Posts Tagged ‘jeon’

Translating food

June 1, 2009


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.”


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


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.


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.

Stuffed perilla leaves

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.

You know it’s spring

March 30, 2009


It’s starting, finally, to feel like spring.  I saw daffodils in Prospect Park this morning, and even one dark tree flowering all over with pink.  But for Koreans, one of the earliest and best signs of spring is the appearance of 냉이, naegni, or shepherd’s purse.  Koreans love wild greens, and naengi is one of the most special (and most expensive).  You can make a namul, or wilted salad, out of it, blanching it and dressing it with salt, sesame oil, and sesame salt.  But my favorite way to eat it is in a deep, pungent, doenjang-jjigae, or soybean paste stew.  It has a strong, woodsy fragrance that just wafts over you as you spoon up the salty stew.  And if you eat it in that doenjang-jjiae, as we did, after a couple of hours of planting cucumber seeds on a Korean produce farm, it just tastes that much better.


My sister’s friend Nancy had invited us to join her on her parents’ farm in Walden, New York, about an hour and a half north of the city.  Her parents, in their retirement, had decided to start growing Korean produce.  Her father was an economist, her mother, a long-time small business owner.  And now they are farmers!  The romance of that is totally intoxicating to me.


It was too early to be planting directly into the ground, but their greenhouses were full of seedlings—garlic, giant scallions (actually a different vegetable from the green onions we all know), garland chrysanthemums, and peppers.  Our job was to start the cucumbers, placing one little cucumber seed in each square of soil.  It should have been boring, but it wasn’t.  It was soothing to sit there in the sun, poking and covering the seeds with a pair of tweezers.  By the last frost in early May, the cucumber seedlings will be ready to be transferred.


Even though all we did was stomp around the farm a bit in our rubber boots, and then sit for hours poking seeds into squares of dirt, when it was time for lunch, we had that sharp appetite that comes from working outside.  Nancy’s mother had picked the naengi, washed it very carefully, and added it to the strong stew.  She’d also made bulgogi, thinly sliced beef marinated in a slightly sweet, soy-sauce marinade, served with fresh greens from the greenhouses and wonderful pancakes stuffed with vegetables and shrimp.  I ate ravenously and almost with a feeling of happy righteousness, knowing that I’d done some small thing towards growing food.


Nancy said we should come back in the summer, when everything is growing riotously.  She’d been worried there would be nothing to see on the farm when the earth was still bare.  I’ll happily go anytime they’ll have me.  I went home with garland chrysanthemum and scallion seedlings, a little baggie of shepherd’s purse, and Korean radish pickles that Nancy’s mom had preserved in a giant barrel in their barn—very stinky and very tasty.  But I’m glad that I came when I did, when everything felt possible.

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.


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.


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