Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My love affair with Sundae (not ice cream)

I'm going to be completely honest with you (if only for a moment): Korean food, in general, is a repetition of a few ingredients done in a few different ways. This isn't to say that it's bad, but with so few ingredients there are very few original ideas coming out of the Korean kitchen that don't incorporate foreign ingredients.

On days when I feel put off by the tart flavor of Deonjang (된장) or have had enough of rice and kimchi, I often stroll the carts lining most every street in search of my favorite guilty pleasure -- Sundae (순대). Sundae is only strange if you don't realize that every culture has it's own blood sausage. The English have black pudding, Americans eat hot dogs (the epitome of mystery meat). The only real difference is the flavor. Korean Sundae is peppery with a very meaty quality reminiscent of taking a bite out of a living Buffalo.

My absolute favorite way to enjoy Sundae is on a griddle with noodles, cabbage and liver. The Sundae becomes crisp and charred, as do the other ingredients. There's nothing like walking out of a restaurant having gorged yourself on the blood of an animal. It's rather manly (but using the word 'rather' is not). 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Burger B great, chocolate b good.

Finding a good burger in Seoul is kind of difficult. I've been to a few of the recommended places, mostly all located in Itaewon, but I've always left with a kind of "meh" aftertaste. Either the patty isn't seasoned well enough or the bun just falls apart in your hands. It is with great pleasure that I announce the best burger in Seoul: Burger B in Hongdae.

On both trips to Burger B, I've been thrilled by the juiciness of the meat and the crisp vegetables. The Mushroom Burger (above) is served with whatever the hell those are, but they're not your typical white mushrooms. The Original BBB burger (below) has a "deluxe" patty, crispy toasted bun, and Tilamook cheddar cheese(!). Not to mention the fries, which are also crispy and fresh. It's in Hongdae, if you come out of Sangsu station and walk straight from exit three, it's on the left hand side.

After a burger, why not go get your chocolate on at Cacaoboom? Further down from Burger B, nestled in an alleyway that seems to have a surplus of cute cafes and chocolatiers, this small artsy shop is home to one of the most comforting deserts ever, the "chocolate bed."

Basically a slice of extra-thick, buttery and crunchy toast, slivered almonds, creamy chocolate that might've been a very rich pudding and a cold glass of milk, all for 6,000 won. I can imagine this being even better on a hot summer day, but even on one of the colder Spring days it felt like home (if my home was made of all things right with this world).

Cacaoboom is probably one of many chocolate shops in the area, but from what I've experienced here -- including the small piece of chocolate they gave complimentary that tasted like cinnamon and nutmeg -- they are top notch chocolate craftsmen and women. They also have chocolate fish, which I think are just fantastic. Who ever heard of a chocolate fish? Not this guy! Ha ha.

Note: I flipped the image horizontally.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chicken? In my neighborhood? Get outta here!

No really, get out. Your sweet smell is enticing me to eat you, and as you know I cannot. My Oriental Medicine practitioner has forbidden me. But if it's mind over matter, I'm screwed.

This post isn't even about that chicken, because I have no pictures. I do have pictures of the sesame chicken I made the other night, though.

Not a bad thing, Korean fried chicken. In fact, it's delicious. However, like most fried chicken, it's probably not so good for you. This was pretty simple.

I'm going to start writing about the restaurants I go to. I for whatever reason have neglected writing in general and so whoop here it is.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oyster Po' Boy and more hot plate loving.

I've been a big supporter of the Robot Loving Act of 2029 since its inception in 2029. From my perspective, a robot should be used only in construction, in computing, and also for terrifying Paulie. It's a good thing, then, that my hot plate is not a robot, but a simple machine dedicated to serve only one purpose: to produce heat energy in order to fry the hell out of whatever is sitting on top of it. Because if it was a robot, I may have made a pass at it by now. I may have already made a pass at it. I'm not sure.

Tonight, in my never ending quest to discover just what I can do with a hot plate (besides sexually assault it), I wanted to find out if it can sustain ample heat to fry up some oysters. I believe, having eaten the results, that it can.

These oysters were 2,500 won ($2.00) from the E-Mart. After snipping the tip off of the plastic sleeve they came in, the fresh scent of the salty sea filled the room. It's such a fresh smell and probably my favorite smell of any food item. It immediately turns a dank dungeon-like kitchen in to a dank dungeon-like kitchen under the sea, which I'm told adds a magical charm or something.

For this recipe, I adapted a traditional fried oyster recipe to suit what I had on hand.

To fry the oysters, you will need:

1 sleeve of oysters (about 10 - 12)
1/2 cup milk
1/4 tsp kochu flakes  (hot pepper flakes)
1 egg
1 tsp water
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
salt and pepper
oil for frying

Mix the milk, kochu, egg and water together and whisk. Add the flour, bread crumbs, salt and pepper together and mix. Heat the oil to around 360 degrees or until it's hot enough (I have no thermometer, so I just threw them in when it was "hot enough", which is a technical term). Fry for three minutes in batches of four or five.

Remoulade sauce (very much an invention of what I had on hand, not very traditional)

1/4 cup mayo
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp kochu flakes
1 tbs pickle relish

Spread the sauce over a sliced, six inch piece of baguette. I used a garlic baguette I got from Paris Baguette. Baguette. Add lettuce and the oysters. Eat. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ra ra, ra ramen in Hongdae. Cupcakes, too.

When the weather is as prohibitive as it has been, what with the temperature being somewhere between "oh god I can't feel my face" and "call the police", it's hard to imagine taking a walk in any of Seoul's fashionable districts without risking death by exposure. Me, I'm from California, where temperature rarely drops below comfort level, and when it does everyone begins to sin indoors rather than out.

Friday, I was screaming on the inside every second I was exposed. I believe I became another gender at one point when a gust found its way up my pant leg. There is no forgiving nature for what it did to me that day.

Though as is often the case, the food made up for it. We traveled to Hongdae, braving the cold, to get our hands on some ramen. In Los Angeles, I was a frequent customer of the many ramen shops in Little Tokyo, most notably Daikokuya. I have missed that experience in Seoul, where ramen seems hard to come by.

Taking the advice from several bloggers, we chose to try Hakatabunkko (하카타코), a very small restaurant with a bar and about four small tables situated in an alley near the Far East Broadcasting company. At first we were a bit confused about the location. It's tucked quietly away down this alley that looks like it was reserved for gang violence, with graffiti on the walls and that "you're going to get stabbed" vibe. Maybe its Los Angeles rubbing off on me more than I'd like it to. But, without being stabbed, we found it, two white drapes hanging from the doorway with words written in Japanese decorating them.

One couple was ahead of us, and so we were asked to stand behind a sandwich board in front of a tiny cupcake restaurant called Sweetpea. More on that soon. Not two minutes later, we had a table and were ready to order. We both ordered the kontotsu ramen, a style of ramen in which the broth is conceived by mating savory pork fat with everything that's right with the world. This is to say that the broth is heavy, but not obstructing; when you lift the thin, wisp-like noodles you can feel their weight on your tongue and not feel as though your tongue is coated in wax.

All of the flavors mingled together like the melting pot America was supposed to have been. On our table was a garlic press and a small pot filled with whole cloves of garlic. I pressed one in to my soup while my friend Dan pressed about ten. Also on the table were pickled ginger, spicy kimchi, and sesame seeds in a grinder.

As far as ramen goes, I have had better in Los Angeles. But in Seoul? Not as of yet.

After dinner, we were enthralled by a cupcake cafe next door called Sweetpea because of their display of tiny cupcakes. Being the two manly men that we are, we decided to head in and order these dainty pastries. The cafe has two sizes of cupcake to choose from, large (3,800 won) and small (900 each). I chose dark chocolate and strawberry, while Dan picked green tea and peanut butter.

We took a seat at a pale green table with pin-up cushions on the seats and stared awkwardly at each other. Dan noted that this was the type of place you would take a girl, and I giggled and told him to stop it. Our cupcakes came on a small plate, and in between taking pictures and being in awe of how cute the place was, I realized that the cake itself had been made recently as I watched the adorable baker mix up another batch of batter and that the frosting had been made to order. I appreciate the craft of the cupcake, and though some might call them a 'fad', it's a damn cute fad and I'm not afraid to say that. I'm all man (recognize).

Having given up my masculinity, I will say that the cake itself was a bit dry but crisp, an interesting combination and one I've never had in a cupcake. The frosting was sweet but not overly, the cocoa in my mini chocolate balanced with the chocolate cake, and the strawberry was fresh and nostalgic.

It's a good thing these two are next to each other. After a large bowl of ramen, it's nice to have something sweet to follow up that garlicky goodness. Even if you are left as manly as a four year old.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Travelling without moving (through a coffee convention).

The 8th Annual International Cafe Show 2009 and Fancy Food Fest

November 29th, 2009: 12:03 PM
Text message sent from my phone:
I think I can see space time.

I arrived at the COEX mall in Gangnam with mild expectations. I knew that there would be a festival. I assumed that there would be a 'fancy' food festival, as was described here, but I had no clue what that meant. Are we talking gastronomy or Fancy Feast? The website is unclear. I did know that it was a mere 5k to enter, and for that price I'd have thought the latter. I saw no pictures of cats. I assumed there would be cats. There turned out to be cat turds. More on that later.

As I stepped in to Hall C, I could feel the caffeine in the air. This was a concentrated mix of baristas, roasters, salesmen, chocolatiers, bakers, and tea-gurus. Most were masters in some way or another. Green, unroasted coffee beans sat in trays on tables, brewing equipment of all shape and size screamed at my wallet, and my fingers began to twitch, sensing the oncoming coffee high. There is nothing like the sweet scent of roasting coffee. It's one of my favorite things about Seoul. Everywhere I go, that scent changes the unfamiliar in to the familiar. It's like grandma pulling cookies out of the oven, only in this case grandma is the oven. It takes the drama out of danger and leaves only a question of how, rather than why, which is something everyone can cope with while having a nice cup of coffee.

I hadn't really prepared for this. I didn't know that there was going to be such a thing. For the first half hour, I meandered through the aisles, unable to cope with the dizzying array of coffee everything. One of the first things that caught my eye was the infamous Kopi Luwak coffee, in all it's original, unseparated glory (Kopi Luwak coffee is created when a Kopi Luwak -- a small cat-like mammal -- ingests the coffee bean and then excretes it for the local people to collect and sell to coffee enthusiasts for $50 a loaf). I knew that this convention meant serious business when they were proudly displaying feces at the front door.

There was pour over to the left of me, french press to the right of me, and Dutch Process in front of me. I was surrounded; there was nothing left to do but to get high. Really high. On caffeine. I was handed a small cup full of my first sample of the day, a Papua New Guinea variety that was bright and full of citrus. Later, after my fiftieth free sample and my third free cappucino, I would distinguish each varietal only by the amount of stars I saw in the cup after finishing it. People bumping in to me were no longer touching a physical me, but the very idea of me, while reality around us altered and forced strange impossibilities possible.

Cafe Chiola, a self-described "Coffee/Academy/Consulting/Interior/Roasting" company out of Suwon, made the biggest impression and had the most stars in their cup that I remember counting. Their booth was more a hidden forest lodge, tucked away in a magical grotto where deer mingle with men and women ate jujubes freely. The interior smelled of pine and fresh coffee, something reminiscent of all that's right with the world. I expected to look out the window and see ancient trees, but instead I saw young Korean women ogling the barista, Yeo Dae Sung, the master craftsman who meticulously measured the temperature of the water before pouring it slowly, almost erotically(?), in to the just-ground beans. As they bubbled up, a foam not unlike that of the sea crept up through the 'soil' and seeded the air with the earthen aroma.

After allowing two pots to fill a quarter full, he mixed the two and poured a small amount in to individual paper cups. Then, after adding water to make miniature Americanos, he handed them out. My Korean is shoddy at best, limited to only "Yes," "No," and "I don't speak Korean." As luck would have it, Sung could speak English. I asked what beans he was using, and he told me four different kinds: Kenya, Gutamala, and two others I can't remember. Why? Because I didn't bring a notebook. Won't that teach me? I wrote it in nebula on my retina anyhow, but forgot when I started to come down.

Without a second thought, the crew of the Cafe Chiola booth provided countless visitors with the perfect Americano and a show that rivals any Zen meditation. Watching a master at work, in any field, is a priveledge; watching someone coax every flavor imaginable out of what once was a simple bean is a work of art. Later, passing the booth again, the line to enter was at least fifty people deep.

There was also the 7th Annual Barista Championship, a competition I'm sure that I would have enjoyed more had I understood what was being said. I could tell, however, that the drinks being made weren't simple and that each pull of espresso was being done perfectly, four at a time for four different judges who sat monolithic like those on the original Iron Chef. At one point, a contestant mixed what appeared to be milk, espresso, orange peel, and various spices in to a small sauce pan and steeped it, only to make a whipped cream out of it and top a martini glass full of what appeared to be mousse and espresso. Nebula note #40 (maybe lost in translation): add orange peel to milk, cream the hell out of it. Still not sure what that means.

Later, after nearly choking on whatever cup of coffee I had, I bought a sample of a Guatemala roast from a young start up company called Como Esta, Inc., who hadn't opened a store yet but has plans to do so, hopefully in Seoul. Their single origin brew was the liveliest I tried and distinct from the rest in it's excitement. A unique taste, one of the crew of men and women behind the counter who could speak English as if he were born in the States (possibly) told me that the sample I had was a unique blend made solely for them. Keep an eye open for them, wherever they may be in the future.

Coffee in Korea is expensive. One hundred and fifty grams (about a quarter pound) will set you back about $10 - $15 dollars. The fifty gram sample I bought from Como Esta, Inc was 2k won (about $1.80). It's very rare to drink so much and spend so little. My 5k at the door got me a few hours worth of watching the masters do their job as I drank my way through booth after booth, only stopping to check if my fingers were still attached to me or if they had entered singularity.

Coffee wasn't the only food craft on display. Sugar sculptors and bakers were also on hand, displaying an incredible array of cakes, cookies, and images from the pages of Lovecraft. I was floored by a large sugar sculpture replete with bats and Cthulhu-like images, as well as a piece done solely in chocolate that brought back nightmares from my childhood. The dichotomy of sweet and sour has never been so clear (I would eat the whole damn thing). Whenever I would get lost staring at the inhuman monster playing the chocolate flute, I would catch a drift of dark chocolate and come gliding back down to Earth.

For being such a gathering on a scale that it was, I was surprised to have not heard about it on a blog or in the newspaper. I found out through a mutual friend, who went the previous day with a load of people. Had I not gone, I would have regretted it. This was a turning point in my view on coffee; I have never seen it, or known it to be, so beautiful in it's ritual. I have also never been so wired in my entire life. After leaving, I floated through the halls of COEX and found myself eating a hamburger that I had no recollection of buying. It was a good hamburger. But the most memorable part of the day was learning that my passion for coffee is shared by countries world-wide; that it isn't just America that will spend time and effort on making the perfect cup. Sure, there's a language barrier, but coffee as a language is universal.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Literal scrap iron chef.

Alton Brown had an episode of Good Eats a while back in which he was challenged by a geriatric cook in a junk yard to produce food using only what they could muster out of the heaps and heaps of refuse at their, uh, disposal. It was a great premise, to challenge a creative mind to force a culinary master piece out of a muffler and a used diaper. Actually, I'm not certain he used a diaper, but if he had it truly would have been a stroke of genius.

I'm the true Scrap Iron Chef. Alton was surrounded by a crew that assured he had what he needed in a pinch. I'm surrounded by Koreans who can't speak a word of English and who probably want me to die because of my mini surround sound system. My utensils are few: a plastic spatula, a metal whisk, and a cutting board shaped like a fish. My only heating source other than the microwave is a grime encrusted, off yellow hot plate that has probably seen the beginning and ending of the Cold War. When I first moved in, I was told that I "probably shouldn't use it because it's dangerous." I suppose he thought I could survive off of sandwiches and cereal.

Not to mention the language barrier in the super market. Coming here, I had no idea what to expect or, for that matter, what I could possibly make. I had Bulgogi once a long time ago, and even tried Korean BBQ out a month or so before coming out, but that's as far as my knowledge took me. It has been a journey of patience and persistence over these last three months that I've made any headway in to this once mysterious cuisine, but I like to think that I've come a long way from when I began.

I've made a few soups and a couple of dishes that have turned out well enough. Once again, my utensils are adequate at best, and my pans are miracle workers considering the environment. Imagine if Kobe Bryant had to dunk in the coldest nebula of outer space every night and you might understand. His very molecular structure would be ripped apart. My pans keep my person together. I also want you to understand that if I can do it, you can do it. It's incredibly simple. Most of these recipes I've made through tasting similar products at restaurants and guessing.

This is a re-introduction to this blog, because I've kind of lost my way writing. It started as a chronicling of my life in Seoul, and is now transforming in to a food blog. I think most of my life revolves around food and I'm alright with that.

Take tonight for instance. I've discovered that from November to March is prime oyster season in Korea, and it's apparent from the oyster samples I've come across in the markets. Yes, samples. I was weary at first to try an oyster that was just sitting there. It looked like it had an hour long reservation in the bathroom written all over it. But after eating it, whatever happened next was forgiven. It truly was an incredible oyster. And so I bought a sleeve of them, or whatever it's called. It was a friggen plastic bag with about twenty inside for around 2,000 Won ($1.75).

What I made tonight is called Gul Jeon. Jeon is something fried, like a pancake or a tempura dish. Korean pancakes aren't anything like what Americans call pancakes. They're more akin to the Chinese style chive pancake that you might have come across in a restaurant. They're crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, kind of like Kurt Russell.

Gul Jeon (Korean oyster pancakes)

Ingredients: About 20 oysters, 3 TBS flour, 1 egg, 3 TBS chives or onion greens, 1 finely diced red pepper, salt, pepper, olive oil.

- Drain the oysters and then pat them dry. Add the flour to a plastic bag and then add the oysters. Give it a shake until all of them are coated. Preheat the skillet.

- Finely chop the chives/onion greens and the red pepper. I made a mitstake by slicing the red pepper, and let me tell you, taking a bite out with two or three of them together was like Montezuma's Revenge. Or will be.

- Beat the egg with the salt and pepper, and then add the oysters and vegetables. It's going to look like cat vomit. There's no getting around that.

- Add a little olive oil to the pan and then spoon oysters individually in to the skillet. Fry until brown on both sides.

I served these to myself alongside cod that I poached in butter and cucumbers marinated in brown rice vinegar. I also had some vinegar on the side to dip the pancakes in. Who says you can't eat fancy off of fifty cent plates? Who gives a damn? I'm living on the edge, two opposites attracted and compressed in a 15x15 box in the middle of Seoul. I'm going to add some class to this place one plate at a time.