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.