Thursday, September 30, 2010

Post 35: Finishing a Very Korean September with Gamjatang (LA: Koreatown)

Tick... pop... crack.  

As I continued to chew I wondered what was making the firecracker sensation in my mouth...

M: "What are those?"
K: "Sesame seeds."
M: "No man, they're black.  I think those are poppy seeds."
G: "Dude, my co-worker failed a drug test 'cuz she had a poppy seed bagel..."
M: "No way... that's an insignificant..."
K: "I'm telling you... they're sesame seeds"
A: "Wait.  What's wrong with poppy seeds?"
M: "Opium."
J: "What?"

The ticking, popping, and cracking black seeds were actually ground and toasted sesame seeds.  Grinding them up and toasting the seeds cause them to look round and black, allowing them to mask as poppy seeds.  They were floating around happily amongst white sesame seeds and bright green sesame seed (perilla) leaves in a deep red soup brewed from the bones of the pig's spine.  In addition to the tender, still-on-the-bone pork, the many variations of sesame seed, chunks of starchy potato were lodged at the bottom of the steel hot pot.  Hmmmm... so this is gamjatang (감자탕).

Kimmy, my token Korean friend from high school, volunteered to be our Korean food hostess for the weekend.  We call her Kimmy (her real name is Grace Kim) to highlight her Korean-ness.  Forget the fact that we have a million friends named Grace... it's her Korean-ness that allows us to call her Kimmy.  But I digress.  Kimmy, our Korean cuisine hostess extraordinaire, led us to Gam Ja Gol in Koreatown where she was about to show us some true blood Korean food... the non-BBQ, non-tofu, non-soju type of true blood Korean food.

Kimmy introduced us gamjatang, a savory stew made with the bones of a pig's spine, the earthy potatoes, and an abundance of enticing and somewhat exotic leaves of the sesame seed.  The soup was deep red.  Deep, deep red.  But it wasn't insanely spicy.  Just enough to cause droplets of perspiration to form on foreheads around the table.

In between bites of the soft pork, slurps of the savory stew, and glances at the banchan spread, I looked up every so often to ask Kimmy a question or two about the Korean food that we were having.  Gamjatang, translated literally, means potato (gamja) soup (tang), but Kimmy warned, "it's not really about the potato..."

Apparently not.  It was all about the soft and tender meat... it was about the savory and addicting soup... it was all about the fragrance of the perilla leaves... it was all about the way the gamjatang was poured into my bowl with heart, soul, and pride in the Korean culture.  It was about the complete destruction of a pig's spine... the bones looked as if they were leftover from a Velociraptor's meal.  And it was all about the second course of the meal...

As we the gamjatang slowly dwindled to its last remaining drops, the server arrived to wisp away the steel hot pot... only to refill it with white rice, chopped kimchi, and an assortment of ingredients.  I followed the sounds of the sizzle and crackle to the corner of the restaurant where it was cooking.  And as I peered into the popping pot, the server exclaimed from behind me, "chao fan!"

Bewildered, I spun around.  The supposedly Korean server used Mandarin to tell me that it was fried rice.  I didn't quite know just what to say.... or even what language to respond in.  So I just sat back down at the table, which is when Kimmy informed me, "she," pointing at the server, "told me that you looked Chinese."

I found out later that she was ethnically Korean but was born in northeastern China, so she learned to speak Mandarin growing up.  I guess that's where she learned to tell non-Koreans apart from ethnic Koreans.

But does that mean I like fried rice? Well, I sure as hell enjoyed this one.  In the little time it took to cook the fried rice, the grains of white rice had absorbed the remaining gamjatang... it was bursting with spicy and savory flavors... only a hint of which came from kimchi.  I was absolutely stuffed, and there was not a single section of spine left for us to pick at.  But I kept wanting more.  

The gamjatang rice was almost a drug.  If I had to take this drug every 8 hours for a course of 2 weeks (with food), I wouldn't have any problem with it.  In fact, I wouldn't have a problem with gamjatang or the fried rice being an intravenous drug.  Mmmm... this stuff is good.  Shoot it straight into my veins.

The gamjatang was an awesome Korean food experience.  What made it even better was that I learned and tried something I never knew existed.  Kamsamhapnida, Kimmy.  Solid meal.

Until another true blood experience, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 201000926/20101006

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