Posts Tagged ‘beef’

God bless America, land of burgers, tendons, and everything in between

July 2, 2009

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Just a week ago, a big group of friends and I were stuffing ourselves with Sichuan food and Japanese/Taiwanese odds and ends at Metro Cafe in Sunset Park.  Right above are the beef tendons, slick with oil and Sichuan peppercorns, and below are two choices among the 5 for $1 skewers.

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So good!  So addictively salty and spicy, from the double-cooked pork to the fried tofu to even the lovely, tender string beans.

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And tomorrow morning, I’m headed to Minneapolis for Fourth of July weekend.  I’m going to be hanging out with my college girlfriends during our yearly reunion.  We’re definitely going to snack on some cheese curds, drink some Leinenkugle’s beer, eat a Jucy Lucy, and try this Mahnomin porridge of wild rice at Hell’s Kitchen.

There is nothing that makes me feel so patriotic as knowing that that in this great country of ours, I can stuff myself with spicy beef tendons, heavy on the Sichuan peppercorns, at Metro Cafe in Brooklyn, and then just a few states over, chow down on a hamburger stuffed with pepper jack cheese in Minneapolis.  So proud to be an American!

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Beef pie, mushy peas

May 20, 2009
Trying to keep the tourists from being run over.

Sydney tries hard to keep the tourists from being run over.

The light here is different.  It’s hard to take photos because it’s so bright, it makes the edges of the buildings disappear before my camera.  Buenos Aires was strange and bright and upside-down, too, with its blistering heat at Christmas, but not like this.  A sweet guy at a convenience store yesterday asked me where I was from and whether I liked Sydney, and I totally confused him by talking deliriously about how shiny the city is.  If Buenos Aires is buildings crumbling under the weight of their history and kids in dark mullets looking like they could start protesting any moment, Sydney is sunlight so blinding, I don’t see how anyone could dress all in black.  Their clothes would fade too fast.

I know what I see is incomplete. (And it does rain, as it is now, in short, intense spurts.)  Peter Carey, in his book 30 Days in Sydney, reminds me that for all its good looks, Sydney is a city with blood and violence in its history.  On Monday, I went to look for some evidence of that in the Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney and where the convicts first made their home.

The view from Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The view from Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I saw quiet streets lined with Victorian houses.  I saw the view from the Sydney Observatory, wharf and bridge and Opera House.  I walked halfway across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, looked down, and suddenly realized I have a fear of heights.  I skipped the museums other than the Museum of Contemporary Art, so maybe it is my fault that I couldn’t find the convicts.

The only sign I found of Sydney’s past was in my lunch, and in a way that only highlighted how much Sydney has changed.

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Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel is the oldest pub in Sydney.  My TimeOut had recommended a lunch of beef pies and a pint of ale, and I walked in expecting to be handed a pair of pies in a greasy paper bag over the bar.  Given its status, no one would be surprised if it were a tourist trap with crap food.  Instead, I found a menu so full of coconut broth and wild rocket, it took me awhile to find the “beef pie, mushy peas, mash and gravy.”

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Like my snapper pie on Saturday, it was a joke, a hilarious joke.  The “mushy peas” were bright green, fresh and flavorful.  Mashed but not “mushy.”  I don’t even like mashed potatoes, but I spun my fork around and around the plate, trying to soak up as much as possible of that incredible gravy.  And the beef pie, if not as ethereally buttery and flaky as my snapper pie, was substantial and satisfying.  I ate it all.

The Quayle Ale, a prize-winning beer, was quite good, too, light and easy to drink but with personality and character.  It matched its setting, this old pub so proud of it history as well as its modern, quiet gleam.  What scenes this pub must have witnessed over the years!  I know that the violence isn’t completely gone—Bianca says you can go out to a bar and suddenly find yourself in the middle of a brawl very easily.  And there is a part of me that is distrustful of pubs that are so clean.  But I can’t help but be impressed by a country that can take a legacy of beef pies and mushy peas and turn it into what I ate that day.

P.S.  Don’t tell the Australian authorities, but I have a scratchy throat and a slight cough, and the hypochondriac in me is terrifying me by whispering, “Swine flu! Swine flu!”  But I think Bianca would be secretly pleased if we were quarantined and she couldn’t go into work.

“I thought I was going to be eating a bread product…

April 6, 2009

…and found out it was raw squid.”

That is a direct quote from last night’s Korean Sunday dinner.  The best part is that Emily wasn’t too bothered by her discovery.  She just reached for the next unknown thing on the table.

It is hard to take photos of food on your stove.

It is hard to take photos of food on your stove.

As I promised on my initial email invite, the Korean food I am cooking each Sunday is not limited to foods that are considered “safe” for non-Koreans.  Partly, this is because no cookbook worth its salt restricts itself to food that is “safe” for Americans, but mostly it’s because I love the food I grew up eating and I want to present it honestly, completely, and without apology.  I don’t care if my guests don’t find everything appealing as long as they’re willing to sit at a table with the funny food.

The friends and their friends who have come to dinner so far, though, have exceeded all my expectations.  They not only will sit at a table with something they can’t recognize, they’ll often start eating it before I have a chance to explain what it is.  It’s really wonderful to be able to say to a friend, “You can eat that, too,” and have him eat it.  So far, the only thing Carl has refused is a kumquat, and eh, it’s not a Korean fruit.  And despite my mother’s fears, they’ve honestly and sincerely liked a lot of the “not safe” food I’ve made.

Last night’s dinner was a classic blend of food Koreans like to feed foreigners and food Koreans like to feed themselves: 불고기, bulgogi, with lettuce and 쌈장, ssamjang; scallion salad; sautéed oyster mushrooms; cabbage and soybean paste soup; and more banchan, including the aforementioned raw squid which had been preserved in a salty, spicy sauce.

Bulgogi is probably the first thing any foreigner is fed when he or she arrives in Korea.  (It was voted the favorite Korean food of foreigners!)  “Bulgogi” translates literally as “fire meat” since it’s meant to be cooked over a charcoal grill, and a love of grilled meat is probably completely universal.  When you add to the meat a marinade of soy sauce, sugar (and/or honey and pear), garlic, green onions, sesame oil and sesame seeds, you end up with something that’s almost boringly likable.

At least that’s what I’d always thought until I started doing a little research.  As I looked into bulgogi’s history, tried different marinade recipes, and thought about which American cuts of beef would be best for it, I ended up with a lot more respect for the dish.  It’s ubiquitous now, but it was a true special-occasion food when meat wasn’t a plentiful commodity.  The very thin slices you see these days are a fairly modern invention, and a somewhat brilliant one at that, since it’s a no-fail way to cook meat quickly and keep it tender even when it’s not of the highest-quality.  There are regional variations, like the giant hamburger patty bulgogi Diane and I had in Unyang, that demonstrate what a broad meaning “fire meat” still has today.

There are a 1001 variations on recipes for bulgogi marinade because it’s ultimately a matter of taste.  What is my taste?  Less sugar, no fruit tenderizers because I like my meat to retain some chew, plenty of chopped green onions, and lots of sesame seeds.  I’m still working on the exact proportions I like best—hopefully, something fantastic will end up in the cookbook.

I don’t have as firm an opinion on the cut of meat as I haven’t strayed enough from my mom’s favorites, but sirloin and ribeye are good choices, and I’m curious about what the marinade and the thin slices could do to elevate cheaper cuts of meat.  If you don’t have a Korean grocery nearby selling “bulgogi-cut” meat, it’s not hard to cut it yourself.  Remember to stick it in the freezer for an hour or two and it’ll still be sliceable but hard enough to cut thinly.  The key thing is to cut it against the grain.  The sirloin I had sliced by a local butcher was more or less the right thickness, but they didn’t cut it against the grain and the flavor difference between their sirloin and the sirloin I sliced myself was noticeable.   Ultimately, though, bulgogi is like bacon—it’s almost never inedible.  And that is nothing to sneer at.

If bulgogi is “safe,” the ssamjang I served it with definitely wasn’t.  I wanted to make one that would be noticeably different from the store-bought kind, and after consultation with my mom and A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes, I ended up simmering together soybean paste, red pepper paste, ground anchovies, garlic, ground beef, chopped onion, and chopped spicy green peppers.  I’m also still working on the exact proportions, so no recipe yet, but the anchovies were a flagrant, unabashed Korean touch.  It made me even more gratified that people liked it.  It’s such an intense thing to eat straight, which is why it’s meant to be just dabbed onto your beef and wrapped in a crisp piece of lettuce and/or perilla leaf.

I think Napa cabbage is beautiful.

I think Napa cabbage is beautiful.

And the soup that I thought would be most challenging, made primarily of doenjang (soybean paste) and Napa cabbage, was the biggest hit.  배춧국, baechut-guk, or cabbage soup, is my favorite Korean soup, the soup that my mom always has waiting for me when I get home.  I was trying some different ways of making Korean beef stock, so this one was simmered only with brisket meat and no bones.  But the stock still had surprisingly enough body to hold up the super-strong doenjang my mother had brought from home.  It’s so simple but rewarding: beef broth flavored with a couple of spoonfuls of doenjang, more sliced cabbage than you could ever imagine is necessary, and then a last-minute addition of sweet red pepper paste, chopped garlic, and chopped scallions.  I can and will give better directions soon, once I’ve worked out a recipe that feeds less than 10, but that’s really it.  My friend Carolyn loved it, ate a second bowl of leftovers the next day, and pronounced it the ultimate manifestation of umami flavor.

The Korean government is on a kick to promote Korean cuisine as The Next Big Thing.  I hope they’re not playing it safe.  My friends can’t be the only ones who’ll try anything.  The raw squid, though, might take some time.

Korean Food Sundays

March 23, 2009

A friend of mine recently told me that she thinks the title of my blog is a little lonely.  It is, isn’t it?  It made sense when I was traveling alone and generally eating alone, but it’s definitely not a way of life that I espouse.  I’d rather have ten people over for dinner than eat alone, which is good because I’m now doing that every Sunday.

Korean food isn’t hard to eat alone, at least if your mother has already stocked your fridge.  So much of Korean food is meant to be eaten over days, if not weeks and months.  We are masters of food preservation.  It’s so easy to cook a quick pot of rice, and then sit down with some kimchi, roasted seaweed, and maybe some sweet and spicy dried squid or soy sauce-sauteed anchovies.

Simmering part of the stock for seolleong-tang.

Simmering part of the stock for seolleong-tang.

But Korean food isn’t meant to be eaten alone.  A Korean meal isn’t complete without soup, but you can’t quarter or even halve the recipe and expect to have a full, meaty tasting broth.  Even the 반찬, banchan, the little dishes of salty and spicy food that are scattered all over the table, are meant to be shared.  You’re supposed to have variety, a little bit of a lot of different things, which is only really possible when you’re eating with other people.  Over the years, I’ve gotten resourceful about using my freezer, but my favorite cabbage soup doesn’t freeze well, and by the third day of eating it, it is no longer my favorite soup.

So when I came back from Korea, I realized several things in my life had to change.  I rearranged my cupboard, moving all my pasta, tomato paste, Aleppo pepper, and French green lentils to the top shelf, so I would have enough room for all the Korean rice, red beans, millet, dried anchovies, and crushed red pepper I needed.  The soy sauce and sesame oil are now in closer reach than the sherry vinegar and olive oil.  I’ve stopped cooking non-Korean food at home, other than the occasional breakfast burrito, because I feel like I need to be thinking and eating like my mother if I’m ever going to come close to cooking like her.   And since I don’t have a family of four to feed everyday, as she did for so many years, I’m now hosting Korean Food Sundays, a Korean meal every Sunday night of this year.

Experimenting with persimmon vinegar v. apple cider vinegar for spicy radish strips.

Experimenting with persimmon vinegar v. apple cider vinegar for spicy radish strips.

It’s open to all my friends who came to Soup Night last year (the monthly pot-o-soup event I used to do) and any of their friends who are willing to eat experimental Korean food in Brooklyn.  It’s a little nerve-wracking because I have to focus more on doing research than on being a good hostess.  I’m going to cook dishes that I’m not sure non-Koreans will like, and I’m going to cook things I’ve never made before because I have to learn.  I’ve warned all my friends that there may be emergency pizza nights, but the first night was a lot of disorganized fun.

It was low-key by Korean standards: 설렁탕, seolleong-tang, a milky-white oxbone-soup and 감자전, gamja-jeon, or Korean-style potato pancakes.  Then a spread of banchan: two kinds of homemade kimchi, radish and cabbage; dried pollack braised in soy sauce; glazed lotus root; dried squid sautéed in sweet red pepper paste; pickled wild sesame leaves (also called perilla and a milder cousin to Japanese shiso); sweet soy sauce beans; fresh spicy radish strips; and bean sprouts seasoned with scallions and sesame oil.  I can’t take credit for it all—my mom and I made a lot of the banchan before she left, as well as part of the stock for the seolleong-tang, simmering it for 8 hours one day.  And I had to scratch pan-fried croaker fish off the menu when my potato pancakes started sticking to the pan and falling apart 45 minutes before people were supposed to arrive.  (But I figured out what was wrong with the pancakes—it was the pan.)  I spent most of Sunday cooking, which made it even more amazing that it’s the kind of meal my mom used to put on the table everyday.

I was nervous about the seolleong-tang, which is one of those Korean soups that is literally bland.  You’re supposed to season it yourself at the table, with plenty of coarse sea salt, lots of chopped scallions and freshly ground pepper.  It’s actually quite a good lesson in how salt brings food to life.  You eat seolleong-tang for the subtle depth of its flavor, the bones that have been simmered for so long the marrow has completely leached out, rather than for any taste that’s going to knock you out.  The milky-white color only appears if you’ve simmered it long enough, which is why dishonest restaurants will sometimes add milk to it. Seolleong-tang is also a good example of how Koreans seek balance in their table—given how salty and spicy so much of their food is, many of their soups are the milder, more soothing part of the meal.  But people enjoyed it, and one friend ate two bowls, though then again, he always eats two bowls.

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I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the dried squid and all the other funny-looking banchan got eaten up.  And I was absolutely thrilled by how my new 10-cup Sanyo rice cooker performed.  It is beautiful, it is perfect, and it is on sale on Amazon.

I miss the ease of Soup Night in a way.  I was going to try to start a movement of Soup Night, people coming together for something as simple as a pot of chili, instead of just elaborate, semi-macho meals.  I even got quoted in ReadyMade magazine, talking about the connection between Soup Night and M.F.K. Fisher.  (Isn’t that so funny?)  But I feel lucky to have so many friends who are willing to take a chance on my cooking, especially with a cuisine full of dried things from the sea.

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Wouldn’t “Ten Pairs of Chopsticks” be a good name for a blog?  Maybe next time.

Drawing the line

March 16, 2009

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During our time in Korea, Diane and I spent a few days with my mom and her great-aunt, who are both excellent home cooks.  And like most home cooks, they were mini-hurricanes in the kitchen, moving so quickly as they threw soy sauce and sesame oil around, Diane and I felt almost winded running between our cameras and our notebooks.  In one day, her great-aunt flew through:

  • 갈비찜, galbi-jjim (braised short ribs)
  • 너비아니, neobiani (marinated tenderloin, cooked in the palace-style)
  • 뚝배기 불고기, tteokbaegi bulgogi (braised bulgogi with glass noodles)
  • 구절판, gujulpan (egg crepes with 9 special fillings)
  • 두부찜, dubu-jjim (stuffed and braised tofu)
  • 해파리냉채, haepari-naengchae (jellyfish and vegetable salad), AND
  • 육개장, yukgaejang (spicy beef soup).

My mom, for her part, decided it was completely feasible to teach us five kinds of kimchi in one day—the same day she also taught us 매운탕, maeuntang (spicy fish soup); 된장찌개, doenjang-jjigae (soy bean paste stew); 떡볶이, tteokbokki (sautéed rice cakes); and two kinds of 묵무침, muk-muchim (acorn jelly salad).

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We didn’t come away with recipes with exact measurements, but we never intended to anyway.  We wanted more simply to soak up the almost incidental wisdom the best home cooks always have.  Like having my mother tell us that tossing the bellflower roots in its seasoning by hand before sautéing it deepens the flavor, or her great-aunt showing us how to chop pine nuts on a paper towel, which keeps the powdered pine nuts from sitting in their own oil.

But with both cooks, we were given tips that we wanted to resist.  My mother, in making 깍두기, kkakdugi, the bright-red radish cubes that constitute one of my favorite kinds of kimchi, has started using Splenda instead of sugar.  Almost all kimchi needs a bit of sweetness that both rounds out and brings out the tartness and sharpness of the pickled vegetables, but kkakdugi is one of the sweeter ones.  She said that she uses Splenda because it doesn’t make the radish cubes sticky, the way sugar does.  I nearly threw a fit.  I believed my mother, that Splenda could have a completely different effect on the kkakdugi than sugar.  But the thought of putting anything that chemical in my kimchi made me feel intensely rebellious and unfilial—no way.

Something similar happened with Diane’s great-aunt.  When she was showing us how she had prepped the short ribs for galbi-jjim, she told us she had used Coke (as in Coca-Cola) to soak the raw short ribs and draw out the blood.  I already knew most Korean recipes call for the meat to be soaked in cold water for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour, to “draw out the blood,” just as she said.  But Coke?  I believed she had to know better than me, after a lifetime of cooking and devotion to the best of Korean food traditions.  But I still felt stubborn inside, thinking, “There is no way I am including Coca-Cola in any recipe in this cookbook.”

I can’t say that my stand is really principled and consistent.  I have a general knee-jerk aversion to processed foods (except Cheetos!) that’s probably as much shaped by snobby elitism as by a Luddite wariness of anything grown in a test tube.  But I don’t think MSG is the devil incarnate.  I won’t include MSG in this cookbook either, because I think it’s too often a short-cut for building flavor the old-fashioned way, but I understand why it’s a standard ingredient for a lot of Asian cooks.  It replicates that umami flavor in a way that is near-miraculous.  Unless you have a specific allergy to MSG, it’s not any worse for you than salt. I don’t think a restaurant is lazy just because it uses a bit of it here and there any more than I think a restaurant is lazy for cooking with scads of butter.

I felt the same feeling of inconsistent rebellion when Diane’s great-aunt also recommended adding a touch of pureed kiwi to the galbi-jjim.  There’s nothing unnatural about kiwi.  It’s not an indigenous Korean ingredient, but then, neither were chile peppers when they came from the New World via Japan or even Napa cabbage, which came from China and became the most ubiquitous form of kimchi only as late as the 19th century.  I’m much warier of a slavish devotion to “authenticity” than I am of MSG, which is why Diane and I want to write recipes that are open to experimentation, especially for people who aren’t able to find certain ingredients.  The fact that food is a living, changing, participatory cultural experience is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by what people eat.  So why do I feel so uneasy about Korean recipes that use tropical fruits?

We’re still working through an articulate conception of what this cookbook will include and what it won’t, but where would you draw the line?

Those first nights in Buenos Aires

November 25, 2008

Buenos Aires is a funny city. It has that big-city vibe big-city dwellers always love, but it doesn’t have the mad crush of Mexico City or the ghosts of Paris or the constant hum of New York. It has beautiful old buildings with black filigreed balconies, the kind of balcony you can imagine a Edith Wharton character standing on, and then clunky modern buildings with uglier terraces right next door. Their Jardin Botanico is overrun with abandoned cats, who’ve gone feral by the looks in their eyes, despite the baggies of food and water that are put out for them. And most astonishing to me, their bus system is cheap, fast, and frequent, but it’s impossible to get on a bus because there are not enough coins or monedas to be had anywhere in the city, and they won’t accept bills. People are literally hoarding them. A girl we met last night told us her friends gave her, as a birthday gift, a roll of ten 1 peso coins. The bank restricts its coins, giving only six pesos per person. There are rumors the bus company is selling the coins they collect on the black market, 100 pesos in coins for 105 pesos in bills.

As the graffiti declares, “¿Donde están las monedas?”

This is Buenos Aires’s way of being a big city. Even though it’s frustrating for porteños, from a tourist’s perspective, the city wears its problems well, with grace, good looks, and lots of very good steak. There has been no surprise there, only in that it has been even better than I expected, and so cheap from a New Yorker’s perspective, we’ve ended up in hysterics with the arrival of each check. We’ve been to two parillas, or grilled meat restaurants, so far with several more on our list.

La Dorita was our first happy surprise, a homey, comfortable place with two locations catty-corner from each other in Palermo Hollywood.

We got a tabla of meat for two, with a choice of three meats—vacio or sirloin, entraña or skirt steak, and asado or short ribs, and then we added half an order of “baby beef,” their funny English translation of “bife de chorizo,” a uniquely Argentine cut of rump and sirloin. I am not a meat connoisseur, able to describe the particular qualities of a supremely good piece of beef, but oh, it was so good! It didn’t matter that they hadn’t actually been cooked “al punto” or medium rare. It reminded me of the chicken in Mexico—only when your meat is crappy do you have to worry about drying it out. Its flavor was there, regardless of whether it was red and raw.

With a good and cheap bottle of Malbec; quite a decent salad with spinach, pumpkin, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan; and two scoops of ice cream, we ate until we were quite satisfechas for something like $17 per person. I felt almost embarrassed.

The next night, we went slightly more high-end to La Cabrera, another place so popular that it has two locations across the street from each other. We ate at La Cabrera Norte, which looked a little cozier, and sat on the sidewalk on a perfect summer night. We had to wait awhile, though the restaurant provided everyone waiting with free glasses of champagne and bites of sausage or stuffed olives. (We’ve dealt with the late-night schedule of porteños by living on New York time—when you sit down to eat at midnight, BA time, it’s only 9 p.m. in New York!)

The meat here, of course, was also fantastic, with the ojo de bife or ribeye making their bife de chorizo seem almost tasteless in comparison. Their morcilla, or blood sausage, had a crackling crisp casing, a better snap than any hot dog I’ve ever had, and that smooth taste that’s so familiar to me from soondae, Korean blood sausage. They also have provoleta as an appetizer, a grilled skillet of cheese with herbs that is just a salty luxury. But the appetizers were almost superfluous compared to the dozen or more little ramekins they gave us filled with things like tapenade, apple sauce, roasted garlic, green beans, potatoes in aioli. There’s just something so happy-making about a whole array of side-dishes.

We topped off the night with glasses of champagne and lollipops from their lollipop tree. There’s so much about this city I still don’t understand, but champagne and lollipops, that was easy.

The best galbi-tang in the world

December 24, 2007

Sometimes, I wonder if I am just another victim of the American trend for slow food, organic food, localism, and food obsession in general. And then I have a day like last Wednesday, when my mother hustled me out of the house at 10:40 a.m. so we would be sure to arrive at 버드나무집, Budnamujip to have a bowl of short rib soup before they all sold out by 11:10. I’m a victim of heredity.

Budnamujip is a grand old dame of a restaurant. It’s famous for its galbi, or barbecued short ribs, both marinated and unmarinated, with the unmarinated ones being even more expensive because the quality of the meat is that much higher. (You generally have to reserve orders of the unmarinated galbi before you get there.) One order of unmarinated meat costs about 68,000 won, about $70, and many people order more than one order per person, plus stew or cold noodles after the grilling is done. Filled with smoke, fronted with a glass butchering shop, and waitresses in ugly uniforms running around, it’s the Korean equivalent of a glorious, old-school steakhouse.

But we weren’t there to eat grilled short ribs. Its lunchtime 갈비탕, galbi-tang, or short rib soup, for 12,000 won a bowl, has its own following. As my mother puts it, for some people, eating this soup once a week is their joy in life. We actually ran into one of those people and his wife, family friends who come every Sunday and holiday, when he can close his doctor’s office. Today was Election Day, so they came with plans to eat and then to vote.

We were the first car to pull into the parking lot at 10:50, and the restaurant wasn’t open yet, so we went for a walk around the block. By the time we got back 5 minutes later, there were already 10-15 people waiting in line. When the restaurant finally opened its inner doors to the downstairs dining room, the crowd moved expertly inside and quickly spread out, claiming their tables, one, two, three.

Once everyone was seated, a waiter came by and handed out little laminated tickets with numbers on them. Four orders of galbi-tang at our table, so four tickets. There are 100 tickets. If you don’t get one of them, tough luck, no galbi-tang for you!

Once the restaurant knew who was getting a bowl of galbi-tang, no other questions were asked. Every table got the same side dishes, cubed radish kimchi, garlic scape kimchi, white water radish kimchi, and a spicy lettuce salad. Then everyone just sat there patiently for 45 minutes, secure in their possession of one of the precious galbi-tang tickets.

They arrived. Huge, steaming bowls of chopped up short ribs in a broth with chopped scallions and glistening drops of fat on the surface. The ribs crowded the stainless steel bowl that was almost as big as my head. As they say in Korean, it was time to “rip the meat off with our teeth.”

This is the kind of experience I would heartily recommend to any chowhound, but with a major caveat. You must, you must be okay with ripping meat off the bone with your teeth. You must be okay with tendon and meat and fat all crowded together on the same bit of rib, the way it grows on a cow. It is socially acceptable to eat around the parts you don’t like, but there is no way to eat this meat without picking the bone up with your hands and gnawing on it.

For about 30 minutes, there was no conversation, just the sound of us chewing and discarding our bones in the bowls left on the table for just this purpose. When there was no meat left, there was the beautiful broth to concentrate on. Like liquid gold, so rich, so smooth. I drowned the rice in my soup like a little kid, loving the way the rice grains soaked up broth, too. Whenever the richness got almost too overwhelming, there was the excellent kimchi to cut through the fat on your tongue.

Our family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, asked if there were restaurants in New York where people lined up to eat even before the restaurant opened. “Oh yes,” I said, thinking of Prune. “But not for food like this!”

(Merry Christmas! I’m off to Guam for a few days with my family. If I eat anything noteworthy on Guam, I’ll let you know.)

Home, Seoul

December 8, 2007

I’m home. I’m lucky I have two places to call home: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., and Seoul, Korea. Brooklyn has its obvious charms, particularly the absolute joy of living alone without one’s parents, but as I get older, being at home with my parents in Seoul has its own incomparable sense of comfort and ease. There’s the twin bed I slept in from the age of 9 through high school graduation, the little yard I used to run around with our dog, and most of all, the ugly, ornate, wood table on which I ate so many of my meals growing up.

Before I left New York, my mom called to see what I wanted to eat for my first meal when I arrived home. I knew if I gave her even the slightest encouragement, there would be an almost-obscene amount of food waiting for me. So I said to her over and over, I really can’t eat that much just getting off the plane, just a bowl of my favorite Korean soup will do.

It’s hard for me to describe what 배춧국, or baechutguk, tastes like. How would your average American describe the taste of mac and cheese, of meatloaf? (Meatloaf, incidentally, remains one of the most bewildering food items to me.) It’s a fermented soybean soup, made from doenjang, which is a more aggressive, Korean version of the Japanese miso, with a beef broth-base, in which sliced Napa cabbage is simmered until it’s tender and delicious. That’s really it. You can throw in some minced garlic and green onions to add a bit more bite, but you don’t need much else. With a bowl of rice and a few small plates of banchan, maybe some spicy, chewy anchovies or black beans cooked in soy sauce and sugar, it is the perfect meal for someone who has been traveling for almost 24 hours.

I didn’t take a picture because I was too busy basking in the warmth of my mother’s love. But here are some pictures of a spicy 나물, namul, of greens dressed with garlic and sesame seeds, with fresh homemade 김치, kimchi, in the background.

And then there is my sister’s favorite food of all time, Korean braised short ribs with chestnuts, or 갈비찜. I ate all this for lunch the next day. I am lucky that my mother is who she is, and that I am her daughter.

Oh, the French (in Spain)

November 17, 2007

Like many people, I can only keep one foreign language in my head at once. At one point in my life, I knew quite a bit of French. I never did speak it gracefully or even well, and I never really could hear it properly with all those mushy syllables, but I understood it well enough to pass out of Yale’s undergraduate foreign language requirement. Now it has been completely crowded out by Spanish. (Korean, thankfully, is in a separate part of my brain.) This became particularly apparent when the nice young French family next to me at Zurriola Marítimo noticed I was taking pictures of my food and started to talk to me, asking if I spoke French. Although it literally took me a whole minute to remember how to say “trés bon,” the “un peu” French I do have enabled me to understand the husband’s very French assessment of food in Spain: “La cuisine française est la meilleure de Europe!” (French cuisine is the best in Europe!) So modest of him not to proclaim, “de tout le monde,” n’est-ce pas?

I also did not love the food at Zurriola Marítimo, although it was much better than it should be, given its spectacular view of the surf at Playa de Zurriola. Most restaurants with astonishing views tend to have terrible food, and it’s a testament to San Sebastian’s gastronomic standards that the food was good and reasonably priced, if not great. But I doubt the French homme thought what I did while eating my roasted oxtails: “It would be so much better in a hot Korean soup!”

The first course I ordered, a vichysoisse of leeks with a poached egg and poached bacalao was tasty, if not quite hot enough. (Is it because I’m Korean that I want my soup to be piping hot?) The soup was very smooth and clean-tasting, despite its rich creaminess, and the salt cod was as soft as butter, almost melting in my mouth. They need to be a little careful with the sea salt on the poached egg, though; I almost choked on a small pile of salty granules.

The second course was not as good, though there was nothing really wrong with it. The oxtails had been browned until they glistened, almost caramelized, and the meat still fell easily from the bone. They sat on a surprisingly light bed of soft, long-cooked potatoes and carrots, perhaps celery as well, and there were interesting tasty blobs of orange sauce that I couldn’t identify. The fried strips of green pepper were wonderful, so much sweeter than any green pepper I’ve ever had in the U.S. So perhaps it was me, not the oxtails. I couldn’t help but yearn for oxtails just simmered straight in a very hot beef broth, perhaps a handful of glass noodles, scads of chopped scallions, and a big pinch of sea salt…Korean oxtail soup! I also sat there pitying cultures that didn’t enjoy spicy, picante food, thinking how just a little bit of a spicy condiment, like Korean red pepper paste, would have enlivened the stew. So who am I to think the French are snobby about food?

Especially since the family was very nice. The maman directed her little boy to give me a bisou, or a kiss on the cheek, before they left. Qué cariñoso!

Meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes

November 8, 2007

My sister asked me the other day, “Have you had a bad meal yet?” Shockingly, I haven’t. That doesn’t mean every meal has been transcendent, but I haven’t been served anything that I really just couldn’t eat. I have, however, had some very ill-chosen meals, through my cultural blindness to the unspoken assumptions in the Spanish menu.

It’s ironic because my food vocabulary in Spanish is much fuller than any other area. I can’t seem to keep in my head the word for grass, but I can say razor clam, mussel, baby squid, regular squid, dogfish, hake, and octopus. I’ve even picked up a few food and wine words in Catalan and Basque. But knowing the words alone never makes you fluent. Knowing that “patatas” are potatoes, and even knowing that “rioja” is a kind of red wine, didn’t enable me to know that my appetizer of ¨patatas de rioja¨ was going to be a very rich and heavy stew of potatoes, sausage, chorizo, and beef.

It was delicious, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t also ordered “entrecote con garnis.” “Entrecote” is steak, “garnis” I assumed meant some sort of vegetables would come alongside. Good Lord, the “garnis” turned out to be French fries. The phrase “meat and potatoes” took on a whole new meaning for me that day.

You know you’re having a serious fruit and vegetable deficiency when your apple tart tastes incredibly fresh and nutritious to you. It´s too bad, because the Café Iruña in Bilbao was a warm and bustling restaurant, if somewhat brisk, with an ornate mudejar interior, and all the food was very good.

The worst thing is I did it all over again the next day! I was in Gernika/Guernica, I wandered into the Jatextea Julien (“jatextea” meaning restaurant in Basque) and ordered alubias, a very typically Baque dish of beans that also turned out to be stewed with assorted meats, which I hadn’t known when I had also ordered roasted pork with French fries for my second course. (Note the enormous bowl out of which I was to serve myself, as well as the entire bottle of house red wine.) Thank God the roast pork came with a green salad, nothing more than some fresh romaine lettuce with raw white onions, but it was like manna to me.

I always make fun of the American trend of listing every ingredient and its origin on a menu but I’m starting to see there are some advantages.