Archive for the ‘Bibimbap’ Category

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.



Jeonju values

November 16, 2009

Photo by Diane Choo

Korea is a country of regions, provinces, and towns.  People feel strongly about where they come from and where you come from, too.  Each region has its own reputation and its own way of doing things, but the differences aren’t always visible ones.  South Korea has had too much destroyed, by war and by overenthusiastic modernization, to show the diversity of its regions in something as obvious as architecture.

But it’s hard to destroy food and food memories.  Seoul, a city full of people who came from somewhere else, is overflowing with restaurants named Suwon Galbi, Mahsan Ahgu-jjim, and Chungmu Kimbap, each name consisting of the name of the town and the dish it made famous.  Korea is a small country, North and South together the size of Minnesota, but regional pride drives food culture as much as its drives politics and society.

Which is how we ended up, seven of us in a mini-van, like the beginning of a screwball comedy, driving around Jeolla-do, the southwest part of South Korea. In February, Diane and I had eaten our way around most of the other major regions, but we had only spent one night in Jeolla-do, the culinary center of Korea.  In our last meal there, the owner of the restaurant had said, when pressed to explain what made Jeolla-do food different, “The food here has gamchil-maht.”

But what did that mean, gamchil-maht?  Different people we talked to had different theories of what made Jeolla-do food special, but it was never anything simple and pat, like, “They have the most refined, royal palace-style food,” or “They have a way with bean sprouts,” or “They use more fish sauce than anyone else.”  I looked up gamchil-maht in a dictionary and found “savoriness, deliciousness,” which didn’t help me understand what actually made Jeolla-do food savory and delicious.

Talking to our parents, we came to understand gamchil-maht meant a particular kind of deliciousness.  Flavor that’s sharper, brighter, subtler and yet more intense at the same time.  Flavor that even if you’re full, draws you to eat one more bite and maybe another after that.  Flavor that creates hunger even where there is none.

So we had to return to Jeolla-do and to Jeolla-do alone.  And appropriately enough, on our first night in Jeonju, we ate two dinners.

Jeonju is one of the larger cities of North Jeolla Province, only a couple of hours from Seoul.  As you approach it, it looks like another Seoul suburb with high-rise apartments of no distinction.  It does have a pretty little historic district, though, of old-style houses with curving slate-tile roofs and sliding doors covered in rice paper.  The hanok village actually looks a little too good to be old.  Although the village houses a working paper factory, several craft centers, restaurants, and a guesthouse or two, it doesn’t feel very functional.  But I can imagine in 10, maybe 20 years, the paint will have faded a bit, the tiles won’t be so shiny, and the village will feel more authentic.

Since we were in Jeonju, we felt like we had to try the dish that bears its name, Jeonju bibibimap, even if Diane and I had already tried it at the most famous restaurant serving this dish, 가족회관, Gajokhoegwan, in February and met the owner.  This time, though, we decided to go elsewhere, and we ended up at 성미당, Seong Mi Dang.  We thought it might be the native favorite, the way New Haveners in the know prefer Modern Apizza to the more famous Sally’s and Pepe’s.

The restaurant seemed nice enough and cozy with warm, wooden pillars.  We started with a slightly boozy drink called 모주, moju, which smelled like cinnamon and tasted as grapey as Manischewitz.  In classic Korean fashion, we were told it was good for you.

We ordered a round of bibimbap, one with raw beef or yukhae for me and regular cooked beef for everyone else.  Our friends Randall and Carolyn, who hadn’t had Jeonju bibimbap before, dug in happily enough.  Diane, her mother, and I, though, looked at each other, a little afraid to admit what was in our minds.  Finally, someone broke the silence, “It’s not the same, is it?”  We agreed, it wasn’t.  We slowly started to drive Randall and Carolyn crazy, as we sighed, one after the other, “Oh, the other place is so much better!”  “Oh, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to try the Jeonju bibimbap there!”

The bibimbap we were eating wasn’t bad.  It was definitely too spicy, so that the red pepper paste overwhelmed the other flavors, but the ingredients were fresh and various and the colors bright.  It was more or less as good as any bibimbap I’ve had on 32nd St. in New York.  We almost started to wonder if it was all in our heads, if the Jeonju bibimbap at Gajokhoegwan was no different, if we had just imbued it with mystery and wonder because of the surreal experience we’d had there.

There was only one thing to do.  We had to go eat at Gajokhoegwan.  It didn’t matter that we were so full, that we’d had a big lunch on the road to Jeonju, or that we had days of eating ahead of us.

Luckily, Gajokhoegwan was just down the street.  We didn’t order another 6 bowls of bibimbap, but we did order two to share with a face-saving excuse about jet lag and loss of appetite.  And as soon as the bowls were brought out, we knew we had done the right thing.

Photo by Diane Choo

The ingredients gleamed.  There were one or two ingredients that had changed, perhaps being out of season, but you could see that Mrs. Kim ran her restaurant with the precision of a sergeant.  Each ingredient was in the same place it had been last time.  Here, the gochujang wasn’t overpowering.  The brass bowl was in perfect balance, each bite revealing a new flavor and texture.

Photo by Diane Choo

On our way out of town the next morning, we stopped at the café with no name, one that we had found in February.  It still didn’t have a name but it wasn’t hard to find again—it’s just a few blocks into the hanok village from the water wheel.  The building has a roof and frame that mimics the hanok houses, but the ground floor café is surrounded in glass, and from the street, you see a place with Korean antiques so beautiful they’re timeless, vivid modern art by the owner, and a very un-Korean looking chow chow guarding the door.

They serve coffee, espresso, macchiato, all those words that thrill my Western morning heart when I’m traveling, but they also serve beautiful, delicate Korean teas.  They have crowd pleasers, like green tea and yuzu-jam tea (yuja-cha), but they also have teas with names like ginger flower tea (saenggang-kkot) and April flower tea (sahli-kkot).  The ginger flowers are yellow with a flavor I can’t quite place, but the April flowers are white and smell so clearly of honey.

The teapots, the café, the bibimbap—they were all beautiful and careful at the same time.  We had three more days left to figure out what it means that Jeolla-do food has gamchil-maht, but already in Jeonju, one thing was clear.  Gamchil-maht doesn’t happen by accident.

Photo by Diane Choo

Back in Korea

September 21, 2009


Whenever I fly Asiana Airlines, I realize there really is no excuse for crappy food on planes.  Yes, they have to cook in large quantities; yes, they have to keep things warm in unnatural ways.  But just look at this simple and lovely bibimbap.  The vegetables are fresh, even perky.  The instant rice that gets cooked in a microwave is a wonder—each grain really is distinct and tender at the same time.  Even the rehydrated dried pollack soup is surprisingly soothing.  In fact, the only thing that’s mushy and unsatisfying were the soba noodles, but only in comparison to the rest of the food.  If I’d been offered this soba on Continental on my flight home from Oaxaca two years ago, I might have wept.


Asiana Airlines has to package special condiments in addition to butter, salt, and pepper.  Look at this darling tube of red pepper paste and the little envelope of sesame oil!  Whenever my mom flies Asiana to New York, she uses what she needs for her bibimbap and stows the remainder of the tube safely in her purse.  I’ve seen her pull out that tube of gochujang at restaurants all over the U.S.; I’ve even seen her squeeze some straight onto her tongue in moments of bland desperation.

It’s good to be home.

Diane and I, with a whole crew of friends and family, are packing into a van tomorrow morning to go on a five-day road trip for the best food in Korea.  I won’t be blogging as deliriously as I did in February, but I hope to be posting some choice missives in the next two weeks.

And wonder of wonders, my mother has agreed to let me cook dinner for Chusok, Korea’s harvest and thanksgiving holiday, on October 3.  I may have to lock her in a room to keep her from helping, but I can’t wait to show her I actually do know how to cook.

Perfect bibimbap

February 25, 2009

(This should have been posted days ago, since we ate this meal on Sunday.  Oops.)

It’s always a treat to talk to someone wearing pink rhinestoned glasses.  It’s even more of a treat when that someone is the owner of the best-known Jeonju bibimbap restaurant in Jeonju, Korea.

가족회관, Gajokhoegwan, or the Family Meeting Place, has the dish of Jeonju bibimbap down to the point that Mrs. Kim, the owner, has a patent on the name.  If you ever want to affix “Jeonju bibimbap” to anything you sell, you have to pay a licensing fee.  Normally, I’d find that crazy, but having met her and tasted her food, I have so much respect for her kind of crazy, I can’t quite begrudge her the “jeonjubibimbap” domain name.

In general, bibimbap, which means “mixed rice,” has no fixed ingredient list.  You take some rice and add whatever vegetables you want, whatever meat you want, a dollop of spicy red pepper sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, and there you are.  Mixed rice.  The concept is unpatentable.  It would be like patenting the act of buttering your bread.  When we asked Mrs. Kim about the origins of bibimbap, she agreed:

Nobody knows.  Some people say that when people celebrated ancestral rites [with a lot of food on the altar table] together, they would want to take the leftovers home and so would mix them all together in one bowl.  Or that the people who worked in the fields found it easier to have their lunch brought to them in one bowl.  Or that the king during a troubled time had to flee suddenly, and all the food on his table had to be mixed together.

In any case, Koreans love mixing their food together, whether it’s in a lettuce wrap or in a cold seafood salad, so I’m sure it took no great genius to come up with the concept of bibimbap.

It did take something, though, to come up with the Jeonju bibimbap served at Gajokhoegwan.  You go in, and they ask you, “What do you want?” but it’s a rhetorical question.  It’s the only dish the restaurant serves, in beautiful, heavy brass bowls.  The ingredients are presented in the royal palace style, each one distinct and carefully laid next to ingredients of different colors for the most colorful effect. Mrs. Kim said there were over 30 ingredients.  I managed to come up with 30, but I have no doubt there may be more.

Here’s my guess: carrots, squash, cucumber, bean sprouts, shitake mushrooms, meat sautéed in red pepper paste, green sprouts, enoki mushrooms, eggs separated and cooked separately and shredded, acorn jelly, bellflower root, wild parsley, fiddlehead ferns, spinach, roasted and salted seaweed, pickled radish, rice, beef bones and meat for the stock to cook the rice, 1 egg yolk, 1 walnut, a sprinkle of pine nuts, 2 gingko nuts, sesame seeds, and one slice of raw chestnut.  Plus soy sauce, a thinner red pepper paste, salt, sesame oil, perilla seed oil, and garlic.

Each ingredient was perfectly slivered, julienned, or shredded.  Each ingredient had been cooked separately to a perfect tenderness.  The amount of each ingredient was perfectly restrained—the one slice of raw chestnut was surprising but so good I wanted more, until I realized it was better just to have that crunch once.  The same was true of the single walnut. Did I mention how perfect everything was?

Even the rice, the simplest seeming ingredient, had been cooked in a beef stock, which is very unusual in Korean cooking.  Mrs. Kim said that it helps the rice grains stay intact, rather than falling apart when you mix it up with everything else.  It wasn’t any beef stock either.  When I asked her how she made it, she gave me a look that said, “You think you can do the same?”  The answer: “We simmer it for over 48 hours!”

Mrs. Kim is 74 years old.  She’s been running the restaurant for over 30 years.  She is still at the restaurant everyday, not just floating around as the benevolent owner, but with her arms covered in rubber sleeves so she can plunge her hands into anything and make sure everything is just right.  They make the same perfect dish for 500-1000 people everyday.


And if that weren’t enough, they put out at least 15 different banchan, small dishes plated with equal care, from the pickled perilla leaves adorned with slivered chestnuts, red pepper threads, and one carefully carved slice of garlic to…


the thin slice of date placed on top of the 김장아찌, gimjangajji, a pickled seaweed with the dark, sweet intensity of red chiles, very much like chipotles in adobo.  (Just so you know, this isn’t an expensive restaurant.  You get all this with one bowl of bibimbap that costs 10,000 won, about US$6.60.)

Mrs. Kim thought we were crazy to think we could just go around the country, taste something once, and write a cookbook.  And she’s right, if we were going to try to replicate her cooking by tasting it once, we would be crazy.  It was hard to explain to her that what we’re really trying to do is have the best food in Korea inspire and inform us as we record delicious but more feasible recipes.  But how could someone like Mrs. Kim imagine aiming for anything less than bibimbap nirvana?


P.S.  We had a simpler dinner, less awesome but maybe more comforting, at 전주왱이 콩나물국밥, Jeonju Whengi Kongnamulgukbap.  Not surprisingly, it serves one and only one dish, kongnamulgukbap, or rice served in a soup of anchovy broth with bean sprouts.  One of my favorites, and definitely something to go in the cookbook as an easy, warm dish for a cool, quiet night.

Alegria de Angelis

September 8, 2007

There is Korean food in Oaxaca, and it is very good. But the Korean woman who makes the food and her Italian husband are perhaps even more remarkable than the fact of the food’s existence.

Gya is married to Sandro, short for Alessandro, who is Italian. They have two children, a daughter named Aruna and a son named Govinda. Since these names are neither Korean nor Italian, and knowing what I do of their story, I imagine that both names are Sanskrit.

The family lives high on a hilltop in San Agustin Etla, about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City. Of the pueblos I have seen, Etla is the prettiest. The various towns that comprise Etla are all nestled in little dips among green hills, among skies that seem to draw close enough for you to touch. You can walk 50 feet in any direction and find a beautiful view, a buenavista.

Gya and Sandro have named their home, “Alegria de Angelis,” or “The Happiness of Angels” in Italian.  Here they grow organic vegetables in plots they themselves built, and run a small restaurant by appointment that serves Italian, Korean, and a few other Asian dishes, like momos, the Nepalese dumplings. They grow sweet basil, Napa cabbage, the vegetables essential to their food. They also sell their food at the organic market in Oaxaca at El Pochote and in a newly opened take-out store in San Felipe. Their children swim in the pond with the carp and the turtles.

Gya used to be a dancer, specializing in classical Indian dance. As she says, she was “loca” for dance, completely crazy, and one day, she found herself in France trying to decide whether to buy a ticket for Spain to study flamenco or for India to study classical Indian dance. She finally decided to flip a coin, and the coin told her to go to India. But as she sat on the plane, she realized that it was not chance, but fate that was taking her to India. “Flamenco is a dance of love, but Indian dance is spiritual, and I knew then that I needed to learn a spiritual dance.”

Sometime later, Sandro was traveling through Mexico, with plans to go on to India. A friend of his asked him to go to a particular store in India and buy a dance costume for her. When he got to the store, Gya opened the door. Sandro immediately knew that they would be married, and told her so. Gya told him he was crazy.

So Sandro went into the Himalayas to meditate on whether he had had a true revelation. In the mountains, he met an old man who took him into his home. The old man opened a large wardrobe and took out everything, and in the end, there were two ancient rings. The old man said he would give them to him if Sandro gave him everything he had in return, all the clothes he was wearing and all the money he had on him, save what he needed to get back. When Sandro went back to Gya with the two rings, they were married.

I’ve seen the photos of their wedding in India, Gya with her face beautiful, smooth and calm, color smeared on her forehead, and Sandro, looking handsome and inimitably Italian, even with the topknot of hair he wore and the smear of color on his forehead. (As much as I love the improbableness of their story, I must note how lovely they both were and are. If a troll were to tell me we would be married, no matter how enlightened he was or I was, I imagine it would be difficult to say yes. Whereas if someone who looked like Sandro showed up, with all the power of the Himalayas behind him…well.)

Sandro and Gya initially wanted to live in India, but found that they, as foreigners, would be restricted in their ability to own land or start a business. So they came to Mexico, traveling from city to city until they stopped at Oaxaca, where it felt right. They have now been in Oaxaca one year. They plan to stay for five years, and then see what happens.

The whole thing seems too ethereal to be true, like you’re dreaming by a pond in the mountains of Oaxaca, but they are very down-to-earth-people. Best of all, their firm attachment to the pleasures of this earth is manifest in the food that they serve and the joy with which they serve it.

I almost wanted to cry as I spooned my bibimbop into my mouth, as I bit down on the sharp, spicy, almost raw kimchi. It’s strange how much Mexico seems to reveal to me, almost everyday, how much I miss my mother. There was a slightly foreign note to the spiciness, not dissonant, but not quite familiar, and then Gya explained that she has to combine Mexican hot peppers with the bit of Korean hot pepper she’s able to buy in Mexico City.

Yet the food was authentic, in the best sense of the word, with love and respect for its traditions. Each component of the bibimbop had been grown, washed, and sautéed just until its flavor became the brightest it could be. The fried egg gleamed.

Gya had never cooked until they moved here. She had been a dancer, and in Italy, had eaten Sandro’s mother’s cooking. But, as she said, she remembered the taste, it was in her memories. And so they recreate the taste of the Korean and Italian food they know and love, here in Mexico.