Posts Tagged ‘seafood’

Frutos do mar

May 5, 2010

The cookbook is coming along slowly but surely.  Diane’s been on fire since she came back from Turkey and friends and family have started testing recipes.  It seems increasingly possible that we will finish.

Which means I don’t need to feel guilty about eating Portuguese seafood in Newark instead of cooking Korean food at home.  This past weekend, a good friend and I went hiking in New Jersey.  It was five hours of the same forest view, which is fine if you don’t have memories of the Marin headlands of northern California.  I was still happy to get out of New York, though, and even happier when we started eating dinner at Seabra’s Marisqueira in the Ironbound District.

The restaurant is casual and easy, with a celebratory air that doesn’t keep you from cracking lobsters and sucking clams with gusto.  It’s the kind of restaurant that’s practically extinct in gentrified Brooklyn and slicked up Manhattan, popular without being scene-y, without a drop of irony or self-consciousness.  Almost everyone had a table of sangria at their table, fizzy, light, and frivolous like all sangria should be.

We started by splitting their delicious shellfish soup, which was brought to us in two bowls with some moist towelettes, lobster crackers, and little forks to pull out the meat.  It was a very generous soup.  We thought the waiter had misunderstood and sent over two orders; it turned out the regularly giant bowl of soup had been split in two.  Becca couldn’t stop raving about it, and as she said herself, she normally doesn’t care that much about food.

The big bowl of cockles here was listed under appetizers.  A little gritty but effortlessly fresh and delicious.

I’ve never been to Portugal, but this is what I imagine Portuguese peasants used to eat everyday — salt cod baked with potatoes and olives.  I didn’t love it at first, but its unpretentious flavor grew on me.  I happily ate the leftovers cold two days running.

Our waiter was so charming and cute, I’m sorry we shocked him by declining dessert and coffee.  Instead, we went across the street to Riviera Bakery where I pretended there were 10 of us, instead of two, and bought two boxes of pastries.

The pastries were so-so.  The pastel de natas (top left corner) had a great crust but the egg custard tasted like fake vanilla.  A friend of mine told me a lot of Chinese pastries, including egg custard tarts, are originally Portuguese, from when Portugal controlled Macau.  They definitely look the same.

But I still loved the bakery with its pastries as big as your face, in a neighborhood full of middle-aged Portuguese men just walking around that warm night.  There was a store across the street full of Portuguese and Brazilian soccer knickknacks, ceramics, and lacy baby clothing.  Another sold what looked like Portuguese-brand vacuum cleaners.  It reminded me of similar stores in Fort Lee, New Jersey, except the appliances there are Korean.  I don’t know why immigrants feel a need to buy their country’s vacuum cleaners when this country has plenty of its own, but there’s clearly a business in it.

Becca and I are plotting a trip back soon with a larger group.  We want to order the seafood skewer, which judging by our neighbor’s meal, is a huge sword of squid and shrimp hung vertically on a stand over a ginormous platter of rice.

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I am a crab killer

September 3, 2009

I bought these blue crabs at Han Yang Mart.

They went from looking like this, all energetic and frenetic in the paper bag…

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To looking like this, all energetic and frenetic in a stainless steel bowl…

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To being chopped up like this…

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And finally marinated in a gochujang chile sauce, like this.

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I can’t tell you how I did it.  It’s too horrible to reveal.

I really wanted to include a recipe for marinated raw blue crabs, or 꽃게장, kkotgejang, in the cookbook.  They can be marinated in chile-spiked soy sauce or in a spicy, vinegary chile sauce.  It’s a classic, very common, very beloved banchan dish in Korea, yet not one that you ever see on Epicurious.

You leave the shell of the crab on, and there’s very little “cleaning” that happens because Koreans love all the crab guts.  The gills, the organs, everything that seems nasty and gross to Americans, Koreans leave intact.  The luckiest person gets the top shell, and the preferred way to eat it is to put in a spoonful or two of rice, mix it up with whatever sauce and organs have collected there, and then eat the rice out of the shell.  To eat the rest of the crab, you don’t pick out the crab meat.  Instead, you pick up your bit of crab, and crushing the shell with your teeth, you suck and squeeze out the meat.  The marinade is so spicy and strong, the taste of the crab meat is subtle, but it’s still real and so delicious.

If you Google “prep live crabs,” you can easily find helpful tips, like “put them in an ice water bath for five minutes to stun them.”  I only wish I’d done some research before getting started.  I was confident that my mom’s way was the best way, which is to cut them up, alive, with a  giant pair of scissors.  She had taught me to cut off the eyes, but it hadn’t occurred to me to ask her, what do you do when the eyes recede into the shell in panic and fear?

The worst was when I managed to cut one of the big pincer claws off of one crab, only to see it escape and scuttle away from me on the table one-clawed.  The only thing that kept me going was the thought that I had to put it out of its misery, and soon.

I found myself chanting, like a mantra, “You eat crab.  You eat crab.  You eat crab.”  If I’m going to eat an animal, I have to be okay with killing it, right?

Please, no angry animal rights comments.  I am truly sorry, and the next time I do this, I will definitely use the ice-stun method.  I’m sure it wouldn’t really comfort animal rights activists, but it comforts me to know the dish turned out pretty well.  At least they didn’t die in vain.

But what should I do?  Is it worth it to include a recipe for this?  Would you try it if I explained it to you?  I’m not sure I can do this again.  Now I know what it’s such a popular banchan to buy pre-made!

Raw fish, Korean-style

June 30, 2009
Kim Deuksin, "강변회음" or "Eating Raw Fish By the River"

"강변회음" or "Eating Raw Fish By the River," Kim Deuksin (1754-1822)

Koreans have been eating raw fish for longer than the Japanese.  I’m not just being a Korean nationalist; it’s true.  It’s not just Wikipedia that says so.  The Oxford Companion to Food agrees that raw, fermented fish originated in the Mekong Delta, spread to China and then eventually to Japan, and everyone knows Korea is on the way from China to Japan.

But Japanese sushi/sashimi is more famous than Korean 회, hoe, and the annoyance I feel about that is nationalistic.  As I served 회덮밥, hoe dup bap to my guests this past Sunday, I found myself calling it a “Korean chirashi” when it’s not anything like chirashi.  I know it doesn’t really matter, but the little kid in me wanted to wail, “Why can’t the Japanese be eating Japanese hoe dup bap?”

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Hoe dup bap literally means “raw fish on rice.”  Chirashi is also raw fish on rice.  The two dishes are similar because the cultures have a lot in common—oceans and rice fields—but ultimately, hoe dup bap and chirashi are only as similar as pasta and spaetzle.  Same ingredients, different flavors, different food values.

Chirashi is just barely seasoned—the slight vinegar flavor of sushi rice, the fish maybe touched a bit by soy sauce and wasabi.  The Japanese revere raw fish.  Koreans—I’m not sure what emotion we feel for raw fish, but it’s definitely not reverence.  When we see a bowl of raw fish on rice, we want to drizzle it with sesame oil and then squeeze on a spicy-sweet-and-sour red pepper sauce.

The lack of reverence continues in how the hoe dup bap is eaten.  According to this Chowhound thread, the bowl of chirashi should be left relatively undisturbed.  Korean hoe dup bap, though, is supposed to be mixed up.  Koreans have long-handled spoons for a reason, and even if it’s not so pretty, the rice, the fish, the greens all take on the red tint of the spicy pepper sauce.  Each spoonful should include all the flavors and textures, the smoothness of the fish, the crunch of the vegetables, soft texture of the rice, and of course, the fragrance of sesame oil and red pepper sauce.  It’s another example of the Korean love of things “bibim” or “mixed.”

What I do appreciate in both dishes, though, is the rawness of the flavors.  Even with all that heat and sesame oil, hoe dup bap is one of my favorite things to eat when it’s hot and sticky.  If I’ve been traveling, especially in a country that cooks mainly with cream and butter, the first thing I want to eat when I get home is hoe dup bap.  Hoe dup bap is practically a salad as much as a rice dish, with all the shredded lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, sprouts and perilla leaves.  It’s incredibly cleansing and refreshing at the same time.

Last night was the first time I made it at home, and now that I know how easy it is, it’s going to be my go-to summer dish, especially on those nights that it’s too hot to turn on the stove.  There’s literally nothing to cook except the rice, which can be done with the press of a button if you have a rice cooker.  It’s easy to make for one or for two, or for twelve.

Sashimi-grade fish is available at Japanese stores, and often at Korean groceries as well.  I found mine at Sunrise Mart, a Japanese grocery in the East Village, and then ended up finding and buying another block of tuna at M2M, the more Korean-focused store a few blocks north.  It can get expensive buying sashimi-grade fish, but you don’t need as much as you might for chirashi, since you have so much else going on.

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If you don’t have a reputable fishmonger or don’t eat fish, you can substitute tofu.  I made a marinated tofu version for a guest who can’t eat raw fish.  I got the idea from Maangchi, who recommends that you fry the tofu, but I thought leaving it uncooked would better approximate the texture, if not the flavor, of raw fish.  I used the leftovers to make a bowl of “dubu dup bap” for my Monday dinner.  I was surprised, it was quite good.

Hoe dup bap (for one)
1.5-2 cups of cooked white rice
¾ cup of raw fish cut into one-inch cubes, about a quarter pound—I used an assortment of tuna, salmon and hamachi or yellowtail
1 teaspoon of fish roe
handful of shredded lettuce, like romaine or green leaf
¼ cup of julienned carrots
¼ cup of julienned cucumbers (try Persian if you can’t find Korean, something fairly seedless)
3-4 perilla leaves, cut into thin strips (optional)
sprouts (radish or pea, anything thin and crunchy with bright green tops)
a couple of thin strips of roasted seaweed
drizzle of sesame oil (about 1 teaspoon)
chojang, or spicy sauce, to taste

1.    Place the rice in the bottom of the bowl.
2.    Add the lettuce, the julienned carrots and cucumbers, the perilla leaves, and sprouts.  The perilla leaves are optional, as they can only be found in Korean and Japanese grocery stores, but they’re so good and fragrant if you can find them.
3.    Top with the raw fish.  Sprinkle the fish roe on top of the fish.
4.    Garnish with a few thin strips of roasted seaweed, drizzle with sesame oil, and add chojang to taste.

Chojang or spicy red pepper sauce
3 tablespoons gochujang, or red pepper paste
2 tablespoons vinegar (white wine, rice or brown rice)
1 tablespoon sugar

Mix thoroughly and taste.  Depending on your brand of gochujang, you might want to add more or less vinegar and sugar.  It should be much thinner than gochujang, though not as thin as a hot sauce, as easily pourable as sriracha sauce.  I’m planning to play around with the chojang recipe a bit, as there are some interesting variations I’ve found in different sources, but it’s totally serviceable if you are craving a simple, fresh Korean raw fish dinner now.

Variation: Replace the raw fish with cubes of marinated, uncooked tofu.  I cut up a package of firm tofu and marinated it in a mix of soy sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and lemon juice.

First 48 hours in Sydney

May 17, 2009
The surfers at Bondi Beach

The surfers at Bondi Beach

I’ve been in Sydney, Australia, for about 48 hours.  I feel like I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole.

I arrived at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.  My friend Bianca picked me up, and after I showered and changed, whisked me off to lunch at The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, a swank and beautiful restaurant with an incredible view of the water, and surprisingly, food to match.  Then we walked from Coogee Beach all the way to Bondi Beach on a curving trail that goes through about five of the 80 beaches in Sydney.  We had dinner at Govinda’s, a vegetarian restaurant run by Hare Krishnas, finishing right before I almost fell asleep into my soup.  The next morning, I woke up completely refreshed and ready to go to 9 a.m. yoga class at Bianca’s favorite yoga studio, after which we went to yet another breathtaking beach for lunch with some of her friends.

I don’t live a particularly unhealthy life in New York, but so far, Sydney makes me feel like I might as well be that woman in black chain-smoking outside a bar at 4 a.m.  As we walked along the coast of eastern Sydney, we were constantly passed by runners with torsos so chiseled, you could see every muscle rippling as they ran.  The members of the Icebergs swimming pool by Bondi Beach swim everyday of the year, rain or shine.  Even the Central Business District, which is a lot of corporate sparkle and glass, has Olympic-size pools filled with bionic men in tiny Speedos.  Two of Bianca’s friends, who work in finance and are not at all New Age-y, offhandedly told me they had completed the 40-Day Revolution, a course of yoga and meditation that is supposed to change your life.

I could never live here.  I eat too much bacon, and even though I like yoga, I like sleeping in after a late night even more.  I know I’m an incorrigible New Yorker because I can look at the gorgeousness of Sydney, its greenery and its unending coastline, and sigh, “I miss grit.”  But for two weeks?  Sydney life is the life I want to live.

If you’re wondering what I’m going to write about on this blog when I’m eating Hare Krishna food, don’t worry, I’ve been eating very, very well.  Sydney is so healthy, it’s balanced.  It’s not like New York, where the macrobiotic restaurants seem to be full of diners competing about how much they can deny themselves.  The Hare Krishnas are eating delicious food with plenty of heat and spice, and my pizza at the Bathers Pavilion was topped with duck confit, beets, and ricotta.

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And The Boathouse serves the best oysters I have ever had in my entire life.

Eating an oyster always feels like a minor miracle to me.  The idea that someone years ago picked up what looked like a rock, pried it open, found something essentially slimy and decided to eat it!  Thank you, unknown ancestor, for discovering how good it feels to eat something so cold, soft and slippery.  I love oysters, whether I’m standing on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx at the sidewalk shellfish bars, or whether I’m on Hog Island doing that Northern Californian thing of drinking white wine while wearing a fleece jacket.

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But now I know I really really love oysters when they’re served on a large platter, each oyster in the circle representing a different region of Australia.

We worked backwards because Bianca likes the Claire de Lunes best, and she is not the kind of girl who gobbles up first what she likes best.  I didn’t mind, especially because the Moonlight Angasi literally turned to butter in my mouth.  How can saltwater end up tasting like butter?  That is the more-than-minor miracle of the Moonlight Angasi oyster.

Each oyster had its own particular flavor.  There was minerality in one, a sharper citrus note in another.  Even the En Surface, which I didn’t like at first, left a flavor in my mouth so good I wasn’t sure I could move on.  I wanted to take notes, but I’d left my pen at the apartment and Bianca thought I was crazy anyway for slurping the juice of each oyster as well the meat.

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I could have happily left that restaurant with just the taste of oysters in my mouth, but I’d ordered the signature dish, a red snapper pie.  It was a joke in a way, a classic English pot pie, and a funny one because it was so much better than a doughy pie normally is.  The waitress broke open the lid to reveal snapper fillets in a slightly sweet, creamy sauce.  It should have been overwhelmingly rich, but it wasn’t.  It was just perfect, as perfect as the buttery crust.

I’m in a different world, an upside down world where everyone is fit and buttery pastry tastes like it might actually be good for you.  I will not be surprised if suddenly, at our next yoga class, I find my inflexible body in some impossible pose.

Chungmu kimbap, now and forever

March 19, 2009

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This was my last meal in Korea.  It’s something I loved as a teenager, so it made sense to me to be eating it in Myeongdong, a noisy neighborhood of shops and cafes that I am really too old to be hanging out in any more.  But the beauty of food is that you’re really never too old to be eating something.  You might be too old to be at that club, or to be dressing in those clothes, but eating chungmu kimbap?  You can do that forever.

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충무 김밥, or chungmu kimbap, are rolls made of seaweed stuffed with rice, and served with a little pile of spicy but sweet cubes of lightly pickled Korean radish and another pile of equally spicy but sweet strips of boiled squid.  The rolls are always made a little skinny and cut a little long, more cylindrical than classic kimbap.  More importantly, the rolls are nothing but rice and toasted seaweed—no vinegar, no salt, no sesame oil.  But the very plainness of the rolls, the almost dry-sticky feeling of the toasted seaweed on your tongue as you eat them is the kind of extremeness in food that’s so appealing with you’re young.  And the intense heat of the kimchi and squid are at the opposite extreme.  Together, the dish is explosive, a very fun and easy bite to eat when toting shopping bags.

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But I was a little embarrassed to be eating it alone.  For some reason, it’s always served with toothpicks rather than real cutlery, which to me means that I’m supposed to be sharing one plate with Leslie or another friend from high school, spearing the rolls while we talk.  Koreans hate eating alone, and I could feel the ahjummas by the window eyeing me even as they made change and spoke to other customers.  It was Sunday, too, which meant Myeongdong was packed.  Every street food vendor was out, ready to sell potato sticks, skewered fish cake, and fried dough to the crowds.  I even saw some Turkish men selling doner kebabs, the first time I’ve ever seen non-Korean street food vendors in Seoul.  I loved what I was eating, but I ate as quickly as I could, finished shopping for gifts, and left.

When I got home, I told my mom what I ate, and she told me that chungmu kimbap is actually a regional specialty, from the city of Chungmu which is now called Geoje-si.  Geoje-si is in South Gyeongsan Province, in the southeast corner of the peninsula, which would explain the deep red of the kimchi and the prominent role of squid in the dish.  A little Googling showed me I’m not the only one who loves this dish; it even shows up on the Official Site of Korea Tourism, with a famous restaurant in Geoje-si.  (In classic, plain-spoken Korean fashion, the name of the restaurant is, you guessed it, Chungmu Grandmother Kimbap.)

It comforted me, somehow, to know this dish I associate so much with my teenage years has a much longer history.  And when I got back to Brooklyn and found a recipe for it in one of my Korean cookbooks, I was even happier.  The next time Leslie comes to visit, I’ll make it for her.

What exactly is 술 안주?

March 13, 2009

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Diane and I need your help: what exactly is 술 안주, or sul anju?

For those of you who aren’t Korean, or have never gotten drunk with Koreans, sul anju is a catch-all phrase describing the food one eats while drinking alcohol. Koreans think drinking on an empty stomach is bad for you, though they’re not too worried about the quantity of the booze itself. So whether you’re drinking a bottle of soju with dinner (the first stage), or going on to drink more at the next establishment (the second stage), you’ll always have something to eat on the table and usually something more substantial than peanuts.

This much, we know. But what’s a little tricky for us is that the foods Koreans might consider sul anju aren’t limited to the kind of food we in the U.S. think of as bar snacks.  Typical anju includes things like dried squid; 전, jeon, or savory pancakes; and a platter of tofu topped high with spicy pork and kimchi.  But you can even consider all the meat you eat from the grill anju if you’re drinking while you eat. It seems like you can’t really say there are foods that are only for eating with alcohol.  At the least, it seems pretty clear that sul anju never includes shiksa, the rice and soup/stew that’s served at the end of the meal.

The issue of what constitutes sul anju is the kind of thing Diane and I thought we knew until we got down to the business of defining it for the cookbook. We had asked her friend Eunhee to recommend a good place to eat and drink, and even though it was some of the best food we had in Seoul, the meal left us more befuddled than anything.

She took us to a place called 행락원, or Haengnagwhun, in the Nonhyundong neighborhood south of the river. Her friends had told her what we had to try: raw blue crabs marinated in a spicy sauce; a cold dish of buckwheat jelly tossed with buckwheat sprouts (similar to what we later ate in Bongpyeong), and a clear stew flavored with fish roe. And since the goal was to drink as well as to eat, we got a bottle of 매취순, maechisun, or wine made out of maesil plums (the same as Japanese ume plums).

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I’ll leave the wine description to Diane, but I was amazed by the freshness and sharpness of everything we ate. It was the first time I’d tried memilssak-mukmuchim, the buckwheat salad. When muk, the firm jelly, is made out of buckwheat instead of mung beans or acorns, it has a much smoother, more tender texture, more like cheese than jello. The sprouts were the perfect crisp counterpoint, as were the vinegary dressing and the fragrant sesame oil.

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The blue crabs were served with a side of yellow fish roe and plenty of lettuce. It was salty but refreshing, the way raw seafood is when it’s super-fresh. It went well with our drinks, but it also went so well on top of rice, it’s what made me begin to wonder, “What makes this anju?”

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The fish roe stew was definitely not anju, since it was in the “dinner” section of the menu. The proper thing would probably have been to order it with a couple of bowls of rice after we had finished eating the other dishes as our anju, but it was so good, I didn’t mind having it with us longer. It had that clean, clear flavor of good seafood-based broths, stuffed full of zucchini and 팽이, paengi (or enoki) mushrooms.

So what do you think? What part of our meal would you consider sul anju?  What’s your favorite thing to eat as sul anju?  I have a feeling it really doesn’t matter though, that the point might be less than to define the food you eat while you’re drinking as to be drinking while you’re eating.

Noryangjin Market, a Seafood Wonderland

March 9, 2009

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Despite the ubiquity of Korean barbecue and the passion U.S. beef incites in South Korea, we’re really a seafood-eating people.  The country, after all, is surrounded on three sides by water.  Seafood, in one form or another, is in a huge number of Korean dishes, including many that have no visible sign of fish, clam or anchovy.

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Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul is one of the best places to see that Korean reliance on seafood manifest.  It’s not spic-and-span like the fish market of La Boqueria in Barcelona. The floor is concrete, everyone is wearing rubber boots, and blinding bulbs dangle over rows and rows of fish and anything else that is edible from the sea.  There are giant barrels of salted fermented shrimp, an essential ingredient in many types of kimchi.  If that’s not your thing, there’s plenty of hot-pink skate fish laid out like grotesque jewels, tanks stuffed too full with flukes in an obviously low mood, and sea squirts that look like Nerf toys.  Everyone’s calling out to you to buy his fish.  Almost everything is still alive.

And if you want to see what Koreans value in their seafood, you can find out right there.  You can pick out your fish/hairy crab/what-have-you and take it to one of the many restaurants that line the market.

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If you’re buying a fish, like a 광어, gwangoe, (halibut) or a 민어, minuh, (Japanese sea bass), the assumption will be that, of course, you want to eat it raw.  The Japanese call it sashimi, we call it 회, “hoe” (pronounced “heh”).  The same is true if you buy sea cucumbers and sea squirts, which we did.  Be prepared, the preferred method of execution at Noryangjin seems to be to take a hammer to the fish’s head.  The fishmonger will then filet and slice it, carefully putting the bones in a plastic bag for you as well.

You take the platter of raw fish, along with your bones, to one of the restaurants. (We went to “Seoul Shikdang,” or “Seoul Restaurant,” though I have a feeling they’re all more or less the same).  The restaurant will whisk the bones into the kitchen and bring out all the condiments Koreans consider essential to raw fish: fresh lettuce, perilla leaves, red pepper sauce, soybean paste, and slices of raw green pepper and garlic.

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While you dip and wrap  and eat your fish, the kitchen gets to work on making 매운탕, maeuntang, a spicy fish stew.  In most restaurants, any maeuntang you order will have big chunks of fish, which could be cod or red snapper or almost any firm white fish, but it’s essentially a dish of economy, a soup made of fish bones.  That’s precisely what happens at Noryangjin, since you’ve eaten most of the flesh raw.  (Sounds vicious, doesn’t it?)  Maeuntang is also often filled with tofu and vegetables, like bean sprouts, Korean parsley or chrysanthemum greens, which have an incredibly strong and delicious flavor.  The best maeuntang has a sweet, as well as a red peppery flavor, the kind of sweetness that comes only from well-made fish stock.

You can see there’s a theme.  Koreans don’t generally leave their fish alone.  Diane and I were eating with my friend Angela and husband Jooshin, who is a Korean-American sushi chef, and he crystallized for me something I’d been sensing for awhile: “For Koreans, raw fish is all about texture.”

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The Japanese place a premium on letting the natural flavor of raw fish shine through, to stay clean and rather pure.  In contrast, there is very little purity going on when you slather a piece of fish with red pepper sauce and wrap it in lettuce with a bit of raw garlic.  It explains why Koreans generally prefer chewy fish like halibut and sea bass over a soft slab of tuna, and why the totally disarming seawater flavor of raw sea squirt doesn’t keep them from enjoying that weird, wild slippery sensation.  There are times when Koreans will eat seafood unadorned—freshly steamed crabs, for example, and simply grilled Spanish mackerel.  But for every steamed, naked crab I’ve eaten in my life, I’ve probably eaten five raw crabs marinated in soy sauce, which is kind of like a Korean ceviche.

Noryangjin Fish Market won’t give you the most ethereal seafood experience of your life.  But I love it for what it does supremely well, showing the almost irreverent, expansive, affectionate attitude Koreans have towards the seafood that is so central to their lives.

The best of Korea’s eastern coast

February 25, 2009

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The eastern coast of Gyeongsanbuk-do is my favorite kind of coast.  It’s windy and rocky, and the ocean that laps the shore is filled with a thousand different shades of blue.  It’s a working ocean, with fishing boats crowding every port, and fish and squid drying on lines along the road.  The rocks are dotted with solitary fishermen looking out to sea. It’s the kind of shore that draws people who want to be alone.

But to eat the best of what the Gyeonsanbuk-do shore has to offer, it’s best to be with a crowd, and the kind of crowd you’re comfortable with.  There’s no attractive, delicate way to crack open crab legs.  And when the crabs taste as good as the famed king crabs of Youngduk, I promise you will end up with bits of crab meat and juice all over your face, your hands, and maybe even your hair.

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The crabs are steamed.  Nothing else, and yet they were the sweetest, most succulent crabs I’d ever had.  I normally find crabs to be more trouble than they’re worth—all that work for so little—but I could feel myself getting almost maniacal as I ate.  I wanted more and more, and it didn’t matter how much I had to wrestle with the giant red scissors.  They’re not enormous and they’re not cheap, since they range from 10,000-70,000 won (~$7-$45) for a single crab.  But, oh, it’s worth the drive up that beautiful shore to come eat them at 대게원조 삼광호, Daegae Whunjo Samgwangho.

The fame of the crabs has led the larger town just south of 축산 1-리, Chuksan-1, to turn their home into a crab amusement park.  Giant plastic crabs look down at you from the bridges, from the tallest buildings, from the larger restaurants, anywhere you can affix a giant crab.  There are dozens of restaurants, with nothing to distinguish one from the other, especially since each one has someone shouting at you to come in.

The restaurant we ate at, in contrast, is in Chuksan-1, a quiet but prosperous-looking fishing village.  You can see the fishing boats right next to the restaurant, and when the woman working at the restaurant smiles her infectious smile at you and says the crabs came straight from those boats, you have to believe her.

At the end, we were served bowls of rice sprinkled liberally with roasted sesame seeds and roasted seaweed, kimchi, and a simple crab stew.  We took the crab shells, filled with roe and crab juice and mixed our rice right in the shells.  Diane took the task very seriously.

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As she should.  This is food that deserves all your attention.

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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Korean foods I do not like

February 21, 2009

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The older I get, the more intensely Korean I feel.  For years, I could go months without eating kimchi.  Now, something in my DNA cries out for it week after week.  I’ve also started to feel more nationalistic, very proud and sometimes defensive, especially about our food.  When someone says Korean food smells bad, I feel this little kid urge to spit back, “Oh yeah? You smell bad!”

So it hurts me a little to admit there are Korean foods I do not like, and even more, to admit that they smell bad.  I wouldn’t tell you, except I want always to be truthful in everything I write, whether it’s a cookbook or a story.  And this way, when I tell you that acorn jelly, in all its slippery glory, is really delicious, you’ll know that you can trust me.

Diane and I had dinner a few nights ago with our parents at 두레, Doorei, a lovely, traditional restaurant in Insa-dong, a lovely, traditional neighborhood.  Despite the title of this post, I have no complaints about the restaurant.  Other than the three dishes described below, I liked their food very much, like the salty and chewy dried 민어, mineo, or croaker fish (photo above).  And even including these three dishes, the kitchen was cooking with an honest and quiet restraint.  The flavors were clean and clear, whether they were bellflower roots in a spicy sauce or perfectly cooked rice dotted with dark beans.

I should also note that we ordered foods we were pretty sure we wouldn’t like.  I don’t believe in extreme eating (I hate when Westerners brag about eating “gross” things that are totally normal to other people) but I do believe in education.
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홍어찜, hongeojjim, was very educational (photo above).  Hongeojjim is fermented steamed skate fish.  In other words, fish that’s been allowed to rot before it is oh so delicately steamed.  A specialty of the southern region of Jeollo-do, it’s beloved by the people there. Most Koreans outside the area won’t eat it.  Koreans are obviously big fans of fermentation—kimchi, doenjang, booze—so that tells you something about how fermented this skate is.

At Doorei, the fish came hidden under a pile of blanched bean sprouts and wild parsley.  It was very, very soft, gray and slippery, almost disintegrating as my mom cut it into pieces with a big spoon.  It tasted like ammonia you can chew.

I’d eaten a couple of bites, trying to ignore the feeling of being assaulted in the back of my throat, when my father finally noticed I wasn’t dipping it in the spicy red pepper sauce.  “You’re supposed to eat it with this!”  It helped mask the flavor, but not enough for me to want to keep eating it.  Our parents assured us that this wasn’t even that bad.  There was skate out there that was way more fermented.

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The night of fermentation continued.  We’d chosen this restaurant because it’s well-known for its 청국장찌개, cheonggukjang-jjigae, also a regional specialty, but from Chungchong-do, where my father is from.  Cheonggukjang is a fermented soybean paste, like doenjang, which is a pantry staple for Koreans all over Korea.  Cheonggukjang-jjigae is a stew made from that soybean paste (photo above).  But that’s pretty much where the comparison ends, at least for me.  Doenjang is earthy.  Cheonggukjang is muddy.  Doenjang is delicious.  Cheonggukjang is not.

Others say that doenjang cheonggukjang is like Japanese natto, which sounds right to me since I don’t like natto either.  But I can appreciate that the level of fermentation in hongeojjim and cheonggukjang, like natto, is an acquired taste, and that both dishes might be quite delicious and delightful to other people.  There are people out there who like Vegemite!  And I myself am very, very fond of super-stinky blue cheese.

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But the last thing we had, I don’t think even Koreans would say that they like it.  At the end of our meal, we were given complimentary cups of 삼지구엽차, samjiguyeopcha, a medicinal tea that translates into “tea made of 3 branches, 9 leaves.”  That’s exactly what it tasted like, barks and leaves.  Koreans have always believed that the food you eat is the most important medicine you can put in your body.  This was a very literal interpretation of that idea.

But all in all, it was a wonderful meal.  Diane and I learned so much more about what Koreans eat and drink.  And lest I feel any waning of love for my native country, as we were drinking our tea, the men next door began a drunken yet enthusiastic rendition of the national anthem: “May God bless our country for ten thousand years and years!”