Posts Tagged ‘soups’

Tteok-guk, comfort food for kings

April 13, 2009

img_2703

I almost forgot about the rice cake soup on Sunday night.

I had decided to reprise the fried chicken, in honor of my friend Sharon’s visit from New Haven, and given how long it takes to fry 5 pounds of fried chicken plus the amount of food we’d already eaten, it wasn’t surprising I forgot about the beef broth just simmering at the back of the stove.

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

When I finally did get around to serving it, it was warmly appreciated it, the way it always is.  떡국, tteok-guk, or rice cake soup, is one of the milder Korean soups.  There’s no fiery red pepper or fermented soybean paste in it.  It’s just a beef broth in which ovals of sliced rice cakes are simmered until soft but still chewy, often along with some dumplings.  On fancy occasions, it gets garnished with thinly fried eggs cut in elaborate diamonds or strips, shredded meat, and strips of roasted seaweed, for a very colorful presentation.  But growing up, it was also what my mom made when she was pressed for time.  She’d worked out an everyday version, in which she would sautee strips of beef in soy sauce and pour in some water for a surprisingly tasty broth.  When the rice cakes were tender, she would break the eggs straight into the pot and stir it up into ribbons of white and yellow.  I found tteok-guk boring and tiresome until I left home and realized there was nothing I would rather eat when I am tired or sad.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Given how everyday it was in our house, though, I’d always wondered why rice cake soup is a celebratory food.  It’s always served on New Year’s Day, and given that traditionally, Koreans celebrated turning one year older collectively on New Year’s as well, it’s a birthday soup, too.

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

It turns out, it’s all about rice.  Even though rice is a central part of the Korean diet, it’s only recently that it’s become so common as to be a background food, something to eat with everything else on the table.  For most of Korean history, it was too expensive to eat everyday.  Most people ate barley or millet, sometimes mixed with rice, but often without even a grain of rice.  In the north, noodles made out of buckwheat, arrowroot, or sweet potatoes were the common starch.  So to take that precious rice, grind it into rice flour, and then make rice cakes out of it, which is no easy thing itself, that was the height of luxurious living.  To eat like a king one day out of the year—what could be more celebratory?

Now, it takes nothing to go to the store and buy a bag of pre-sliced rice cakes.  We’ve lost something in not knowing what kind of labor it takes to grow rice and to pound it into chewy cakes.  I wonder how it must have felt, to sit at a table on New Year’s waiting for your wonderful bowl of tteok-guk to appear.  But I like to think that for those who appreciate good food, no matter how simple and easy and everyday, we will always recognize when we are eating like kings.

This is a very simple write-up, as the amounts are still estimates and the final version will have some more detailed explanations.  But if you get a chance, it’s a nice soup to eat in these last cool nights of spring.

Serves 6-8

4 quarts of water
1 lb. of beef brisket
5 cups of sliced rice cakes, rinsed in water and drained
3 tablespoons Korean soup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Korean dark soy sauce (you can use Kikkoman for both but it’s saltier so be careful and taste as you go along)
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons chopped green onions.
4 eggs
freshly ground pepper
1 sheet of roasted seaweed for garnish

1.  Put the brisket in a large pot with four quarts of water.  Bring it to a boil and skim off the foam and fat at the top.  Simmer for at least two hours, skimming off the foam occasionally, until the beef is tender.  (Last night, I added some oxtail and more water, ending up with an incredibly rich and golden broth, complete with globules of fat floating on the surface.  The beef broth experimentation continues…)

2.  Take the brisket out and let it cool.  When it’s cool enough to touch, shred it into thin pieces about 2-3 inches long.  Toss the shredded brisket with the dark soy sauce, ground red pepper, chopped garlic and chopped green onions.  Set aside.

3.  Bring the broth back to a boil and then let it simmer.  Season the broth with soup soy sauce.  Taste as you go along, as the saltiness of soy sauces can vary a lot by brand.

4.  Add the rice cakes.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste and make sure that it’s soft.  It should be tender but still chewy.

5.  Add the shredded beef.  Break the eggs into the pot and swirl with a pair of chopsticks.  Let it simmer just a minute more for the eggs to set.

6.  Ladle the soup into bowls.  Garnish with thin strips of roasted seaweed and add freshly ground pepper before serving.

(Is it totally confusing to have pictures of food we ate, but I don’t describe in the post?  Let me know.)

Advertisements

“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.

You know it’s spring

March 30, 2009

img_2558

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.

img_2526

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.

img_2531

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.

img_2541

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.

img_2525

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.

img_2498

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.

readymade

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

What exactly is 술 안주?

March 13, 2009

img_1773

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).

img_1770

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.

img_1764

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?”

img_1775

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.

Gyeongju sundubu

February 24, 2009

img_2098

A quick update: We’re in Gyeongju, one of the larger cities in South Gyeongsan Province, and a major center of Korean history, as it was the capital of the Shilla Dynasty.  People throw the word Shilla around like it was yesterday, and South Korean identity is tied strongly to the scientific and artistic achievements of that era, but the dynasty lasted from 668-918 A.D.  This is a very old country.

Diane’s family spent a lot of time here while she was growing up, and so we’re using the city as a base to explore the southeastern coast.  We spent a day and a half in Jeonju, in North Jeolla Province (about which I have a lot more to say in future posts), and would have liked to spend more time in Jeolla-do in general, but we couldn’t figure out an itinerary that wouldn’t have involved driving nearly all day between the southwest and southeast corners.  In any case, I wouldn’t give up any of the meals we’ve had so far in Gyeonsannam-do.

I’ve divided them up into three posts that follow.

img_2041

Our first meal in Gyeongju was 순두부찌개, sundubu-jjigae. This is one of my favorite things to eat, one of the foods I start to crave if I haven’t had Korean food in awhile.  It’s usually made with a clam broth, spiced to the gills with red pepper, and filled with a very soft, fresh bean curd, one step before becoming full-fledged tofu.  We chose to eat at a restaurant called 맷돌순두부, Mehtdolsundubu, but the whole area was crawling with sundubu restaurants.  Koreans really love trends, and food trends especially.  Clearly, one person had had a bright idea to sell sundubu in this area, and everyone had followed suit.

I couldn’t really blame their entrepreneurial spirit, though.  The bean curd was especially fresh, almost closer to 비지, biji, a soybean puree, than soybean curd.  I’m not sure how and why this locality became known for its sundubu-jjigae, but its proximity to the ocean probably helped the clams and the clam broth taste clean and clear.

img_2030

And I got to try 빈대장아찌, bindaejangajji, a strong-tasting fish, like anchovies on steroids, pickled with burning hot green peppers, which is what you see here in this little jar.

Korean foods I do not like

February 21, 2009

img_1673

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.
img_1674

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.

img_1676

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.

img_1693

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!”