Archive for the ‘Kalguksu’ Category

Easier than you might think

May 28, 2010


A few weeks ago, I made kalguksu or knife-cut noodles from scratch.  Surprisingly not hard!  I do have a revisionist memory, though.  I’m blocking out the memory of the first batch of noodles completely sticking together and having to roll them out and slice them again an hour before my guests were to arrive.  Still, if you’re making noodles for just 3 or 4 people, I think it’s worth doing at home as it’s so much tastier than the packaged versions in grocery stores, with that thick unevenness I really miss from my favorite kalguksu restaurant in Seoul.  I’m hopeful to have it finessed for the cookbook.

Also, I’m getting better at killing crabs.  There’s no way to get around it if you want to make gaejang and gae-muchim, what I like to call Korean crab ceviche.  (Though really, it’s just raw crabs chopped up and marinated in soy sauce and/or spicy red pepper paste.)  The first time was awful.  But when you pull the shell off your sixth crab in a row, you get numb to the killing.  Especially when the payoff is so high.

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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.

Noodles forever

December 19, 2007

My sister and I invented a game a few years ago in which one person gives the other two foods (or ingredients or flavors), and that person then has to say which one she would give up for the rest of her life if she had to choose. Chocolate or vanilla? Salt or sugar? Basil or mint? There are no other rules, but we both get mad when someone says something like, “Bacon or pumpkin?” Only people who don’t care what they eat make this kind of error. Sure, there’s no winner, but it’s a lot of fun to play while you’re waiting for the bus, and if you’re playing with someone like my friend Leslie, you can torture her by asking, “Noodles or rice?”

It’s shocking how hard this question is for a girl who grew up in Rome, but even putting aside the category of Italian pasta, the mere existence of a dish like Korean handmade knife-cut noodles should make the answer clear. And 칼국수, kalguksu, doesn’t even belong in the “Top Five Noodles Dishes of Asia” pantheon! That is how deep that field is.

This is another dish I didn’t appreciate until I ended up in the impoverished Korean-food land of New York City. (This is one area in which Los Angeles beats New York’s ass.) My family’s favorite place to eat these noodles in Seoul is at 산동칼국수, Sandong Sone Kalguksu, which translates into Sandong Handmade Knife-Cut Noodles, located close to the Yangjae subway station. On its business card, it lists right under its name the following three words: “Giant Dumplings—Korean Boiled Pork—Cold Noodles,” but as the name declares, the knife-cut noodles are the best.

On each table, you can find an urn of kimchi, from which you serve yourself throughout the meal. This kimchi has a strong, sharp flavor, but it’s still a little raw with almost crunchy cabbage leaves, and therefore not that sour. You might think you only need to fill the little dish provided for this purpose, but my family ends up emptying almost the entire urn.

The noodle soup is also clean and simple. The broth has the clear, light flavor of anchovy-broth, with some body that likely comes from dashi. The noodles have that irregularity so dear to the hearts of all those who love homemade noodles. They have that important bite, not the Italian al dente standard, but an exemplary chewiness that is so prized by Koreans in a range of foods, there’s a word for it, 쫄깃, cholgeet. You say it twice, cholgeet-cholgeet, if it’s really deliciously chewy. Piled on top of the noodles are a good number of clams, a little gritty but who’s complaining at 5,000 won a bowl? And then there are strips of dried seaweed, carrot, and zucchini, which add a little flavor and a lot of color, which is an important principle in Korean cooking.

It’s not a zingy food. It’s not the kind of thing that will make fireworks go off in your brain, and I can imagine some non-Koreans might even think it a little bland. But that’s what the kimchi is for, and there are days when nothing is as satisfying as a restorative soup of handmade, knife-cut noodles. The answer for me is always the same, “Noodles forever!”