Sunday Night (Vietnamese) TV Dinner

Do you like phở ? I do. I can’t tell you how much I love it. Once, a few years back, I ate pho for lunch every day and I still didn’t get tired of it. Unfortunately, Vietnamese food in Korea isn’t up to par. There are a handful of restaurants that do better versions than most, but sadly, that’s about it. I have yet to eat pho here that blows my mind.

This post, however, is not dedicated to my favorite hot noodle soup but another Vietnamese dish that I adore–bún thịt nướng, barbecued pork on cold vermicelli noodles with herbs and đồ chua (pickled daikon and carrots) served with nước chấm or prepared fish sauce. Different restaurants present the dish in different ways, but the ingredients are essentially the same. I like mine with an additional topping of chả giò, crispy Vietnamese rolls.

When I crave something, I’m a woman obsessed. And, bun thit nuong was on my mind last Sunday.

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First, the meat–the “thit nuong” part of the dish. It literally means barbecued meat and it’s always pork. I marinated the pork (shoulder) in a mixture of soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, minced onion, minced garlic, freshly cracked black pepper and a little sesame oil and let it sit for a couple of hours.

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Then I shredded a carrot and quick-pickled it in a mixture of sugar, vinegar, salt, and water  (1:1: 1: 3.5). It takes about an hour to pickle. So easy.

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This is a Korean brand of rice noodles I bought at a local supermarket. I’d never used this one before and I got curious.

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 I pan-fried the pork over high heat. I love the color and the flavor of the caramelized exterior of soy-marinated pork. And the smell. By this time, Joe had sniffed his way into the kitchen. Clever doggy. 

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Alongside the pan of insanely fragrant pork, this was happening. I didn’t have any egg roll skins on me, so I used glutinous rice mandu skins instead, the extra large kind, which you can easily find in the deep freeze section of any local supermarket in Korea. The filling is a mix of chopped glass noodles, a little ground pork, chives, carrots and onions, seasoned with soy, sesame oil, lots of black pepper and a little sugar.

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Once the noodles are cooked and rinsed in cold water, all that’s left to do is to assemble everything in a bowl. Noodles at the bottom, chopped leafy vegetables and herbs on top with the pickled carrots, pork, egg rolls and (hastily) crushed peanuts. I’d made the nuoc cham earlier by combining fish sauce, water, lemon juice (no lime…so sad), sugar, minced garlic and red chili diced into small bits. I wish I’d had lemongrass as well, but, it was fine. Cooking at home with the readily-available ingredients and trying to make it taste authentic is challenging but fun as well. You can also add sliced or shredded cucumbers and chopped green onions. I spooned some of the red chili swimming in the prepared fish sauce on top for color and served the actual sauce on the side.

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Mix everything and eat. There is a bit of sweet, a bit of sour, a bit of salty, some caramelization as well as the fragrance from the herbs. I love the textures of this dish as well; the meat, the crunchy vegetables, the crispy egg rolls, the soft noodles. It is my ideal summer meal and I had it with my favorite eating buddy, catching up on our favorite TV shows. Sunday nights don’t get better than this.

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Backstreet Lunching and Old-School Cuppas

I really wasn’t kidding when I said kimchi jjigae is my favorite. As you are about to find out, I had it again the following day with two of my girl friends who love to eat as much as I do.

은주정 (Eunjujeong), tucked away in the backstreets near Bangsan (Baking) Market in Euljiro 4-ga, is a local institution that has been in business since 1986. The restaurant specializes in two things that any Korean food lover should recognize as a match made in heaven: sour kimchi and fatty pork.

This place has only two things on their menu: kimchi jjigae by day and a combo of samgyeopsal (pork belly barbeque) and kimchi jjigae by night. Their pork kimchi jjigae comes with banchan and a basket of fresh ssam–raw green leafy vegetables– for the purpose of wrapping those chunky morsels of pork belly in. During dinner service, they bring out the samgyeopsal, first,  followed by the kimchi jjigae meal. So, you don’t really have much choice; if you’re not a fan of this sour pungent porky stew, don’t go there. If you’re a fan, do go eat there.

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Once seated, the server will come by, asking for the number of people sitting at the table. A minimum of one order per head is the policy here, so keep that in mind.

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Uncooked  is how the jjigae is brought to the table. What you see is kimchi, mushrooms, pork, green onions, and a generous amount of minced garlic.

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After 20 minutes of simmering with the lid on.

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A basket of ssam and banchan.

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By the time the jjigae is ready, the servers will bring you the complimentary bowls of rice.

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A Korean-style spread. A bowl of rice, some kind of soup or stew and banchan.

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Ssam is not typically served with kimchi jjigae, but it works. Koreans love to wrap barbecued meat in ssam. So, why not pork cooked in jjigae?

Again, kimchi and pork are two things that go together so well. All you need is a bowl of rice and you got yourself a good hearty meal.

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After days of overcast skies and rain, the weather finally let up and so we decided to head over to Seongbuk-dong for desserts. Hyebin lead the way and this gorgeous hanok is where we ended up, a short cab ride from Gwangjang Market: 수연산방, a traditional tea house and former residence of writer Lee Tae-jun who wrote many of his works while living here between 1933 and 1946.

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Utterly charming. Understandably, my friends and I had a hard time trying to decide whether to sit outside or inside.

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It was a bit warm, so we headed indoors.

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The menu consists of traditional teas (hot and cold) and two types of bingsu (pumpkin and makgeolli).

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Matcha with shaved ice, pumpkin bingsu (their specialty) and chilled lemon and ginger tea. Also, a side of complimentary traditional confectionery like sugar-coated ginger chips and yugwa.

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Save for the constant stream of traditional Korean music in the background, it is so peaceful out here. By this point, the three of us, stuffed and happy, had one thing on our minds. An afternoon nap.

은주정

중구 주교동 43-23

Jung-gu Jugyo-dong 43-34

02-2265-4669

수연산방

성북구 성북동 248

02-764-1736

Rainy Thursday Super Stew

If you didn’t know already, this would be my last supper if I were on death row…

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…and had to pick a Korean meal. Kimchi jjigae–a hot bubbling pot of spicy, salty, sour kimchi stew with a generous portion of chunky good-quality pork belly and maybe a slice or two of tofu (but not necessary)–has always been a favorite of mine.

20140821_134754찌개집 (Jjigaejip) near exit 4 of Gangnam Station is legit. One serving of kimchi jjigae here easily feeds two and comes with some classic sides: fish cake slices, sweet spicy tangy julienned radish, kimchi, bean sprouts, sausage jeon (the old school neon-pink variety that simultaneously evokes happy childhood memories of packed lunches in many while also making you shudder at just how offensively pink it is), a whole grilled pike mackerel, toasted laver and a bowl of rice. For 7,000 won.

If I had the choice to, I would exchange all the banchan for two fried sunny-side-up eggs. The grilled fish was a bit dry and the banchan is average at best but the stew is top notch. Go for that.

Jjigaejip is open 24 hours.

Death by Cow Fat

There are few things better tasting than meat cooked in its own fat. Like confit de canard, cured duck leg slowly cooked in its own fat in low temperature until the skin crackles under the knife and the flesh meltingly tender. And, of course, I can never resist good old bacon, fried until crunchy in its own melted grease.

Gopchang, which are the small intestines of a cow, is not the healthiest cut of beef you will put in your mouth, but it is so damn good you will temporarily forget about what it could potentially do to your arteries during the duration of the meal, at least. Intestines are some of the fattiest part of the animal, and that’s why it’s so good. When cooked over a cast-iron griddle, the bits of lumpy fat lining the chewy morsels slowly melt away, creating a transparent shallow pool in which the tubes get fried until golden and crisp. I know, I know. A POOL OF MELTED COW FAT. It’s definitely not for the weak-hearted.

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A mix of small intestines, large intestines, heart and tripe with potatoes and onions. Those thin green onions and chives, tossed in a fragrant vinegar-sesame oil-chili pepper dressing is awesome. The sharp tang from the vinegar cuts through the fattiness of the meat; eat it raw, as is served, or throw some on the grill if you find the flavor of raw green onions too harsh.

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Rice fried into the fat-coated griddle until the bottom turns ridiculously crisp, kind of like socarrat of a paella.

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Basic gopchang resto lingo for you:

곱창 – small intestines

대창 – large intestines

막창 – large intestines (stomach #4…which is pretty much the rectum of a cow. yeah.)

모듬 – mix (small intestines, large intestines, tripe, heart)

염통 – heart

Hwangsogopchang (황소곱창) near exit 4 of Seoul National University station on line 2. Do it.

황소곱창 (Hwangsogopchang)

관악구 청룡동 877-1 (Gwanak-gu Cheongnyong-dong 877-1)

02-875-7622

One Whole Chicken: À Bientôt

I “met” my friend Laurent for the first time in 2008 while I was working at KBS World Radio. I’d been a radio presenter in the English section since 2001 and Laurent was a newly-recruited journalist in the French section.

The first time we became properly acquainted, however, was a couple of years later, when he came over to my place for dinner with another couple, Luke and Hyerim, the very friends who would go on to introduce me and Joe a few years following that particular evening. That was also the day I met Laurent’s then-girlfriend, Jiwon, who has since become his beloved wife and also my dearest friend. It was a fun night, but a few more years would pass by before we would all become good friends. In hindsight, it makes me smile that our first ever meal together had been under my roof. I still remember to this day Jiwon walking up to the big pot of seafood pasta I’d made to help herself to more and commenting on how good it was–our first conversation.

It makes me sad to say they are leaving Korea. For good. In fact, as I write this, the two are on their way to the airport. Laurent is leaving today and Jiwon will be joining him next month to begin their new adventure in Paris. We got together for dinner and drinks Saturday for Lau’s final weekend in Seoul.

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Our menu of choice for the evening was dakhanmari (닭한마리 = “one whole chicken”), a whole raw chicken that is served sitting in a bath of its own broth along with green onions, sliced potatoes and rice cake. Its main charm is that it is cooked right at the table. It’s a no-nonsense humble fare that attracts many locals and, in recent years, many Japanese tourists to the back alleys of Jongno 6-ga near Dongdaemun.

Let me make it clear that neither of these two Frenchmen would have been down for boiling chicken soup served in, what is essentially, a beat-up basin on a sweltering summer day, even up until a couple of years ago. Eight years and six years in Seoul, respectively, can change a lot of things.

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The first thing to do, once seated at one of these dakhanmari joints, is to make your own dipping sauce for the chicken. That bowl of pale red kimchi you see in the photo is not my favorite, but that style of kimchi seems to be served in all the dakhanmari restaurants around here; it’s quite sour and tastes almost watered down and Korean diners like to add it to the chicken broth, especially at the end when they add the noodles.

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Soy sauce, vinegar, mustard, a red pepper paste made from dried and rehydrated red peppers, and chives. There are no rules. Add, mix, add mix, add mix until the taste is to your liking. I like mine spicy and tangy with a generous drizzle of white vinegar.

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Once the sauce has been concocted and the first few sips of cold beer had, the chicken should be near ready. The chicken in a bath is initially brought to the table, whole, and served with a pair of scissors. You can either cut it on your own or ask a server to cut it up for you. I’ve met some servers who’ve obliged rather begrudgingly, so keep that in mind.

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So, what is so special about a chicken boiled in its own broth? You know, I ask myself that question, too, every time I eat this. I don’t know. But, it’s good.

It may have something to do with the fact that it’s a communal meal where being messy is the norm and someone remembers to raise their beer glass in the midst of eating hot chicken off the bone and the rest follow suit, almost half-heartedly,  as they’re too busy eating, and you keep an eye on the broth boiling away ferociously in the middle of the table as it gets richer and tastier while the chicken bones pile up here and there, all the while everyone, somehow, manages to keep the conversation flowing. Somebody orders more beer. Someone ladles more soup into someone else’s bowl. Pass the soy sauce. Pass the mustard. Everyone mentioning just how hot it is. A lot is going on at the table. It’s fun.

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Maybe this simple-as-can-be dish tastes so good for all of the reasons I mentioned above. Maybe not. However, it is definitely one of those meals that has to be shared among many people. I don’t think dakhanmari would taste quite as good at home; it’s the “분위기” (vibe / atmosphere) as Koreans would say.

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The Italians go for the pasta and risotto, first. Well, their “primo” is our “secondo”; once the chicken is gone, it’s time to add the kalguksu to the broth, super chicken-y and rich from being boiled down.

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It’s as simple as it gets.

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But, simple can also be the best. And, the most satisfying.

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After dinner, we headed over to this charming residential house-turned pub called “Pubb” for some wine. There’s actually a tiny little sign somewhere on the wall just outside the gates; it’s as elusive as the place itself, tucked away in an area called Nuha-dong in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Seoul called Seochon, traditionally inhabited by writers and artists from the Joseon era. Seochon stretches out from the western gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace to the foot of Inwangsan Mountain, which includes all of the neighborhoods in between: Chebu-dong, Ogin-dong, Tongin-dong, Tongui-dong, Sajik-dong, Hyoja-dong, and Pirun-dong.

One of the main attractions of Seochon is the cluster of hanoks in small alleyways that date back to the Joseon era. However, this underdeveloped part of town is becoming trendy and has been going through dramatic transformations, much like Haebangchon and Gyeongnidan have  in recent years, attracting people and businesses. Life-long residents of the area are being forced to close down their shops as rent has hiked two-fold in the last couple of years. I used to call this area my home (I lived right behind Sejong Center for the Performing Arts) for six years and the changes that I’ve witnessed since my move in 2010 are quite remarkable. It scares me, actually, just how quickly old Seoul is disappearing. How much of what exists now will I be able to visit years down the road? 

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The entrance to Pubb, quiet and unassuming. If it weren’t for the bar visible through the front sliding doors, you would probably think it was somebody’s house.

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I liked this wall.

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Jiwon and Laurent.

They both have a wicked sense of humor. But, they really don’t talk much, these two. Haha.

I will miss them so much.

Paris 2015.

Until then, with love.

 

명동 닭한마리

서울시 종로구 종로 5가 265-5 (Jongno-gu Jongno 5-ga 265-5)

02-2272-8249

Pubb

서울 종로구 누하동 240 (Jongno-gu Nuha-dong 240)

02-730-0240

Put an Egg on It

A sunny-side-up egg with a crispy golden edge on a mound of steaming rice, drizzled with soy sauce and sesame oil would be the ultimate childhood comfort food for many Koreans. Breaking the soft yolk in half with a spoon and watching it ooze over the just-steamed rice, quickly cutting up the egg white into smaller bits and incorporating the gooey mixture  into the hot rice, smelling the fragrant mixture of soy sesame oil and taking that first impatient spoonful. It’s quick, satisfying and comforting.

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The other night, I really wanted to eat pad kra-pow, a Thai stir-fry dish with holy basil, which is one of my top comfort foods.  Technically, it wasn’t pad (stir-fried) kra-pow (holy basil) I made because I used sweet basil, but it still hit the spot. Cooking foreign dishes in Korea means making do with whatever is available; exotic ingredients are hard to come by here, although it has gotten much better in recent years. I made my version using: 300 grams of ground pork, 5 red chilies, 7 cloves of garlic, half a yellow onion (use one shallot if you have it), a handful of green beans, a bunch of basil (again, use holy basil if you can), fish sauce (1 tablespoon), soy sauce (1.5 tablespoons), oyster sauce (1 tablespoon), cooking oil. Purists will stick to just fish sauce to season the dish but i added a bit of soy and oyster sauce.

First, I made a coarse paste by blending the onion, chilies and garlic in my blender (you can use a mortar and pestle and do it by hand if you wish) which I fried in a little cooking oil until fragrant. To this, I added the ground pork and cooked it through. Then, I threw in the green beans, followed by the sauces. I added the basil at the very end after turning off the heat.

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The trick to cooking a crispy fried egg is to make sure the pan is super hot. Drizzle some cooking oil (I used grape seed oil) on the hot pan then crack the eggs. When you see the edges turn golden brown (the surface should still be pretty translucent), bring down the heat to low, put a lid on it and let it cook for a few more seconds until the whites turn opaque.

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The ultimate comfort food. A bed of brown rice, topped with a layer of steamed broccoli, fried spam and two crispy fried eggs. Chopped scallions on top with a drizzle of soy and sesame oil. Ghetto delicious.

I craved and then I caved…

I have been dying for some proper Middle Eastern fare. I’ve literally been thinking about it for days. Something–a photo, a conversation, a memory–must have triggered it because the thought of shawarma has been stuck in my head and would give me no peace. I needed a mouthful of spiced grilled meat, wrapped in a piece of flat bread, slathered with hummus. So, I decided to make some for dinner.

I had a brief love affair with the Middle East from late August to mid-October of 2006, a little less than two months, but the sights and sounds and smells from the brief encounter still haunt me to this day. I’d wrapped a two-month-long African leg of my year-long backpacking trip in Ethiopia; from there, I flew to Cairo, Egypt, and began my travels through Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. At the time, scuba diving in the Red Sea was on the top of my agenda, and that’s what I did, from the moment I landed, for 2 weeks, starting in Hurghada and wrapping in Dahab. It was magnificent, but I’ll write a separate post about that another time, perhaps.

For now, let me tell you about the food because I still dream about it. The pitas I had almost everyday came straight out of the oven, puffy, light, smoky and chewy. The fresh dips, a staple served with every meal with the freshly-baked flat breads, were smooth, savory and rich. The fragrant salads. The  hot fluffy falafels with a crunchy dark exterior. And, the grilled meats: shawarma, shish tawook, kofta. The cheeses: labneh, feta, ackawi, halloumi. The olives. The pickled green peppers. The ubiquitous fresh juice stands on the streets. Everything so fresh. So good. So cheap.

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I put together a Middle Eastern plate from what I had in my pantry and my fridge. I had an unopened bag of Italian chickpeas my chef friend brought me from New York back in May, tahini, plain yoghurt, a pack of chicken breasts and a bag of tortillas. And, a whole lot of spices.

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I boiled the chickpeas I’d soaked in cold water the night before. You can get dried chickpeas these days at select locations of E-mart and foreign food marts scattered around the Itaewon/Hannamdong area.

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I cut up the chicken breasts and seasoned them with turmeric, ground cumin, ground cinnamon, ground paprika, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper for an hour. These spices are quite potent so I used around 1/2 teaspoon to a teaspoon of each. 4 tablespoons of olive oil.

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For 6 chicken breasts, this is how much marinade I used. You just need enough to coat the chicken pieces. Go slightly more liberal on salt because under-seasoned meat isn’t tasty.

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This is the brand of tahini that I use. They have it at the foreign food mart in Itaewon up the hill from the fire station. I’ve been using this one for years.

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Roasted garlic, boiled chickpeas, a generous tablespoon of tahini, olive oil, juice of a lemon, ground cumin, salt, pimentón (I wanted to add some smokiness to my hummus) and some of the water I’d saved from boiling the chickpeas. Blend until smooth. If it’s too thick, add more olive oil or the chickpea water.

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Done. Trust me when I say hummus is the easiest thing to make.

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Then, it’s time to cook the marinated chicken. This is when your mouth starts to salivate. The smell of the spiced chicken cooking is ridiculously amazing. Turn on the vent. I’m using chicken breasts because that’s all I had in the fridge (we’re on that diet, remember?) and they turned out nice and juicy but I’m using dark meat next time, should I have guests over.

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So, back to the plate. From the left, a couple of spoons of non-fat yoghurt mixed with a bit of minced garlic, pepper and freshly-chopped parsley, a couple of spoonfuls of hummus, dusted with paprika and drizzled with olive oil, the chicken (which I roughly shredded), and pan-toasted tortilla. A salad on the side would have been great, also, but by the time I plated all that, I just wanted to dig in. IT WAS SO GOOD. Can I say that about my own food? If yes, can I say it, again?

IT WAS SOOOO GOOD.