more on that in a later post).

Dining al fresco in Korea used to mean eating at a plastic tarp-covered pojang-macha, sitting on cheap stools if you got a seat at all. SuhBuhl is sleeker. The furniture is all blond wood, clean lines, but not overly designed or luxe. There’s actually a rolled-up curtain of plastic on the open terrace, which is filled with traditional low tables where diners sit on the floor, though with those neat cut-outs I love under the tables for diners’ legs.

It’s a comfortable place with surprisingly comfortable food, despite its reputation for fusion cooking. There’s a whole page devoted to makgeolli, the fizzy Korean rice wine, and an extensive wine menu.  Unlike many Korean wine bars, they actually sell wine by the glass, even if it’s only one white and one red. (The white was very serviceable for a warm night.)

The menu is divided into salads, different kinds of meats, and stews, all remniscent of Korean food, especially Korean drinking food, but with small, surprising changes. I would have loved to try more of the menu, but four of the dishes was more than enough for the four of us, since they were in classic Korean drinking food portions.

We started with the tofu sesame salad, which was very plain but also quite fresh. Korea has an incredible variety of greens and sprouts, and it was a good, crisp contrast to our other, richer dishes.

The fried chicken in black sesame sauce was my favorite. Both this and the sweet and sour pork dish were fried right, completely dry and with a crust strong enough to stand up to the sauce without getting soggy. The fried chicken actually tasted quite a bit like traditional sweet and sour Korean-Chinese food, but with a slightly nutty flavor. My sister thought it was a bit sweet, but I have a soft spot for anything that reminds me of my childhood sweet and sour favorite, tangsooyook, and there wasn’t a hint of gooeyness or gluey-ness in the sauce.

One touch that felt very Korean to me were the plentiful vegetable garnishes, even on the meaty main dishes. There were also nice pickles that were not kimchi. Most Korean bar food isn’t very herbaceous since the craving for fat that comes with being drunk doesn’t normally include a craving for salad. But Korean food for me is at its best when there are strong contrasts between fatty and crisp, rich and acidic. The steak in a spicy gochujang sauce didn’t feel so Korean, mainly because the beef was rare and tender and the sauce not fiery hot, but the enormous bed of soybean sprouts and zucchini did. The fried garlic on top was a nice touch, especially in the quantity. You can see that there’s an attention to plating (which in itself is not foreign to Korean cooking as bright colors and garnishes are important), but it’s not at all fussy.

This was probably the least interesting dish, even if it was, like the fried sesame chicken, quite tasty. I should have looked more closely at the menu, but I think it may have been fried with sweet rice flour, which would explain its nice chewiness. In fact, as tangsooyook, I would have been thrilled. Not too much sauce, dry fried. It was probably a bit too similar to the fried chicken dish, not that that stopped me from eating plenty of it. It’s the kind of food you could eat a piece of every couple of minutes all night long, especially if you’re in a drunken stupor.

We were not. Our normally hard-drinking cousins were abstaining from anything stronger than beer and wine, and only in small doses. There are so many good places to eat in Seoul, I’m not sure I would rush back, but it’s such a pleasant space and the kind of place you could happily bring a date or a visiting friend or even kids — there were quite a few families eating when we got there. The food wasn’t as expensive as you might think, with each dish hovering in the 20,000 won range and big enough to feed many, though with drinks I’m sure the bill would add up. And I would love to take a crack at that list of makgeolli.

수불: 서초구 반포동 88-6, 영창 빌딩 1층, (02) 3478-0886

Suhbuhl: Seocho-gu, Banpo-dong 88-6, Youngchang Building 1st Floor, tel: (02) 3478-0886.

Eating yogurt pudding, 1-2-3

November 7, 2010

My trip to Korea this time was short and pretty hectic.  I didn’t do half of what I intended to do.  But on my last day, before heading out to the airport, I did try a little jar of yogurt-flavored pudding that my sister insisted I try, via my mother, from our favorite bakery, Kim Young Mo.


Like honey, sunshine, and love.

Even better when you get to the caramel bottom.

Kudos to Mr. Kim!  For more on how his life was inspired by the good smells of fresh bread, see this recent Korea Times article.

(Obviously, I’ve been out of it.  My excuse is that I started a new job.  But hope springs eternal, and I believe I will start writing again!)

Tofu donuts

October 17, 2010

I can’t begrudge the rapid spread of Dunkin’ Donuts throughout Seoul because the stores are so intrinsically, uniquely Korean.

I tried the simple glazed one.  It was springy and surprisingly moist.  Not bad.  But also not great.  I’d rather eat a “Well-Being” sticky rice sesame twist.

Tilting pork fat

February 8, 2010

I’m in Korea again.  This time, it’s not primarily for cookbook research, but more for family reasons.  It’s such a short trip, a few days in Seoul, then Guam (don’t ask), then Lunar New Year back in Seoul and a flight back to JFK the next day.  Of course, I am taking advantage of the unique opportunities Seoul presents.

Like eating pork belly on a tilted grill.

I can’t even remember the name, it’s just a new place in the alleys near the Gangnam subway station, that my cousin and I went to last night.  The samgyupssal or pork belly is served with your usual accompaniments—perilla leaves, red leaf lettuce, scallion salad—but also with thin slices of sticky rice cake that you use to wrap around your grilled bit of pork.  It wasn’t so good that I would urge you to rush there, but pork is pork, always enjoyable, and I really liked the chewy, tactile layer around the crisp belly.

I also love that the grill is tilted, not only to drain the fat off the pork, but to direct the fat towards the kimchi and mushrooms.  The edges of the kimchi got crispy, and the thick cabbage almost invisibly absorbed so much clear, golden fat, you could almost pretend you didn’t know why this kimchi had a particularly delicious flavor.

The night before, after sleeping all day, I had gone with my parents to our favorite kalguksu place where the noodles are handmade and the jokbal, or boiled pig’s foot, glistens like caramel.  They pile the plate high with bones, trotters, and thick, quivering slices skin, layered on top of fat, layered on top of meat.  It does almost taste like caramel, with a slick, rich feel in your mouth.  (No wonder it tastes like caramel – it’s cooked with black taffy, as well as soybean paste and ginger.)

You eat it the same way you eat so many Korean meats — wrapped up with lettuce, ssamjang or bean paste, and maybe a slice or two of raw garlic and hot pepper, though you might start with a swipe through salted shrimp sauce.  Koreans really love the briny flavors of seafood with the melting flavors of pork.

I asked my mom how to make jokbal, and she had this look in her eyes like, “Oh God, she’s going to want to include it in her cookbook.”  She quickly said, “You boil it, but you can’t do it at home!”  Don’t worry, dear mother, I won’t be experimenting with pig’s feet at home, at least not for this cookbook.

I am embarrassed to admit that I tried to gnaw on a trotter, but I couldn’t really follow through.  Looking at the cleaned bones, I felt a little bit like a beast.  A wolf, maybe.

My cousin has invited me to have dinner with her again tonight — more pork.  She says this place has neck meat to die for.

My mother’s friend told me that if you dream about pigs, that means good luck.  Having eaten so much pork, I would think pigs would be flying through my dreams by now.

Sandong Son Kalguksu or (Sandong Handmade Knife-Cut Noodles), 3473-7972, Seocho-gu, Seocho-2-dong 1365.

I Love Cheonggukjang

November 16, 2009

It certainly wasn’t love at first taste – I wholeheartedly agreed with Grace back in February when she wrote about the “muddy” non-deliciousness of cheonggukjang jjigae. But last week, my friend introduced me to a version so wonderful and delicious that I want to bring everybody I love back to enjoy it with me.

best cheonggukjang ever

Unobtrusively located in a small back alley near Anguk Station, the restaurant (Byeolgoong Shikdang) has about six items on their menu. For 7,000 KRW (slightly more than $6) each, my friend and I ordered the most perfect stew.  Their cheonggukjang jjigae is the right balance of nutty, salty and creamy with some chewiness from enoki mushrooms and softness from the fermented beans.  The accompanying rice and sides similarly so pure and tasty that my friend and I ended up eating too much, waddling out of the restaurant but with no regrets.

On a different note, I don’t know if seaweed (김) counts as a side dish, but in this case, I’ll count it because it was a notable highlight among the sides.  Their roasted unadorned seaweed has a sweetness that made me stuff sheet after sheet into my mouth.  It is so good that the seaweed with some rice and some soy sauce for dipping would be a lazy, but simple, complete and happy meal on itself.

Byeolgoong Shikdang (별궁식당)

Near Anguk Station (Line 3), Seoul, Korea

Tel. (02) 736-2176

Sujaebi – Handmade Comfort Food

November 8, 2009

My friends and I could remember neither the name nor the exact location of the restaurant, but we climbed into a taxi anyway and asked the driver to take us to “that place that’s famous for their sujaebi close to the Kyongbok Palace”. He knew exactly where to take us and a short 20 minutes later, we were happily slurping on our steaming bowls of sujaebi.

Samcheongdong Sujaebi

Sujaebi is a lot like kalguksu except the noodles are not knife-cut. Instead, pieces of dough are flattened and torn off by hand. The version at Samcheongdong Sujaebi was hearty and refreshing – the noodles so smooth though that I wondered if they had indeed been torn by hand. Regardless, the noodles were comforting, the clams in the soup added a nice chewiness and the half-moon pieces of squash made me feel virtuous and healthy.

Samcheongdong Sujaebi

Samcheongdong 102, Jongro-gu, Seoul

Tel: (02) 735-2965

Operating Hours: 11:30AM- 9:00PM