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Heyri Gallery, part 2: Artefacts of Korean cuisine

jason

Jars for fermenting the mother sauces

A massive collection of Korean ceramic fermentation vessels

Gochujang, dwaenjang, soy sauce and several other Koreaen base sauces require fermentation, and these jars were the traditional vessels for the fermentation process. Mr. Lee has a collection of these jars from all over Korea from various places.

Jeju Island fermentation vessels

Jeju Island unglazed fermentation jars

Mr. Lee pointed out these pieces from Jeju Island, where such jars are almost always unglazed earthenware. The effect is somewhat similar to the pottery of Bizen, in Okayama, Japan.

Decorative lid

Lid of a Korean fermentation vessel

Many of these jars are rather austere, because these are primarily functional pieces. But they did often have a prominent place in the grounds of older Korean houses, so sometimes they are a little more elaborately decorated.

Brushwork

Brushwork on a Korean mother sauce fermentation jar 

, Part 2, Part 3

Dolsot Bibimbap at Lotte World

jason

Dolsot bibimbap with an atypical sunny-side up egg

I don't know what possessed me to go to Lotte World, the megalithic shopping center, in Jamsil, complete with indoor ice skating rink and a shooting range. But I did, and of course, I needed lunch.

While touring the food-laden Lotte department store basement section, I acquired some very nice artisanal gochujang, dwaenjang, and ssamjang, which may be responsible for my sudden urge to eat dol sot bibimbap.

But I walked over acres (hectares?) of shopping madness before deciding to do that, narrowly escaping a Disneyland-like hell of a parallel universe constructed inside the 3rd floor of one of the Lotte World buildings meant to resemble a traditional Korean village. When I saw photos outside the entrance featuring bizarre cartoon-like characters in big-headed costumes, I realized that this particular tourist trap was not for me.

And so I moved on in search of food.

As it turns out, most of the building suffers from the same chain-driven mediocrity that any other big shopping mall in the world aspires to, complete with TGI Friday's and KFC and Lotteria. But it looks like it's possible to eat a decent meal even in the cafeteria-like sections of the complex. One of said cafeterias was where I ended up.

You can walk around the cafeteria perusing short menus, then you place your order at a counter in center of things that serves as a hub. The cashier dispatches your order to the appropriate shop electronically. When your number appears on a mechanical sign, you go to the appropriate vendor and pick it up.

My dolsot bibimbap dispatched with the conventional raw egg in favor of a partially cooked one. That may be because they don't heat up the dolsot well enough to completely cook the egg as you stir it into the rice and vegetable mixture. The flavor was respectable, but I've actually had a better, spicier dolsot bibimbap in a department store basement quick-service restaurant in Japan. In a pinch, it works, but I prefer to eat this kind of thing at a small mom & pop place in a decaying old building.

 

Pat guksu

jason

This is hearty, extremely simple lunch fare.

Pat guksu *

Pat guksu

It may not look pretty, but this pat guksu dish is packed with protein and it's very comforting. It's basically pureed azuki beans with handmade wheat noodles. When you receive your order, you have to make a small but fairly important decision: sweet or salty?

You then add sugar or salt to taste, stir to dissolve, and then start digging into the noodles. When the noodles are gone, you eat the red bean puree until you are full.

Mul gimchi

Mul gimchi

The water kimchi, this one with more variety of vegetables than ones I've previously featured, offers a bit of heat and tartness that contrasts nicely with the hearty but plain-tasting noodle dish. Of course there's also some ordinary kimchi to share, but this one is just for me.

More handmade noodle goodness

At the same shop, my friend orders a somewhat more elaborate noodle dish topped with gim (nori, aka laver).

* This pat guksu may have a more specific name that I'm neglecting... I'll post an update later...

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Korean ddeok sweets at Jilsiru

jason

Jilsiru cafe

Jilsiru storefront, Insadong, Seoul

After a little walking around Jongro (aka Jongno) on Monday, a friend suggested we go to this nice Korean ddeok cafe in neighboring Insadong. The cafe serves teas, smoothie-like concoctions and traditional and updated Korean confections.

Ddeok assortment

Various glutinous rice cakes: yuja, su

Clockwise, from top: Yuja-flavored (jp. yuzu) ddeok with coconut, ssuk (jp. yomogi, mugwort) flavored rice cake, red bean filled, and apple with coconut.

Red-bean ddeok

Red-bean filled ddeok

I could swear I detected a slight hint of gaennip (perilla, shiso) in this red-bean filled ddeok but my friend was convinced that couldn't possibly be the case.

Persimmon shake

Persimmon shake with pumpkin seeds

This fairly simple frozen persimmon shake was a delight, though in retrospect I think I should have ordered some bitter tea to accompany my sweets, instead of a sweet drink.

Jilsriru take-home souvenirs

In case you need something to take home with you...

 

Bibim naengmyeon: Extreme elasticity in noodles

jason

Bibim-naenmyeon

One of my lunches in Seoul... These chewy, stretchy long noodles made in part from buckwheat (like soba) but with a very distinctive texture are known as reimen in Sendai, Japan, where a local version is quite popular. In Korea, the most popular preparation is mul naengmyeon, which is made with a chilled, slightly acidic and fairly refreshing un-beefy beef broth.

On a previous trip, I didn't even know I was being served something made with a beef broth because the friend who took me out for lunch on that occasion didn't know how they were made, and the beef flavor is deceptively subtle when the dish is served cold.

Bibim-naengmyeon is essentially ovo-vegetarian, but it is typically served with a warm version of that broth, generally without the vinegar that marks mul naengmyeon, on the side. Various shredded vegetables may be added to the top, and a spicy sauce most likely based on gochujang adds a big burst of flavor to the whole thing.

Note: The precision geek in my wants to write the name of this dish as "bibim-naengmyeon", which is closer to the actual Hangeul characters used, but typical Korean slurring makes the word sound closer to "bibim-naengmyun," which is probably the most conventional rendering in English romanization.

O-sip-seju and nokdu jeon: A little late night snack

jason

Sunday night in Seoul I was on my own, and incredibly jetlagged. After visiting a pottery gallery, I briefly met with a friend in Gangnam station, then I went back to my hotel near Seoul National University of Education to rest a bit... I researched some dining options, but most of the interesting ones required traveling 30 minutes or more across town and perhaps a bit more careful navigation than I was able to handle with my level of energy.

I was mostly inclined to sleep, but I was getting pretty hungry.

So I walked in the area surrounding my hotel for 20 or 30 minutes, and found a little place whose menu promised nokdu-jeon, a pancake made from shelled, ground mung beans. As I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for jeon, so I went right inside.

Steamed custard

Korean savory egg custard

They presented a few small side dishes, included a plain savory steamed custard, which we also had at a Gangnam station-area drinking establishment we visited on Saturday night.

My nokdu-jeon

Nokdu-jeon in Seoul

These had a chewier than usual texture, so it's possible they snuck some meat inside, but I didn't recognize which one. The most common preparation of nokdu-jeon or binddaeddeok, as far as I can tell, is actually sans-meat, though many restaurants specializing in binddaeddeok serve some seasoned oysters or similar savory ingredients atop the pancakes in place of a dipping sauce.

They were pleasingly crispy on the outside, but overall I wasn't as excited by these nokdu-jeon as I usually would be.

O-sip seju

O-sip seju in a big baek-seju bottle

I figured, since the place I was in was mostly a drinking venue, the polite thing to do was to order something to drink with dinner. I had noticed they had o-sip seju on the menu when I was standing outside. I really like the basic flavor notes of baek seju, which is an herbal liqueur based on soju, but I find it a bit too sweet on its own.

Baek means 100 in Korean, and o-sip means 50. Baek-seju is therefore "diluted" with higher-alcohol, lower sugar soju in a 1:1 ratio.

That would suit me fine. Or so I thought.

It didn't occur to me that ordering such a thing means I was, for all practical purposes, ordering two full 500 ml bottles of soju. And I was by myself. Oops.

I didn't drink the whole thing. In fact, I barely made a dent, although I think I had about 300 ml in total. In terms of alcohol content, That's probably the equivalent of most of a bottle of New World red wine, which I am unlikely to consume in a typical evening. But I was jetlagged... it wasn't a typical evening.

Though I was still quite functional, falling asleep that night was no problem.

 

Tōkyō ni tsuita : Arrived in Tokyo

jason

I arrived in Tokyo last night... There's still a lot to write about from my Korea trip, but I just wanted to post a quick update... Off I go to cause trouble with Hiromi.

My timing was fortuitous., or insane, depending on your perspective... right outside the Marunouchi exit of Tōkyō station, a brand new building opened up, the Shin-Marunouchi Building. Just as you might expect, it was crowded and bustling with activity... When something new and big comes to Tokyo, everyone wants to be there.

Shin-Marunouchi Building Opening Day Congratulatory Flowers

Hanawa

These flowers mark the opening of a new building or business.

Lining up

Shin-Marunouchi Building Opening Day

Every restaurant or cafe had a long queue.

A new restaurant menu

Dashichazuke

Dashi-chazuke. Rice with various toppings and Japanese soup stock instead of the typical tea.

Gateau Fraise

Gateaux Fraise

I just managed a glimpse of the goods at this fancy cake shop.

Coffee from my hood

Caffe Appasionato Tokyo, Shin-Marunouchi Building

Seattle's Iranian-American family-owned Caffe Appassionato gussies up their look for the Japanese market.

Fancy little gourmet shop

Salad dressings in Shin-Marunouchi

Too many salad dressings.

An upscale outpost of an ordinary supermarket

Seijo Ishii

Somewhere to buy the essentials, and everyday splurges.

 

Seoul Bread and Coffee

jason

I'm usually craving coffee and bread in the morning, although I'll certainly dig into a heavy Korean or salt-laden Japanese-style breakfast from time to time. Fortunately, Seoul and Tokyo, more so than Seattle, have an insane number of mostly French-influenced bakeries, all with local touches, so I often have the chance to find such treats in the morning. The main caveat is that in Tokyo, bakeries often don't really open until 10am. As for coffee, both Japan and Korea are heavy consumers of coffee, but with big chains like Dottoru and various Korean Starbucks knock-offs, it's sad to say that quality is not usually a priority.

Tokyo, in spite of an extended reign of coffee superiority vis a vis the land of Maxwell House and Folgers, is really not that great a place to drink coffee. During the economic bubble, it's said that Japan had a number of cafes with owners fanatically devoted to the art of coffee, but these days it takes a special effort to locate anything substantially better than the ubiquitous "blend coffee" or watery "America coffee". Espresso, save for places like Macchinesti, is generally more a milk delivery mechanism, and tends to be bitter and undrinkable, often even more so than what Starbucks produces.

Seoul, in my limited experience, is even worse. Most places I've had coffee (and there haven't been that many even over several trips so I may not be fair) served something that was not only painfully bitter, but tasted stale and faintly metallic.

Paris Croissant latte, Gangnam-gu station

Kapae Latte, a cafe latte in Seoul 

Fortunately, I've had just slightly better luck this time. A cute little flower-shop/cafe, just inches from my hotel, suffered only from having slightly stale coffee and oversteamed milk; it wasn't the bitter mess I had encountered on previous trips. Another bakery (Paris Croissant at Gangnam station, I believe) seemed to almost understand milk foam rosettas, though the milk was also slightly too hot and the coffee had that faint stale flavor I've come to associate with drinking coffee in Korea.

I was even more pleased yesterday morning, when, in my urge to caffeinate myself, I ended up buying coffee at a chain bakery, Tous Les Jours, also a stone's throw from my hotel.  It wasn't as pretty as the one at Paris Croissant, but it was flavorful without being unnecessarily bitter, appeared to be made from reasonably fresh beans, and was well-balanced enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if someone told me it came from a local Seattle indie coffee place. Even better, the drink was notably cheaper than the Big Green Monster's Seoul offerings, from what I understand.

The one constant this time for coffee in Seoul, it seems, is that nobody ever uses a thermometer to check the milk temperature and it's always life-threateningly hot.

As for the pastries (because Roboppy always wants to know)... well, Tokyo still seems to have a slightly higher standards overall, but in Seoul prices seems slightly more reasonable. Both Korea and Japan almost always cheaper than Seattle when it comes to laminated doughs and such, thanks to saner portion sizes and higher volume.

I usually try to go for flavors that are hard to find outside of Japan or Korea when I come to this part of the world, and I certainly found plenty to choose from.

Sweet potato roll

Sweet potato pastry roll

A pastry with sweet potato puree in the center from Paris Baguette, Gangnam-gu station...

Marron cherry puff

Marron (chestnut) cherry puff 

Puff pastry with the unlikely but pleasant combination of marrons glace (candied chestnuts) and cherries.

Tous les jours trio

Sweet potato filled danish, croissant, anpan with walnut

Sweet potato-filled pastry, mini-croissant, and red bean stuffed soft bun with walnut.

Black sesame tapioca roll

Black sesame tapioca bun

Nice. Chewy, mochi-mochi, slightly salty, and, well, black sesame-y. Good with cream cheese. You want one of these.

Chocolate streusel bread

Chocolate streusel bun

A lot less sweet than it looks, this one was a pleasant surprise.

One caveat to pastry and bread in East Asia, though: Savory, hearty breads are relatively rare, and even items that sound savory are often made with a sweet bread base or heavily sweetened laminated dough. Ham, processed cheese and sweet mayonnaise seem to be a favored combination in both Korea and Japan, as are things baked with sausages, and, of course, corn-mayo.

Heyri Gallery, part 1: The pottery of Sylvia Hyman

jason

Sunday I visited Hanhyanglim gallery in the Heyri art village just northwest of Seoul. Riding in the car of the gallery owner, we saw a very intimidating-looking spirals of barbed wire fence along the river, across which lies North Korea.

The gallery owner, Jay, is a pottery collector who has made some money in the semiconductor industry, and continues to make that his day job while his wife Hyanglim, a ceramist, runs the day-to-day operations of their gallery and gift shop. I learned about the place thanks to an introduction from a member of a clay art email discussion group, and the owner was kind enough to take pick me up from a nearby train station.

Though I was mainly here for Korean pottery, the museum also featured the work of 90-year-old Sylvia Hyman, new to me but renowned for her visual deceptions.

Through Time and Space

Through Time and Space

This comes from a spiritual Arabic text, which actually apparently is something about time and space. My Arabic is a little rusty, though, so I just enjoyed the nifty curls.

Narragansett Bay

Narragansett Bay

This piece has convincing leather straps, canvas, wood, paper, and rope, all crafted from clay.

Currogated clay

Currogated clay 

Currogated cardboard rendered with clay is even more surprising...

More to come... With actual Korean pottery too...

 Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Drinking food

jason

Rabokgi

Rabokgi: ddeokbokgi with ramen

Rabokgi is the derelict pot-smoking cousin of ddeokbokgi, the ubiquitous Korean stewed glutinous rice cake dish. Ramyun (instant ramen), glutinous rice cakes, and spicy gochujang are the essential components in rabokgi; in this case, ours were served with a hard-boiled egg and some variety of fried hanpen, or fish cake, which is called odeng in Korean. I left the odeng for Hiromi.

Normally this is food that accompanies a late night round of drinking, but Hiromi and I didn't have any opportunity to do that before her Sunday morning departure to Tokyo. She had been craving it the entire trip, but we were so full from our three substantial meals on Saturday that even our shared hoddeok was pushing the limits of our stomach capacity.

It turns out, though, that a small restaurant in a building adjacent Gangnam express bus station not only offered rabokgi, but was open at 8am. So not all hope was lost...

We then had a small challenge getting the attention of the waitstaff (I was too polite), but service was quick, and we had this unlikely breakfast. If, however, we had been up all night drinking, like some ajeossi (middle-aged men) at the 24-hour kamja-tang restaurant who we spotted drinking soju with their stew at 7 am Saturday, it might have just been par for the course.

We did, however, observe a small part of the ritual after dinner at Pulhyanggi.

A little makgeolli

Four with a little makgeolli, in band photo formation

We met with a friend of ours who had studied in Seattle and his sister for a little makgeolli.

Makgeolli, sometimes rendered makkori, is sort of what beer would be if it were made from rice instead of barley or wheat, and devoid of hops. It's creamy white, and served with a ladle.

We were completely stuffed from our previous dining excesses, but this nice vegetable jeon was available for those needing a snack. I managed only a bite or two, but I wish I could have managed more. I'm a sucker for good jeon. (I'll try to remember what the highlighted vegetable was at some point and post a trivial update later).

A big jeon

Jeon, but I forget which kind

 

On the streets: Scenes from Namdaemun market

jason

We didn't really do much buying, aside from our Hoddeok, but Namdaemun is a crazy busy place full of tourists looking for visual drama and trinkets to take home (that would be us) and locals looking for cheap clothing and the occasional fish or vegetable.

Ginseng Shop

Ginseng infusions, Namdaemun market, seoul

These were stunning bottles of infused ginseng roots.

A small restaurant welcoming Japanese

Youkoso, youkoso, koko-e

We discovered that it is a very bad idea to speak Japanese in Namdaemun market.

No, there wasn't any overt hostility, but the merchants take the sound of Japanese as a cue to turn on the hard sell, and to charge higher than normal prices. Hiromi had the impulse to buy some gim (nori, a.k.a. laver) as a souvenir snack, but the price, for her, was always man-il-cheon-weon for a bundle, 11,000 Won, about $12. If I asked a shop for a similar item in the same size in English, it was 8000 Won, or about $9. The cost in Tokyo for most types of Korean seasoned laver is most likely cheaper than that.

We actually gave up on the market when we saw a sign targeting Japanese selling the exact same brand as one of our earlier overpriced places, atypically with actual price signs. I misread the sign as W2000, but was actually JPY2000; we thought we were getting a deal at about 1/5 the typical price, but it was actually almost twice as much as the same thing at other shops.

We found some very good gim at a department store adjacent to the market, for a very reasonable price.

Sea cucumbers

Sea cucumbers

Well, some sort of amorphous sea creature, anyway. As a vegetarian who gave up meat far before I started exploring the culinary world deeply, I'm not exactly sure how one prepares them.  Perhaps like Japanese takosu?

The sea cucumber vendor hard at work

Squirt vendor

Salted fish

Salted fish

Presumably ready to grill...

Bundaeggi

Silkworm larvae, bundaeggi, Namdaemun market

Stewed silkworm larvae... not for the faint of stomach, the smell is overpowering even if you're just passing by. Hiromi spotted a little boy gleefully eating them one-by-one with a toothpick from a paper cup... She wasn't adventurous enough to try.

Clothing bazaar

Clothing bazaar in Namdaemun

Inexpensive clothing, often with fake paper-labeled brand names or patched-on embroidered logos.

Child's apron

Child's apron in Namdaemun market

Ddeokbokgi and skewered fish cake stall

Ddeokbokgi

The ajumma at these stalls selling stewed foods always seem surprisingly relaxed.

Korean dragon beard candy

Fresh from the hands of the young master

A Korean version of dragon beard candy, called yong su-yeom yeott in Korean.  

Almost ready to stuff

Cutting in to pieces

In Korea, these are actually cut with scissors rather than by a yank of the hand, which probably makes this go a bit faster.

Filling the candy

Filling the candy

 

On the streets: Namdaemun market, tasting hoddeok

jason

Unlike Tokyo, Seoul still has a vibrant street merchant scene. Every subway station seems to have a few ajumma peddling some sort of medicinal mountain vegetable, bottles of some morning drinking yogurt concoctions, and the occasional roll of gimbap. The average newsstand/kiosk has a pile of popcorn or puffed barley snacks ready for the taking. And some stretches of sidewalk have an endless series of ddeokbokgi, odeng and skewered meat yatai.

In some cases, places housed in permanent buildings open up right out into the street, and these offer the best of both worlds: fresh, inexpensive street food, and access to refrigeration and handwashing facilities.

Streetside meat and sugar

Streetside ajumma preparing sweet Korean pancakes 

We happened on this shop, where an efficient ajumma was constantly preparing fresh hoddeok while taking orders, exchanging money, and serving a steady stream of customers.

Pressing the hoddeok flat

Tamping down the hoddeok

You must have hoddeok at least once when visiting Korea. Essentially a yeasted pancake stuffed with brown sugar, often featuring peanuts, walnuts or sesame seeds, they are occasionally flavored with green tea or other ingredients. I'm almost always most impressed by the simplest versions. These are sold in molten form straight from the grill by various street vendors. Some use a flat teppan style griddle and a flat metal tamper, and a few use gas-powered waffle-iron-like contraptions that press the pancakes flat as they bake.

Assembling the next order

Gathering hoddeok for the next big spender

Each hoddeok gets a very brief rest at the side of the grill, but orders come in so fast that they still reach your little hands in a tempting but dangerously hot state.

Brown sugar gooey goodness oozing molten hot out of the hoddeok pancake

The brown sugar-cinnamon filling bleeds right out of the broken pancake.

At 500 KRW per piece (about 55-60 cents), they are an ideal afternoon snack.

 

Pulhyanggi: cuisine of the imperial court, Part 2

jason

If you're properly royal, you save the rice for last. At Pulhyanggi (see part 1), you have two options: Typical steamed rice, probably also better than the average peasant mother will make, or, if you like, nurungji (scorched rice), which is prepared from roasted rice and added water. This is rice from the bottom of a metal pot that has browned from long holding. Almost all over Asia, this slightly "damaged" rice is regarded rather nostalgically because it has such a pleasing nutty aroma.

Scorched rice

Nurungji, scorched rice with water, walnut, pine nuts

For the mass market, there are now any number of scorched rice products in Korea, sold dry or even as a microwavable product. Pulhyanggi does things the old-fashioned way, of course. We receive ours in a stoneware bowl, topped with a walnut and a couple of pine nuts.

Rice accompaniments

Banchan and Pulhyanggi for the rice course

Rice isn't complete in Korea without a suitable set of side dishes (banchan), and if you were suitably royal, and had an army of servants at your disposal, you'd expect to have something remarkable. I think we had a total of 9 or 10 side dishes.

Scallion wrapped vegetables with gochujang

Scallion wrapped vegetables with gochujang

Painstakingly wrapped, matchstick cut blanched and raw vegetables.

Simmered renkon

Simmered renkon

We wanted more of this lotus root dish.

Seasoned greens

Seasoned greens 

Shiitake mushrooms

Korean shiitake side dish

These mushrooms were served very lightly seasoned and almost dry in texture.

Daikon, carrot and nori

Daikon, carrot and gim

Probably the most strongly seasoned dish in this set, this daikon and carrot dish, mixed with gim and the whites of scallions, has a bit of sesame oil, something like the muk from the previous set of courses.

Marinated Konnyaku

Marinated konnyaku

This is a surprising treatmeant of the devil's tongue tuber, konnyaku... minimalist but flavorful.

And a little something sweet

Korean sweets

After we look suitably defeated, the waitstaff comes by with a few small things to settle our palates. The meal ends with some wedges of surprisingly good Korean pears, a small serving of a sweet Korean herbal drink, and this nice little confection.

 

Pulhyanggi: cuisine of the imperial court, Part 1

jason

Pulhyanggi restaurant, Seoul, Gangnam-gu, Samseong-dong

 On my two previous trips to Korea, I've been to locations of Pulhyanggi at least twice. (A friend once took me to a similar style of restaurant for lunch, but I wasn't quite sure of the name).

It's easily the most remarkable place I've eaten in Korea.

I couldn't imagine going to Seoul without eating there again, and I really wanted Hiromi to have a chance to try it, so we made plans to eat dinner there on Saturday night. With the help of our hotel staff, we obtained written instructions to give to the taxi driver, and we went on our way.

The most stunning location of Pulhyanggi is located in Gangnam, a short taxi ride from COEX mall. There are at least a half-dozen branches around the city, including one in the basement of Seoul Tower, but this location, in Samseong-dong, is housed in a building designed with a classical Korean architectural aesthetic, and also features a stage for live musical and dance performances using traditional Korean instruments.

The style of service is reminscent of kaiseki-ryouri in Japan, and Pulhyanggi itself was founded by a former mountain temple monk. At least part of the appeal for me is that I can look forward to having an extravagant, memorable vegetarian meal, although there are certainly more meaty selections on the menu. Ordering is roughly table d'hôte; you select from one of perhaps five multicourse menus, organized by price, and then proceed for the rest of the evening to try to keep pace with the dozens of dishes that come to your table.

Hiromi and I respectively ordered an omnivorous and vegetarian version of the same menu, at roughly KRW 55,000/person ($55-60). There is a more budget friendly choice at about KRW 39,000, and certainly the option to treat yourself to one of several even more extravagant menus, but this price point strikes a good balance.

Some of the early dishes were familiar to us from other Korean dining experiences, but somehow the quality beat almost every humble rendition we've tasted.

Chap chae

chapchae, but better than your mom can make.

No matter how fondly one esteems one's Korean mother's chapchae, it's hard to imagine anyone outdoing this version. I don't know what made it better, but we were surprised to see such a simple dish turned into something so memorable.

Muk

Seasoned muk

One of the many starch-based jellies common in Korea, jealously guarded and consumed by Hiromi.

Salad

 Pumpkin salad

A surprisingly richly flavored salad, perhaps accented with a hint of roasted pumpkin seed oil.

Mul gimchi

Mul gimchi

A remarkably sappari "water kimchi," a variety of kimchi fermented in a large amount of liquid for several days. Although the vegetables in this variety of kimchi are tasty, mul gimchi is appreciated best by taking sips of the mild brine with a spoon. Lightly acidic, complex, and refreshing.

Grilled mushrooms and roasted ginko nuts

Grilled Korean matsutake with ginko nuts

These seemed to be grilled matsutake, although I'm not sure where one finds pine mushrooms this time of year.

This evening's performers

Traditional Korean music and dance performers, with two tourists

Our meal is then briefly interrupted when the staff suggests we might like to pose for a touristy photo with the musicians and dancers.

Tofu with nori and matchstick vegetables

Tofu with matchstick-cut vegetables

I receive tofu with a tasty sauce (perhaps ginger and a little dwaenjang, a.k.a. miso, though the particulars escaped me) and matchstick sliced vegetables, along with another couple of small vegetable side dishes.

Shellfish

Butterflied shrimp? My seafood knowledge has shrunk since I became vegetarian...

Hiromi gets a dramatically plated shellfish dish.

Stuffed tofu

 Korean-style stuffed atsuage

I have a shiitake-stuffed tofu with a slice of sweet potato, deep-fried and served at room temperature.

Jeon

Three jeon

We both share three types of jeon, pancakes with various vegetable fillings.

Fried vegetables 

Korean-style fried vegetables 

Both of us have a course of fried vegetables; Hiromi's had some meat or fish. This is the only not entirely successful dish we tasted, as the batter was heavier and oilier than we would have hoped. The best tempura in Japan is crispy without tasting greasy. These items seemed to be cooked at a lower temperature with a thicker coating. The result was crunchy but slightly tough.

Meatless "Steamed beef"

Kelp-based vegetarian "steamed beef" dish

Apparently made with kelp, this temple-style deception was a surprisingly pleasant meat analog. I think it was fashioned from wheat gluten, but I'm not entirely sure. The server explained that this dish is unique to this restaurant. Hiromi received a parallel course made with actual beef.

Nine-sectioned dish assembled by our server

Korean nine-sectioned dish assembled by our waitress

A classic dish of the royal court, the nine-section dish is simply thin crepe-like pancakes and various vegetable fillings (one is generally meat or seafood, but they prepare a vegetarian alternative for me).  Our server prepares all four pancakes for us a la minute, though when I visited this with Korean colleagues several years ago, the staff only prepared the first one or two as a demonstration, as we could be expected to figure out the rest.

Nine-sectioned dish pancakes

These are then eaten with a white-colored, slightly sweet and slightly acidic dipping sauce.

Seems like a lot of food, no?

We were already fairly satiated, especially after two other hearty meals on the same day. But we hadn't had rice yet...

See Part 2...

 

Half day trip to Icheon: All about the rice

jason

Hiromi and I met in Seoul late at night Friday, and woke up insanely early (6am) after too little sleep. After a breakfast of al bap for Hiromi (tarako or cod roe on rice) and cool bibimbap for me, we got on the bus to meet an eGullet acquaintance in Icheon, a town I've only previously visited for its biennial pottery festival.

Bus to Icheon

And we're off...

Hiromi en route to Icheon

Our driver gets caught shoulder-driving and passing on the right...

D'oh! Pulled over...

He gets a little scolding.

Polite conversation between two professionals.

Finally, we make it to Icheon, which, in addition to being a pottery destination, is also a major rice producing area. At Cheng Mok restaurant in Icheon, it's all about the rice.

 Hot bowl of fancy rice

Apparently, this particular rice and preparation, ssal bap, was considered suitable for royalty. But you might want a few things to accompany the rice...

A few side dishes to accompany our meal

Some simple pajeon (scallion pancakes)...

Pajeon

Ssam (lettuce and other leaves) for wrapping various treats...

Ssam

Gratuitous gimchi (kimchi) porn... 

Kimchi (gimchi)  

 Hobak (Korean zucchini)

Dwaenjang (miso) soup with cabbage.

Grilled fish (for the carnivores in our party)  

We leave fat and happy...

 

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Warabi no ohitashi

jason

It's a sure sign we're in the middle of spring.

Warabi no ohitashi

I found these forest treats at the University District Farmer's Market on Sunday. The season is mercilessly brief for fiddlehead fern fronds... They'll probably be impossible to find by the time I return from my trip to Japan. So, even though I have been trying to reduce the perishable contents of my refrigerator as fast as possible, I couldn't resist picking up some fiddleheads before I go.

Warabi, as fiddleheads are called in Japanese, are typically briefly blanched in Japan to remove aku (roughly: bitterness, astringency, the "unclean" parts of food) before they are incorporated into other dishes. Often a bit of baking soda is used when blanching this type of spring mountain greens, which slightly softens them and also removes more of the traces of enzymes that, given long term heavy consumption of the plant, can lead to some health problems. This blanching technique is always used in Japan, though I think it's sometimes neglected in the US where we seem to want to immediately toss these in a pan with olive oil.

In the Pacific Northwest, my understanding is that the Chinook tribe traditionally cooked these with oil extracted from oolichan fish, which also run in the spring.

For me, I'm happiest with a simple Japanese-style preparation.

Warabi no ohitashi - close up 

I like zenmai, a similar frond common in Japan, on top of a bowl of warm soba, but for warabi I usually just make a kind of simmered ohitashi.

This is just Japanese soup stock (dashijiru), seasoned with the typical combination of mirin, Japanese soy sauce, salt, and a bit of sugar, all done to taste. Once the sauce comes to a simmer, I just add the warabi and simmer for a few more minutes. The prior blanching will also help preserve the color during the second exposure to heat.

Warabi is a little bitter, but the overall flavor is reminiscent of asparagus, if perhaps a bit more intense in flavor. Unlike most ohitashi, I serve this warm. As a result, the dish is almost like nimono, even though it's not cooked quite as long.

 

Supporting my habit

jason

Cary Tennis: "Your music does not have to support you. In fact, your music might be happier if you were supporting it."

Poignant.

I remember when I started thinking about working in software again, sometime approaching the middle of 2005. I was watching my bank balance shrink and my debt load increase even though my business was starting to see a predictable revenue stream.

My passions and my bank account weren't quite aligned. At that point I had realized I started with too little money, and I knew I had made some early mistakes with my wholesale line of business...  not least of which was having a wholesale business, when my objective was to sell products with compelling origin stories, rather than catering to the risk aversion of retail buyers and merchandising managers.

Hiromi advised against caving in and taking a day job so soon, although my rational faculties were fully aware of the inevitability of needing to supplement my income.

I was happy when I finally saw a project come along that matched my technical interests and personal idiosyncrasies back in the winter of 2005. Although I was a little disappointed that I couldn't devote myself full-time to YuzuMura.com for the time being, I quickly learned to appreciate the freedom to go out to dinner with friends again without worrying about making the rent.

Although it's been a quiet year and a half in terms of developing my business, I've settled into a satisfying rhythm of solving challenging technical problems in the daytime, coming home and taking care of the logistics of a small business, and having the financial freedom to be a bit more self-indulgent than I was two or three years ago. My passions for travel, food, and craft have actually gotten more attention (particularly the first two) since I've had more disposable income again.

Surprisingly, I found that I was better at the software stuff than I was several years back, even though I was theoretically out of practice.

I remember a sleazy-but-well-dressed "Career Consultant" in a fancy downtown Seattle office, who had a low pressure pitch and a high pressure close, trying to sell me on repackaging myself for higher-paying jobs. For a fee, of course.

It was a weak moment for me... When his office called me, I knew I wanted to leave Microsoft, but I also knew I needed to escape the industry for a while and I had other passions I wanted to explore. I almost bought into it.

When I told him I really wanted to get out of software and either run a restaurant or start a business that indulged my passions for food and travel, Mr. Career Consultant told me, in roughly so many words, that I could be committing career suicide if I left the field for two years. (He also told me I'd never leave Microsoft, but I know it was just part of the act when he turned up the pressure).

What he said wasn't true, of course... Smart software companies hire capable people, not just resumes... but I was surprised and delighted to discover that I actually liked the work again. I was even happier to discover that being less emotionally attached to my status, or my career, made it possible for me just to "work the problem" and not only deliver value to my employer but also to enjoy most every day at work... something that wasn't happening at all in my last 18 months as a full-time Microsoft employee.

Although I haven't had as much time or energy to invest in my business as I'd like, I've actually had the financial resources to let it slowly grow, instead of having to cut my early losses and run.

Letting my work support my work has been surprisingly liberating. I make decisions for me, rather than trying to chase after small rewards in service of short term urgencies.

I know I'd have done things a lot differently, faced with the same decisions all over again, if I had the last three years of experience and my bank account of 3 years ago... lessons learned, but I'm not living 3 years ago. I'm just building on what I've got now.

Doing both my work and someone else's work makes it easier to wake up every day... Sometimes it's harder to sleep, but I can guarantee that I'll have something to look forward to the next day. Maybe it will be the joy of solving some esoteric technical problem. Perhaps I'll hear from a customer delighted to find something she never expected, all because of my little web store. Maybe it will be the more base pleasure of being able to spend a few dollars on a good pastry and a coffee without feeling accounting guilt. Maybe it'll be that little trip I'll take to Asia in a few days that's part business, part leisure, part love... and entirely in my own hands.

 

Off to Korea and Japan on Thursday

jason

Just a little note... I'm departing to Seoul on Thursday, April 19, where I'll be doing a little ceramics hunting, catching up with a few friends, and probably eating a little too much.

I'm flying solo on that leg of the trip, and then meeting up with Hiromi in Tokyo from April 27 to May 8, where I'll be staying in Ochanomizu. We have  a side trip to Aomori planned in the middle of that, but I guess I'll be doing the urban thing most of the time.

If your path might be crossing mine, let me know!

Dorayaki

jason

For some reason I get wistful whenever I think of the various ningyo-yaki (shaped waffles typically stuffed with sweet bean paste) and dora-yaki I have eaten on my many trips to Japan. From a highway service area or a department store basement, fresh, warm ningyo-yaki are impossible to resist.

Maybe they speak to my inner child.

Maybe it's just the sugar rush.

Well, I don't have a taiyaki (fish shaped) waffle pan in my otherwise well-stocked kitchen, so at home I have to settle for dorayaki, the pancake-like equivalent. These are often served cold, but they're even better just a few minutes off the stove. You can make a batch of them and keep them in the refrigerator as an afternoon indulgence for up to 3 or 4 days.

I also don't have pancake rings or an electric griddle, so my dorayaki end up being the size of my smallest nonstick omelet pan. That means mine need to be cut up into quarters for individual servings, or perhaps folded, if i used a thinner batter.

Dorayaki, Japanese stuffed pancakes

Dorayaki aren't exactly the same thing as the pancakes you'd slather with syrup. The American pancake is, by itself, not distinctly sweet; it typically only has enough sugar to make the pancakes brown nicely. Every dorayaki recipe I've seen, on the other hand, is full of sugar or honey, and distinctly heavier-handed with eggs. That's partially because the fillings are a bit less sweet than the typical syrup topping, and partially because this is a snack rather than a breakfast item.

Mine are sweeter than normal American pancakes, but not as sugary as the typical afternoon snack version that Japanese dorayaki vendors tend to produce. The key is to eat them in much smaller quantities than you might eat pancakes... they're heavier than they look.

Measuring things precisely is still sort of anathema to me, but I used about 3 egg yolks, one whole egg, 2/3 cup buttermilk, a shy teaspoon of baking soda, about 5 ounces (by weight) of all-purpose flour, maybe a tad less than 1 cup. Cake flour might be better, but I never keep it around.  You'll also need two tablespoons vegetable oil, a few tablespoons of honey, and a generous pinch of salt. The batter needs to be mixed until lumpy, like regular pancakes; it's easiest if you mix all the liquid ingredients first.

Recipes in Japanese vary widely. Some use all sugar, some use sugar and honey, some are all honey, and some incorporate mirin. Some are lighter and fluffier, some are thinner and aspire to be a little mochi-mochi (chewy, but not tough). Almost none use buttermilk; if you only have regular milk, use that, but switch to baking powder instead of baking soda.

The pancakes need to be cooked on medium-low heat with the slightest brushing of oil in the pan.

Take two pancakes and make a sandwich with them using any kind of anko, anko cream, or maybe a thick custard. I used koshi-an (finely sieved sweetened red bean paste) bought at Uwajimaya this time, but this is also good with ogura-an (coarse red bean paste), uguisu-an (mung bean paste), and probably even zunda (sweet edamame paste). If strawberries are already good where you are, consider putting a halved strawberry in there.

If you make the pancakes bigger than 3" or so in diameter, cut them into halves or quarters before serving.

 

Rhubarb season

jason

Last Saturday I came home with a bundle of rhubarb, so I quickly turned it into a compot and kept it handy throughout the week.

At breakfast a few times, the simmered rhubarb found itself in a lassi or smoothie-type drink. Made with a little buttermilk, a banana, and some ice cubes, the sweet-tart concoction kickstarted my morning without my usual caffeine hit.

This morning, though, I wasn't in the mood for a liquid breakfast. That, and I really wanted coffee. It's hard to convince myself to make coffee when I'm already drinking something else.

Observant readers may have noticed a distinct surplus of bread in this week's postings... This is because the obscenely large pseudo-baguette I got from my neighborhood market (from Seattle's A La Francaise) is incredibly difficult for a single person to finish. There are other baguette options in Seattle that are sized more conventionally, but they weren't available on the night I decided I needed some bread.

Well, I finally found a way to use that last little bit of bread today.

It wasn't even a struggle...

Rhubarb Buttermilk French Toast

Rhubarb french toast

Conventionally, french toast is briefly soaked in milk then dipped in egg. I would like to have done that, but thanks to my lassi adventures earlier in the week the only dairy I had at home was buttermilk, so I used that instead.

Buttermilk pancakes aside, the possible outcome of using buttermilk in french toast concerned me slightly. Buttermilk pancakes work in part because they are typically made with baking soda, which requires acid in order to yield a leavening effect, and the reduced acid after the leavening reaction makes the pancakes aromatic but mild in flavor.

Surprisingly, the buttermilk worked quite well. I was expecting it to be excessively yogurty, but no such disaster befell me. I don't know if it's because the topping was already sour, or that even with a few minutes of soaking the percentage of buttermilk stays fairly low, or because I love sourdough french toast and some of the same flavor notes were coming out of this.

Anyway, I'd definitely make it again when confronted with excessive bread. Two stalks up.