Archive for the ‘Korean Food’ Category

Chuseok, Songpyeon and Pretty Daughters

October 1, 2012

A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Maria is working on a career in optometry. She was a tester of recipes for our upcoming cookbook. Grace and I are thrilled that she agreed to share her experiences here with us – Diane

During my summer back in Berkeley, I came across a job posting on Craigslist for a recipe tester position. It was the first time I heard of such a position and immediately became excited at the opportunity of combining my love for cooking and my love for science. While testing recipes for Diane and Grace, it brought me back to my organic chemistry lab days when I had to accurately measure and follow directions in hopes that my experiment turned out well.

A few days ago, I was instructed to test a recipe for making songpyeon (half-moon rice cakes). As usual, I started out by glancing over the recipe before taking a moment to read the history that provides me with some background and allows me to better understand the dish. Reading this portion is something I truly enjoy because it allows me to learn about Korean culture and cuisine. But a sentence caught my attention and made me pause and re-read it. It stated that the person that makes pretty songpyeon will have a pretty daughter. I found this idea captivating and a special touch to the history section of the recipe.

Maria’s first attempt at making songpyeon

However, when I began testing this recipe, this statement started to feel threatening to me. I felt the pressure of making this recipe work because like all women, I want to give rise to pretty daughters. At first, I played around with this idea, jokingly telling Diane that I did not want an ugly daughter, but proceeding with extra caution. Unfortunately, and without a doubt, I failed. Too many things went wrong, and I ran into trouble at almost every step. By the time I needed to shape the rice cakes, I had become frustrated so I decided to form the rice cakes as if I were making Mexican empanadas, something with which I was familiar. This approach did not help either and I lost hope, but carried on. My final product was deformed, oily, mushy, and definitely not pretty.

Yesterday was Chuseok, a day where Koreans celebrate the fall and harvest season with food and drink. Songpyeon is one of the major foods prepared for Chuseok. I want to wish you a Happy Chuseok and the best of luck in making beautiful songpyeon.

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!

Do you really want to know how to make seolleongtang?

May 1, 2012

At this point, I have to confess, if I had not already told the whole world I was writing a cookbook, I might just quietly slink away.

But since I have, and we must finish, I thought I’d share some of the difficult questions that have been paralyzing us.

Seolleongtang is one of my favorite Korean foods. To put it most simply, it is a soup made of ox parts, including bones, boiled until the stock takes on a milky-white color. Koreans eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, because it is so soothing. When it comes to the table, you might dismiss its weak flavor. But once you add lots of scallions, coarse salt, fresh pepper, and the sour intensity of radish kimchi, the soup comes alive.

That said, the first time I made it, I wondered, “Is this worth it?”

I’m not the kind of cook that likes to make life difficult for herself for the fun of it. I like to cook more than the person who’s popping a frozen dinner into the microwave, but that’s mainly because that frozen dinner tastes terrible. I’m impressed by friends who make their own jam or bacon or croquembouche. But I am lazy, and my cost-benefit analysis is as strict as an economist’s. Unless my homemade version tastes a lot better or costs a lot less than a version I pay someone else to make, I’m generally not interested, especially if making it at home takes an enormous amount of effort. There are exceptions for foods that give me a great warm–and beneficial–feeling of nostalgia, goodwill, and righteousness. (The converse is also true, which means I generally don’t like paying for food that I think I could make myself.)

Seolleongtang in Korea is cheap. My mom occasionally made it at home on a whim, but it was so easy to go out and buy a hot bowl for $5, there was no reason to make it at home. You don’t even have to go out of your way to eat a fantastic version. I have a strong memory of being 8 years old, going to Seoul for the summer, and escaping the hotel’s overpriced and yucky Western breakfast to eat seolleongtang in an alley, and thinking it was one of the best breakfasts I’d ever had.

In New York, there is a famous restaurant on 32nd Street that specializes in seolleongtang. Gahm Mi Oak is good, not great, like most food on that street.

So the question for me was, is my homemade seolleongtang so much better than Gahm Mi Oak‘s that it’s worth making at home? Or given that this cookbook is meant for an audience of someone than than me, how good would homemade seolleongtang have to be for you to make it at home?

Don’t answer until you hear what it takes.

My cookbook on royal palace food lists these ingredients for a proper seolleongtang: half a cow’s head, 1 cow’s foot, 1 set of mixed beef bones, 2 knee bones, 1 beef tongue, 1 pound brisket, 1 beef shank, 1 spleen, and 1 quantity of some ingredient that is such an obscure cut of meat that neither my mother nor her friend, a professional dumpling maker, knew what was. Another cookbook called for a shorter list of meats, though still rich in offal: ox-knee bone, “gristle” (can you imagine asking the guy at Whole Foods for 600 grams of gristle?), ox-tongue, beef brisket and beef shank. This cookbook, published in English, had the awesome tip, “Ox-head meat, ox-hooves and/or breast meat may be added.”

My mother, on the other hand, said all we needed was brisket and a beef shank bone cut into pieces.

So we bought a giant bag of beef bones. We soaked the bones for an hour or so to drain the blood, which makes the broth clearer and cleaner. Then we put the soup bones in the pot with water, brought it to a boil, and let it simmer. After two hours, we removed the bones from the pot, trimmed the meat and tendon off the bones, set aside the broth, and then put the bones back in the pot with more water. After another two hours, we removed the bones, poured out the broth, combined it with the earlier broth, and put the bones back in the pot again with more water. After yet another two hours, we did it again. We also made a separate broth at some point with a good cut of brisket, which we combined with the bone broth at the end.

The end-result was a pale, milky color, though not as opaquely white as I’m used to. My mother said, “I think the restaurants color their soups.” Hmm. It was tasty, but not earth-shattering. I would rather take the subway to 32nd Street.

I wondered if it were possible to make it in a less complicated way. It’s one thing to boil a pot for hours, another to have to watch it constantly. So the next time, instead of following my mom’s careful boil and drain, boil and drain instructions, I just boiled the bones for 8 straight hours. It tasted pretty good, but the soup didn’t turn white at all.

Then Diane took over. She tried boiling bones and brisket separately, she tried boiling them together, and she tried combining them in complicated stages. She noticed that as she boiled the bones in stages, per my mother’s instructions, the broth got whiter and whiter. She wrote in her notes, “We wondered whether are truly no short cuts to this soup as was preached in Dae Jang Geum.”

And now, I am sitting here wondering if I should go try to find some ox knee bones and gristle and try yet again. But even if I found ox knee bones and gristle, and made an absolutely delicious and perfectly white seolleongtang that had to be soaked and/or boiled for 10 hours, would you be interested in that recipe? Or would you rather be provided a simpler recipe with more easily sourced cuts of meat that’s tasty but not really the right traditional color? And even in that case, would you be willing to boil the damn bones, shifting them in and out of the pot, every two hours for 8 hours? That’s practically like feeding a newborn.

You know that saying, “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth?” That’s what writing a cookbook is like, sitting in a kitchen with hundreds of invisible cooks whose minds you are desperately trying to read.

How many dinner guests does it take to make patbingsoo?

August 3, 2011

After a very long hiatus, I did a test-drive Korean Sunday Dinner this weekend. I made cold soybean noodles and braised pork belly, and we all laughed and drank a lot of baekseju and bourbon. And then I decided to present dessert, shaved ice with red beans and berries and condensed milk: patbingsoo!

Except my ice shaver wasn’t cooperating. And we decided we had to get up to see what was wrong. The only one smart enough to realize bending over and staring at it was not going to help was the friend who, laughing in the corner, took this picture.

We did manage to get it to work well enough in the end, and all of us ate a small but precious mound of shaved ice. I’m facing a month of work for travel, but so excited to start cooking again in the fall.

When tofu almost happens

March 22, 2011

Gratuitous cute photo of my father at a tofu restaurant in Gangneung.

The World Institute for Kimchi is a relatively new organization funded by the Korean government. The director, Park Wan-soo, has declared that it will determine how best to artificially insert bacteria into kimchi, so as to precisely control fermentation. If they know how to make kimchi taste exactly the way they want it to, they can create the ideal kimchi for export. For the US, the goal is to “tone down the spiciness and sourness,” for Japan, to “heighten the sweetness.”

It’s not really my place to say this to the World Institute for Kimchi, but I have to. They’ve missed the whole point.

As fewer people make kimchi at home, and in general, as fewer people cook at home in every culture, there are many things that are lost: family recipes, history, the taste of your mother’s hands.

But to me, the biggest reason to cook at home, and especially to engage in a process as amazingly unpredictable as fermentation, is to remember in the most fundamental way possible that there are some things we can’t control. In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz‘s manifesto on the human need for fermented food, he argues that fermentation is a way for us to combat a culture that is obsessed with “terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene.” Katz, a white hippie and AIDS activist living in rural North Carolina, seems to get something Koreans, who practically invented fermentation, are maybe starting to forget. The flavor of kimchi depends on temperature, moisture, the sweetness of the cabbage, the brightness of the hot peppers, a thousand variable factors. It’s not hard to make, and yet my mother, with 50+ years of experience behind her, still never knows exactly how her kimchi will turn out. That’s why each batch is a minor miracle.

When life feels hard and tragic, the minor miracles are more important than ever.

So this is how I’ve broken almost six months of writer’s block. So sorry, I didn’t intend to write my own manifesto. Rather, I wanted to tell you about my attempt to make tofu with Youngsun Lee, an extraordinary chef and wonderful person, how it didn’t quite work out, but that it was fun anyway.

I met Youngsun, of whom I am in complete awe, about a year and a half ago, when he generously volunteered to teach a kimchi-making class for a KAPA fundraiser. I’m proud to say that I consider him a friend, and because he has done so much for me, I was happy to do something small for him: bring back some gansoo, or tofu coagulant, back from Korea. And last December, he and his wife Amie, along with my friend Danica, decided to try it out.

Tofu is essentially curdled soymilk. First, you soak dried soybeans overnight, at least 10 hours. Then you rub off their translucent skins. Puree the beans with water, at about a ratio of 1:2, beans to water. (I imagine my poor ancestors just pounding away without a blender.) Then you strain the pureed soybeans, and the liquid that exudes is soymilk.

Next, you heat the soymilk. When it’s at about 80 degrees Celsius, just before boiling, you add a tiny bit of gansoo. We experimented with differing amounts, but a little bit, about half a tablespoon for 5 cups soymilk, went a very long way. Then continue heating and bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

Gansoo is another example of something that traditionally, you don’t create through an industrial process. You can use Epsom salts, which are easily obtainable in the US, or Japanese nigari which is magnesium chloride, but traditionally, it’s what’s left when you extract salt from seawater. We tasted a drop each, and it was the single most bitter thing I have ever placed on my tongue. I would find it hard to believe that this magic coagulant is basically seawater, except that’s what we were told in Gangneung, a town on the eastern coast famed for their pre-tofu or sundubu. Everywhere we went, my mom asked the restaurant owner where we could get some gansoo. They just looked at her blankly and said, “Just go out in the middle of the ocean.”

As soon as you add a bit of gansoo, you’ll see the soymilk start curdling immediately. Our curds were small, but I imagine that by fiddling you could make those big, luscious curds that make me crazy at Japanese izakayas.

You then shape the curds into a block to set. Ideally, you would use a perforated mold. I just had a bamboo steamer and some cheesecloth, which didn’t faze Youngsun at all. He just bandaged up the curds into a neat blob, and then put a pot on it as a weight to press out the liquid.

After about 15 minutes or so, the block had solidified, but it wasn’t like the very firm tofu you see in grocery stores, the kind you could practically run over with a truck. It was still quite tender. It made me feel quite tender towards it.

The reason why we “almost” made tofu? For some reason, the soybeans I bought at Hmart on 32nd St. resulted in tofu with a bitter, very unpleasant flavor. When we skipped the soybean step and instead used very fresh soymilk Youngsun had bought in Long Island City, the tofu was much better.

Even so, our last batch wasn’t great. But Youngsun wasn’t too perturbed. He and Amie went off happily enough with the leftover gansoo, and I got the feeling they were going to go through another couple of rounds.

So this post isn’t one of those informative, “How to make ___” blog posts that will get many thousand hits.

(The most I can do for you are some how-to photos of photos from a tofu restaurant in Gangneung.)

Still, I really did have fun. We ate an impromptu lunch of leftover lentil-chipotle soup and homemade brown bread, and Amie praised both rapturously while teasing her husband about how he should bake bread at home, too. It is enormously gratifying to have the wife of a chef tell you that she likes your homemade cooking!

But more importantly, I saw a side of tofu I had never seen before. I love tofu, whether it’s custardy and pure with a dab of soy sauce or whether it’s mashed into pork for tender meatballs. But I hadn’t really appreciated how special it was until I saw that tofu doesn’t always happen. It’s strange to think making something that doesn’t turn out quite right can restore your faith in life. But it did and it does.

Mandu Wrapper Taste Off

January 27, 2011

In celebration of the New Year, I decided to make some mandu (aka mandoo or Korean dumplings) – only to walk into the Asian supermarket and find too many brands of dumpling wrappers. Not knowing anything about the different brands, I picked three to test:

New Hong Kong Noodle Company Pot Sticker Wraps

1) New Hong Kong Noodle Company Pot Sticker Wraps: 34 wrappers in the package, each 3.65 inches in diameter. These wrappers were obviously thicker than the other two. They held their shape fairly well as they were stuffed, unlike the other two, which were more prone to ripping.

Gyoza Skins

2) Gyoza Skins: 46 wrappers in the package, each approximately 3.4 inches in diameter. These wrappers were very thin, and I had to take care not to rip them.

Assi Brand "찹쌀" Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

3)  Assi Brand “찹쌀” Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper: About 24 wrappers per package, each 4 inches in diameter. In Korean, 찹쌀 is glutinous rice. Would this “special ingredient” affect the texture and flavor of the wrappers? I was eager to find out. While making the dumplings, I found these to be a bit too big and more unwieldy than the other two.

I thought that the best way to test the wrappers would be to cook them using three common methods: steaming, pan-frying and boiling.

Steamed dumplings. Clockwise from top left: Pot Sticker Wraps, Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

I love steamed dumplings – unadulterated by oil or by too much water. I couldn’t tell if the Pot Sticker Wraps and Gyoza Skins were completely cooked through because their edges remained opaque and white. However, the durable Pot Sticker Wraps resisted sticking to the steamer while the other two didn’t resist, stuck to the steamer and ripped when they were taken out. In terms of taste, the Pot Sticker Wraps were tough and hard, while the other two, despite the tears, were soft and moist. Taste trumped presentation. Round 1 winner: Gyoza Skins (they held together better than the Jumbo Dumplings).

Pan-fried mandu. Clockwise from top left: Pot Sticker Wraps, Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

That I love steamed dumplings doesn’t mean that I don’t also love the crispy yumminess of pan-fried dumplings! And perhaps there’s nothing that a tablespoon of canola oil can’t improve as all three wrappers were tasty. But the Pot Sticker Wraps remained tough, while the Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper mandus looked (crispy and translucent) and tasted delicious. Winners: It’s a tie! Gyoza Skin and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper.

Boiled mandu. From top to bottom: Pot Sticker Wraps, Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

For me, the mandus pictured above seem lonely bobbing around in broth without the chewy company of rice cakes (tteok). But I shouldn’t complain as they still tasted good. The Pot Sticker Wraps got points for consistency: that is, in all three trials, they remained tough and chewy. The Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper tasted a bit too flour-y and it was so loose that the stuffing seemed to get lost inside. The Gyoza Skins, on the other hand, were perfect: slippery, noodle-like in texture, vacuum-packing and becoming one with the stuffing.  Winner: Gyoza Skins.

This post is by no means a definitive mandu wrapper tasting and testing, but hopefully, it is a good start. My winner that day were the Gyoza Skins, but I vacillated a lot between them and the Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper. Did the glutinous rice make a difference at the end? Not for me. People who like chewy and tough will certainly prefer the Pot Sticker Wraps.

Soju Tasting

December 1, 2010

From L to R: Jinro 24; Chamisul Original; Chamisul Fresh; Saan Soju; Chum-Churum; Chum-Churum “Feel~! so Cool”

It wasn’t my original intention to taste three sojus from Jinro (the first half of the lineup) and three from Lotte Liquor (the second half of the lineup), the two largest Korean soju producers.  I was just looking for different soju labels for sale at my local Korean market in Oakland, and those were the ones I found (all 375 mLs and $3.99 except for Jinro 24 ($4.79) and Saan Soju ($1.99)).

To be honest, I had a difficult time picking up any differences among the six labels. They all carried a kick from high alcohol content and were vaguely sweet. Literally blindfolded, there were only a few distinguishing qualities that I could tease out from each glass.

The first: the appropriately named JINRO 24 (24% v/v alc.) was recognizably hotter than the others. Coarse and rough, if forced to identify a masculine soju in this bunch (I know, how can a beverage be feminine or masculine? – but I can’t help it, I picked up this habit while describing wine), this one would be it.  According to the label, it is “made with grain neutral spirits, sugar and citric acid.”

Distilled from 60% grain, 20% sweet potato, and 20% tapioca and “spirits”, CHAMISUL ORIGINAL (20.1% v/v alc.) was my favorite.  It just tasted fresh and even.  In comparison, CHAMISUL FRESH (19.5% v/v alc.) felt ever so slightly flat.  On Jinro’s website, they claim to add a “natural sweetener from Finland” to the FRESH version – wonder what that sweetener is?  The contents label for FRESH was more ambiguous with “neutral spirits and spirits distilled from 50% rice and 50% barley”.  To me, the ORIGINAL was more fresh than the FRESH.

The sweet potato-based SAAN SOJU (21% v/v alc) had some green tea extract added to it (according to the label) though none was perceived (by color, taste or smell).

And finally, the CHUM-CHURUM with the plainly worded label (20% v/v alc.) was indistinguishable from the CHUM-CHURUM “Feel~! so Cool” with the flirty girl dominating the bottle (19.5% v/v alc.) despite the 0.5% v/v difference in alcohol.  They’re both made from sweet potatoes with sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Since only two companies were covered here, this is only the beginning.  I’d love to compare other popular brands to those tasted today in addition to hopefully finding here in the U.S., soju made by smaller, lesser known companies.

Mountains, rice wine, bibimbap

October 15, 2010


Vines covering the wall of a Buddhist temple near the start of the trail.


The way to Ulsan Bawi, the craggy northern face of Seorak Mountain, is always vivid with color.  In early October, the leaves hadn’t really started to change color, but Korean hikers like to wear lots of bright orange and red.  Even pink is not a color reserved for women.

I love the way Koreans love the mountains.  Despite a longstanding belief in the qi or power of mountains, Korean appreciation for mountains is not spiritual, at least not in the Western, ethereal sense.  There is certainly a tradition of asceticism, of solitude and silence among Buddhist monks, and there are several temples on the way to Ulsan Bawi, but the boisterous majority enjoy the mountains the way Koreans enjoy most things, with all their bodies and all their might.


Guarding the bridge at the start of the trail.


I walked alone, having left my parents to putter around the base, but everyone else walked in packs, at least three if not six or more.  It’s a relatively short hike, about 6 kilometers (or 3.7 miles) round-trip, but nearly everyone was outfitted with hiking boots, backpacks, walking sticks, and hats, golf caps for men and visors for women.  The visors came in all colors and materials.  I was dying to ask the woman sporting one bedazzled in silver sequins where she had bought it.

Although the trail to Ulsan Bawi ends in a vertiginous staircase, the vast majority of hikers were middle-aged and older.  I’d say a good 50% were over 50.  They climbed slowly but with fervor.  We are not a lazy people.  I passed three middle-aged women talking about how there are so many places to go—Tibet, Nepal!

Luckily, most of the way the trail was broad and accessible.  The trail starts on a wide paved road following a rocky stream, which leads to metal walkways paved with springy tire scraps. On the way, there were two ahjummas selling homemade pumpkin candy, who called out, “Try some yeot, only 500 won!” in between texting on their cellphones.  Further up was a rest stop, by which I mean more than a couple of benches and pit toilets.  This rest stop had three or four restaurants selling Korean favorites, like mixed rice bowls and spicy rice cakes, as well as cold sodas and Buddhist prayer beads.  The owners stood outside as we streamed by, reminding us, “Be sure to have a cup of makgeolli rice wine on your way down!”  In case you regretted not stopping at this rest stop, there was another one a kilometer or so up the trail.

But most of the hikers on the trail were carrying plenty of their own food.  As the climb got steeper, they peeled off in little groups.  Under the shade of pine trees, they laid out their spread.  No sandwiches or granola bars for them—they were carrying full dosirak lunches of rice with plenty of banchan, small, salty side dishes that taste even better in the mountain air, judging by the happy looks on their faces.


I think all national parks should have adorable bear mascots.


When I got to Heundeul Bawi, or Shaky Rock, the hike became serious.  The flat rock face was engraved with Chinese characters, which I unfortunately can’t read, but I appreciated the paintings on the small temple that showed a man surrounded by mountains.  From there, it was less than a kilometer to Ulsan Bawi, yet it quickly became the longest leg of the trip.  The stair case seemed to have no end, but the hikers coming down assured us it wasn’t much further, even as one woman laughingly said, “Sometimes, you have to hear lies to keep going!”


I hope when I am 70, I am still climbing stairs like this.


It somehow helped that the stairs had been painted a dull orange—it made it easier to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  The stair case made a few turns, there was a tight squeeze through some rocks, and then one last short climb which led to a small flat rock looking out at Ulsan Bawi.


I didn't bring any hiking clothes or equipment to Korea. Oh well.


The rock is small, only 100 square feet or so, so we all sat squeezed together, resting our exhausted thighs and marveling at the view.  There was a tattered taegukki or Korean flag on the rail, which people posed next to proudly.  Part of the makeshift deck was taken up by a vendor, who had somehow lugged a desk, a small boombox, medals, drinks, and a photo-taking kit up here, though how he managed to get up the staircase with all that crap, I could not imagine.  He didn’t do much of a hard sell, though; he stuck to quietly selling cups of instant hot coffee to people who asked.

All the chatter, the plastic tarps at the rest stops, the hot coffee vendor at the top, none of it took away from the beauty of Seorak Mountain.  Despite the eating, there was no trash.  The stream ran clear and cold.  The bare boulders shone white against the green tree tops, and I wished I could come back when they would shine even brighter against orange, red, and gold.  My father said, “Doesn’t it look like Yosemite?”  I couldn’t agree—it doesn’t have the majesty of remoteness and danger.  As hard as the climb is, I imagine it can’t compare to Half Dome.  But I loved that these mountains felt familiar, tough but accessible, even to the grandmothers who clawed their way up there.

The legend of Ulsan Bawi is this: the Creator of heaven and earth sent out a call to all the boulders and rocks to come create the most beautiful mountain in the world, Geumgansan, which is now in North Korea.  Ulsan Bawi tried to go, but its enormous mass kept it from getting there in time.  On the way back, it stopped in the mountains of Seorak, saw how beautiful it was, and decided to stay.


The best thing to eat after a climb -- sanchae bibimbap, a mixed rice bowl with wild herbs and vegetables.


In Korea, even the mountains love mountains.


And the best thing to drink -- makgeolli, a lightly fizzy rice wine.