Archive for the ‘Jeon’ Category

Chuseok Feast

October 3, 2009

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On Saturday, October 3, the moon shone the fullest it has all year, and Koreans celebrated 추석, Chuseok, also known as Hangawi.  The holiday isn’t quite the same as the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival or the Vietnamese Tet Trung Thu, but all three celebrations occur at the same time each year, as they’re centered on the harvest moon.  Supposedly, Chuseok in Korea has its origins in moon worship, which sounds sort of lovely and ethereal, but it’s now a holiday as frenzied as Christmas.

In the days leading up to Chuseok, the streets of Seoul were clogged with people driving to get groceries, buy gifts, and presumably go home to their hometowns to pay their respects to their ancestors.  It’s not a gift-giving holiday quite like Christmas, but it’s that perfect opportunity to ask So-and-So for a favor with a well-timed gift, like a $200 box of beef or even a $35 Spam gift set.  (I’m not sure what kind of favor that will buy you, but keep in mind this is a Spam-loving country.)  Of course, there are gifts that are given just out of kindness and generosity, like the giant box of beautiful peaches my aunt sent over, but I kind of love the thought that some shady deals might be being made over a box of raw short ribs.  If I were in a position to grant favors, I would certainly rather get meat than a Tiffany crystal vase.

In the end, though, Chuseok is much more like Thanksgiving than Christmas.  Once the three-day holiday actually begins, the roads begin to empty because people are at home spending time with their families.  There’s an acknowledgment of the past, as people honor their ancestors by tending their graves and setting a sumptuous table before them.  And there’s a thankfulness for the present, with a ritual offering of the first rice of the harvest to one’s ancestors.

Most of all, there is a lot of food.  My family gave up on driving anywhere during Chuseok years ago, but at least while my sister and I lived here, we always took the “eat a lot” tradition very seriously.  Once we left home, my mother would tell me via phone how good all the food was and how sad she was we weren’t there to eat it.  So given the opportunity, how could I not come home for Chuseok?

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The foods served traditionally at Chuseok are your usual chesa foods, the ancient classics that are placed on a low table for your ancestors, with an emphasis on the harvest’s first fruits.  There’s almost always jeon, or pan-fried fritters, and a meat dish in celebration.

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In our house, every big holiday is an excuse to eat kalbi-jjim, or super-fatty short ribs braised with chestnuts and dates in a sweet, soy sauce marinade.

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The rest of the foods served vary from family to family.  Our Chuseok table included steamed prawns; bindaetteok or mung bean pancakes, shrimp and zucchini jeon; bean sprout kongnamul; bellflower roots and cucumbers tossed in a tangy, spicy sauce; and a light Western-influenced salad with my mom’s signature nut-pepper dressing.

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We made an old favorite, seogogi chapssalgui, where you take thin slices of beef marinated like bulgogi, slightly sweet and salty, and then dredge it in sticky rice flour.  It gets pan-fried, and then you wrap each slice around slivered green onions, sprouts, and thinly sliced perilla leaves, with a dab or two of a vinegar-mustard sauce.

And of course, there were multiple kinds of kimchi: Napa cabbage, young radish, and a cold, refreshing water kimchi filled with thinly sliced radish.  My mother must have been inspired by my cookbook project, because she resurrected a Chuseok tradition from her family, 토란탕 or beef and taro soup.

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We washed it all down with a couple of bottles of 경주겨동법주, Gyeongju beopju, an ancient wine with a clear, light and fragrant flavor, similar to Japanese sake.  It’s apparently been designated “Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 86-3,” and must always be made with water from the well of the Choi family in Gyeonsan Province!

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We ended the meal with the one food that is truly particular to Chuseok, the way turkey is to Thanksgiving, 송편, songpyeon or pine-steamed rice cakes.  (The block on the left is a white tteok filled with beans–my favorite.)  The exact shape and recipe for songpyeon varies from region to region, but they all have a sweet filling, usually made of sesame seeds or white beans, and they’re steamed on a bed of sweet-smelling pine needles.  The outer dough can range in color as well, from pure white to dark green, even a sweet yellow or pink.  Sitting around and making them as a family was a game, and the person who made the prettiest one would soon meet a good-looking husband or wife.  Given how obsessed my parents are with marriage and grandchildren, I’m glad songpyeon is one of the few things my family has never made from scratch.

I have to confess I didn’t make all this food.  My mother rules her kitchen, and she wasn’t going to give up her realm so easily, but she did let me and my sister do quite a bit.  When we sat down to eat, it felt like we had made dinner together as a family, which, in the end, is really the best way to cook a Chuseok feast.

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Translating food

June 1, 2009

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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.

Heart-shaped leaves

May 12, 2009

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I’ve just realized that two of my favorite leaves in the world are both heart-shaped.

Hierba santa in Oaxaca is one of the most delicious leaves I’ve ever tasted.  It tastes a little like anise, a little like mint, with an incredible strong and calming fragrance.  When it’s wrapped around quesillo, Oaxacan string cheese, and then heated in a pan…what I would do to eat that again at La Biznaga!

The other one is 깻잎, kkaenip, which is often translated as perilla or wild sesame, and sometimes as shiso, though to me, “shiso” describes a Japanese variety, which has a very distinct and different flavor.  It’s in the mint family, but it doesn’t really smell like mint.  It comes on strong like fennel, but it’s not quite like fennel either.  The flavor just doesn’t exist in English.

As exotic as it sounds, it’s very common in Korean cooking.  You’ll see kkaenip in the basket of greens at most Korean barbecue restaurants.  I like to layer a piece on top of lettuce before wrapping it all around my grilled beef or pork.  My sister loves it as another layer between the rice and the seaweed in kimbap or Korean rice rolls.  You can slice it up and throw it in sautéed rice cakes.  And you can stuff it with seasoned meat and fry it all up coated in flour and eggs.  That is a particularly delicious way to eat it.

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

So when I decided to have a special vegetarian Korean Sunday dinner, I wanted to do something with kkaenip.  In general, I wanted to give my vegetarian friends a taste of something they’d likely never had before.  Since I couldn’t wow them with pork belly or glazed spare ribs, I wanted to feed them crazy roots and funny greens, the kind of stuff that Koreans love to gather from the mountains that cover the country.  So many Korean foods, when translated into English, sound like they would only belong at a store for health nuts and hippies—fern bracken, burdock root, crown daisies.  But in Korean, they’re as ordinary as “spinach.”

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

I made sure to have a vegetable bibimbap, or mixed rice, that was filled with burdock roots sautéed and glazed in syrup and soy sauce, as well as fern bracken, mung bean sprouts, bean sprouts, and tiny pin-headed 팽이버섯, paengi-beoseot, or enoki mushrooms.  I made acorn jelly from acorn powder, which somehow has mysterious gelatinous powers, and tossed it with roasted seaweed, sesame seeds, and sesame oil.  I stuffed tofu with portabella mushrooms and green onions, and then braised them in soy sauce with a dash of red pepper flakes.  The vegetarian seaweed soup was good, though now I wish I’d added more sesame oil to make up for the lack of beef stock.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

But I was particularly proud of the vegetarian kkaenip-jeon, or stuffed perilla leaf pancakes.  The stuffed tofu and the kkaenip-jeon were the only dishes I invented, my special meatless versions.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to have come up with these ideas, but last night was certainly the first time I’d tasted them.

I started with the basic kkaenip-jeon recipe.  Instead of ground beef, I took firm tofu, crumbled it and strained it in a cheesecloth.  I added a ton of chives, some green onions, and chopped zucchini.  I seasoned it more or less the way I would have seasoned beef, with soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic.  I stuffed each leaf as I would with meat, dredged them in flavor, and dipped them in egg before frying them in a enameled cast-iron pan.

I was so anxious to taste the first one and make sure it tasted okay, I burnt my tongue.  But it was good!  They weren’t as juicy as the beefy ones had been, but the contrast between the almost crisp, leafy exterior and the smooth tofu filling was great.  The relative mildness of the vegetarian version meant that it went better with the vinegar-spiked soy sauce I’d put out for dipping.  I’d like to try it again one day and replace the zucchini with shitake mushrooms, but given the mushrooms in the stuffed tofu, I was glad to have something with such a clean, green flavor on the table.  It felt like spring…with hearts.

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As always, this is a draft recipe.  Everything in the cookbook will be much better. Feel free to play around with the proportions.  I think it’s really important in Korean cooking to be sure about your own tastes and season boldly and accordingly.

깻잎전
Stuffed perilla leaves
Kkaenip-jeon

Meat filling
8 oz. of ground beef
1.5 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
freshly ground pepper

Vegetarian filling
1 package firm tofu, crumbled and drained
½ cup chopped zucchini
½ cup chopped Asian chives
¼ cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper

20 fresh and tender kkaenip leaves
2 eggs, beaten, with pinch of salt
½ cup of flour

  1. If you’re making the meat version, season the ground beef with the soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, green onion, and pepper.  Let it marinate for at least 30 minutes.
  2. If you’re making the vegetarian version, crumble the tofu and then squeeze thoroughly in cheesecloth.  You can also just squeeze the water out of the tofu with your hands and let it drain in a strainer or colander, though it’s worth getting a bit of thin cloth and squeezing the tofu juice out that way.  Combine all the ingredients and mix thoroughly.  The flavors will meld better if you mix it with your hand rather than a spoon.
  3. Wash and dry the kkaenip leaves.  Each leaf is heart-shaped and about the size of the palm of your hand.  “Stuff” each leaf by putting about one to two teaspoons of filling on one side of the “heart” and then folding it over.  Press the two halves of the leaf firmly together.  Place the stuffed kkaenip leaves on a plate and set aside.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium-low heat.
  5. Dredge each stuffed leaf in the flour and then coat it in beaten egg.  Be sure to get egg on as much of the leaf as possible.
  6. Fry the battered leaves in batches in the pan, about 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden in color.  Don’t crowd the pan, and add more oil as necessary between batches.  Set the cooked perilla leaves on paper towels to soak up some of the oil.
  7. Like all “jeon,” these pan-fried kkaenip leaves can be served at room temperature but they’re incredible when they’re hot.  You can make them ahead of time, and then reheat them in an oven set at 300 degrees for five minutes or reheat them in a pan.  Do not microwave them unless you like your jeon soggy.

Green onions and, oh, so much more

February 24, 2009

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The next morning, we set off for Busan, to eat at the famous 동래할매파전, Dongrae Halmae Pajun restaurant.  Dongrae is the name of the neighborhood, halmae means grandmother, and pajun is a pan-fried green onions cooked in a batter of rice flour.  In other words, Grandmother’s Green Onion Pancake.  The restaurant, though, was much spiffier than its down-home name implied.  The restaurant was proud of its four generations of history, and they had really nice black-and-white photos decorating their front entrance, presumably of the original grandmother.  They even had a half-open kitchen, a little glassed-in area where you could watch the famous pajun being made.  (No photos allowed, though.)  And if you still felt like you didn’t have enough information about the restaurant, the menu gave an extensive description of the pajun-making process.

So of course we ordered pajun, but also a mixed seafood dish called 동래고동찜, dongrae godong-jjim; a bibimbap of raw greens with barley, rather than rice; and 추어탕, chueotang, a stew made of loaches, a tiny, skinny freshwater fish.

The pajun was really beautiful, and rich, in that it was filled with ingredients that would have been quite expensive back in the day—eggs, shrimp, oysters, and beef.  But the star ingredient was certainly the green onions, which were laid on the griddle first before batter was poured around them.  It was a very abundant, very royal pancake.

But to be totally honest, I like my pajun a little less abundant.  I like the batter to be sufficient enough to get a crispy surface on both sides, even if that means my green onions won’t be lined up so neatly in a row.  This pajun was a little too undercooked for me.  I might be too much of a peasant to appreciate the good stuff.

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But the rest of the food was startling.  I get bored easily, and so it’s absolutely thrilling to keep moving from city to city and finding something completely new in each one.  The dongrae godong-jjim had a very nutty base of wild sesame seeds and probably rice that had been ground together.  This base was mixed with springy bean sprouts, green onions, fiddlehead ferns, bellflower roots, bits of red pepper, some ground pine nuts, and these tiny little sea creatures.  One was black and I cannot find an English translation for them.  I do not know what I ate.  The other was orange and weirdly mushy and crunchy at the same time.  미더덕, mideodeok, which apparently is related to the sea squirt, and surprisingly not unpleasant.  (Don’t you think Anthony Bourdain should invite me on his next eating tour?)  The overall effect was wonderful.  I loved the firm sweetness of the bean sprouts with the nutty, delicate flavor of the wild sesame seeds.

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Diane and I had ordered the chueotang, despite the scary sound of “loach,” out of a desire to educate ourselves, but I liked that very much, too.  More and more, I realize how much Korean food is seafood-based rather than meat-based.  The soup had a flavor more intense than anchovy broth, but with the same lightness that kept it from being overwhelming, and I loved the sweetness of the cabbage.

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(Diane’s parents had the steamed barley mixed with millet, so I didn’t try it, but isn’t it beautiful?)

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My favorite part of the meal, though, were the sweetest parts: the adorable little 떡, ttok, or rice cake, filled with sweet bean paste, and the 식혜, sikhye, a sweet rice punch that this restaurant had made with a winter squash.  Sweet, cold, refreshing, the perfect dessert.

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