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

Friday, September 24, 2010

Post 34.3: Korean-Chinese Food, Part 3

This continued post on Korean-Chinese instant noodles may perhaps be a slap in the face for Korean-Chinese food enthusiasts.  Perhaps it may even be slight blasphemy that I categorize instant jjajangmyeon under authentic Korean-Chinese food.  If it's any consolation to Korean-Chinese food lovers, I can tribute to post to the original jjajangmyeon from the warm kitchens of the Korean-Chinese who invented it.  Worshipers of jjajangmyeon must have craved the originally homemade noodle so much and became so impatient over its prolonged preparation that someone came up with the instant noodle version to satiate all those impatient palates.  Props to instant gratification.

I am a victim of hunger and impatience as well.  My solution for the new obsession over these Korean noodles in black bean paste was a trip to H Mart, where the cashier was an exemplary model of instant gratification himself.  Probably hungry from standing for hours at the register, the cashier satisfied his hunger by taking intermittent bites from a fried chicken leg (probably from the supermarket deli) while scanning the barcodes of the many brands of instant jjajangmyeon on the conveyor belt.  Looks like that Snickers commercial got to his head.  Hungry? Why wait? 

Curious to see what I bought? Why wait? Here are the other instant jjajangmeyon that I threw into the shopping basket... and how they turned out.

Unconfirmed identity.  Koreans regard jjajangmyeon is Chinese.

Step by step.  The powdered seasoning and veggies get cooked with the noodles first.

Noodle surfing.  The black bean paste sits waits to be mixed in with the ramen.

A mixed result.  Glistening black bean paste noodles ready for consumption.

I haven't tried this one just yet, but I think three packages of MSG-ridden instant noodles is way more than my body to handle in one week.

Jjajang men.  Yes, I am a jjajang man.

I took the bowl noodle to work for lunch, and I accompanied it with Kimmy's homemade haemul pajeon and a mini tub of kimchi.  Yum.

Anyone speak Korean? I have no idea what bokki means here.

The usual suspects.  The typical seasoning and soup base packets from within.

A sand dune of MSG. 
The seasoning for this package looks deadly.

It's all here.  Protein, carbs, veggies, and deliciousness.

After pumping my body full of mono... mono... monosodium gluta... gluta... gluta... oiii... I need water... I think it's probably a good idea to stay away from instant packaged meals for a while.  My next meals with be cooked... the traditional way.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100928/20100920

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Post 34.2: Korean-Chinese Food, Part 2

Rather than turning to more Korean-Chinese restaurants or perhaps a homemade Korean meal by request, I've decided to turn to the supermarket aisles to further reveal the unique background behind Korean-Chinese cuisine... although at first I wasn't sure what I would find or how much more of the unique background I could reveal.  But lo and behold... in the instant noodle aisle at 99 Ranch... instant noodles, Korean-Chinese style! (Perhaps I should have shopped at a Korean supermarket like H-Mart, but there aren't any nearby...)

I've only ever had Shin Ramyun (kimchi flavored, spicy, Korean instant noodles), but this pack of Chapagetti chajang noodle (jjajangmyeon) peaked my interest.  Has this always been in the supermarket aisle? And I've just never noticed? Hmmm... my recent discovery of Korean-Chinese cuisine led me to pick up this instant meal to give it a try.

Five minutes and a few packets of vegetable seasoning, soup base, and vegetable oil later... whoa.  All it took was one bite, and I was hooked like a captain on a pirate ship.  I think it was the MSG talking to me, but I was pleasantly surprised.  It was salty, but it wasn't death-from-sodium salty.  And no shampoo-like consistency.  If I had some kimchi on the side, it would have been perfect.  (Damnit.  I should have had kimchi ready!)

This is definitely a novel find in the quest for more Korean-Chinese food, and I am definitely returning to 99 Ranch for some more... This is firm evolution from the good ol' days in college when all I ate was simple chicken flavored Maruchan, spicy Shin Ramyun and the different varieties from Taiwan.

Until another Korean-Chinese food find, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100918/20100916

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Post 34.1: Korean-Chinese Food, Part 1 (LA: Koreatown)

Just recently Wade introduced me to Appetite for China, a blog whose writer has much of her attention directed towards the many facets of Chinese cuisine.  What fascinates me about her posts is that she doesn't just focus on the eight classic schools of Chinese cuisine (Cantonese, Szechwan, etc.) or just any random Chinese dish or restaurant that she finds.  According to her About page, she highlights some of the hyphenated styles of Chinese cooking such as Portugese-accented Macanese, Peruvian chiffa, and Indian-Chinese.  What sparked me to write a post was her feature on Korean-Chinese cuisine, a type of food that Rose took me to try at Young King in Koreatown.

So what exactly is Korean-Chinese cuisine? Simply put, it's Korean style Chinese food. 

Still hard to grasp? Well, in America we have American style Italian food... I'm sure you've had the BBQ chicken pizza from CPK.  We also have Mexican-Chinese here in Los Angeles... the wonton soup with a splash of lime juice and chili oil from China Cafe at Grand Central Market is slightly bewildering, enormously tasty, and incredibly unforgettable.

 In Japan and Taiwan, there is Japanese-Italian... have you ever had squid ink pasta or teriyaki chicken pizza topped with seaweed and mochi balls?


And in Korea, there is Korean-Chinese.

The common explanation is that this Korean style of Chinese food was developed when northern Chinese, most likely from the Shandong region, emigrated to Korea and brought their style of cooking with them.  Over the course of many generations in Korea, what was originally Chinese cuisine became adapted to the tastes of the Korean tongue using local ingredients.

Another difference between Korean-Chinese food and traditional Chinese cuisine is that Korean-Chinese is served with kimchi and the raw onions with black bean paste.  Typically, the rest of the banchan is excluded from the meal.

Most of the Koreans I know agree that the three most well-known (and arguably best tasting) Korean-Chinese dishes are:

(1) Jjajangmyeon (Korean:
짜장면, Chinese: 炸醬麵): noodles smothered with a gelatinous black bean sauce and shredded cucumbers.  Korean jjajangmyeon is similar to the Chinese zhajiangmian in that the foundation of both stem from black bean paste.  However, jjajangmyeon is distinctly different from the zhajiangmian from China or Taiwan in that it uses not only onions but also caramel in the sauce, which zhajiangmian does not.  At first sight, it is clear that Korean jjajangmyeon is creamier; the texture and feel reminds me of shampoo.  Shampoo?! Yes, next time you have jjajangmyeon, see for yourself.  It's like having Pert Plus in black bean fragrance on your noodles sans the bathroom product offensiveness.  (Apologies if I have ruined the noodles for you.)  And it has a much darker color (almost black), and the Chinese version has a brown hue.

(2) Jjambbong (Korean: 짬뽕, Chinese: 炒碼麵): a mix of seafood and noodles in a spicy stew.  Although the spiciness of the dish makes it my favorite Korean-Chinese food, it is also the spiciness and wavering kimchi taste that makes me question how Chinese this dish actually is.  I've asked many of my Korean friends to translate jjambbong for me.  I hoped that the result would sound similar to the Chinese words so that I could correlate the two dishes (like jjajangmyeon and zhajiangmian), but to no avail. Jjambbong is simply a slang Korean word meaning mixed-together, a mess, or hodgepodge.  Even the menu's translation of jjambbong to chaomamian by Lunar Restaurant is nowhere close to anything remotely Chinese that I know.

(3) Tangsuyuk (Korean:
탕수육, Chinese: 糖醋肉) sweet and sour meat, typically pork but can be prepared with beef.  While Chinese sweet and sour pork is typically stir-fried, the Korean version is deep fried with a thicker breading.  Here the sweet and sour sauce is served on the side.  When I bit into the tangsuyuk it oozed with fattiness and reminded me of a softer version of a pork rind.  The excrement of oil was fascinating for my tongue and detrimental to my heart, but thankfully, Chinese food is always served with hot tea.

But unthankfully, it is damn diggity hot in the restaurant.  No joke.  Eating at Young King was no different from eating in old school Chinese restaurants as a kid in the early 90's.  Really.  Old, shaggy, dirty carpet.  Loud, noisy kitchen.  Waitstaff in unkempt white blouses and black restaurant shoes.  You know the rubber-looking black shoes with black shoelaces in the shape of Twinkies that all Chinese restaurant staff wore in the 90's? Yeah, they still wear 'em here.  Oily tabletops.  Oh, and it's hot.  Sweaty hot.  But no one seemed to mind.

Plate after plate of tangsuyuk arrived at every single table.  It was so freshly prepared that I could see the steam billow from the plate of tangsuyuk three tables away.  Damn.  And bowl after bowl of what I can only imagine as jjajangmyeon and jjambbong arrived at every single table.  Including ours.  Four bowls, actually... one order of each noodle, split into individual bowls for the two of us.  Why? Cuz we're fatties.  And because almost every Korean I know has a hard time deciding between jjajangmyeon and jjambbong, as evidenced by jbih's blogspot.

Since many Koreans have learned of the origins of this special cuisine and order it in the Korean-Chinese restaurants they grew up with, this type of Korean-Chinese is regarded as Chinese food.  However, since many Chinese and Chinese-Americans have rarely, if ever, come across this version of Chinese food, they consider it Korean food simply because it's not the kind of Chinese food they grew up with.  Some Korean-Americans designate jjajangmyeon as Chinese (hey, it sounds like zhajiangmian), while the same ones who throw the black bean noodles in the Chinese category may question how Chinese jjambbong is.  Whether it's really Korean or really Chinese whittles down to pure opinion.  One thing is for sure though... Koreans definitely have a special place on their palate for jjajangmyeon.  Ask any Korean you know.  I'd like to meet the one Korean who doesn't like jjajangmyeon.

The only way anyone is going to appreciate the food for what it is... is to simply take the food for what it is.  Don't think about whether the food is actually Chinese or Korean... don't compare jjajangmyeon with zhajiangmian or even think about whether you like one over another.  Don't think.  Just eat.  Bae go pa.

Thanks to Wade for the link.  Funny... he's Chinese and gets mistaken for Korean all the time.  Even in China.  

Until the next meal, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100915/20100313

Friday, September 3, 2010

Post 33: Lessons Learned

Lesson One

This week I lost a perfectly good sandwich (well, half of it) to the floor (carpeted) due to my inferior lack of prioritization.  Upon returning from Vons with a freshly prepared deli sandwich, I unwrapped my sandwich and placed it on my desk near by keyboard.  I was so excited about my dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cups that I swiveled my chair around to put the chocolate in the drawers of my desk.  When I turned around...

HUH?! My sandwich (well, half of it) was gone.  Where did it go?

The floor.  Apparenly my sandwich had rolled off my desk.  How did that happen? Well, I was careless enough to place it on the carpal-tunnel-preventer tool/object/device (AKA wrist rest).  And my bread was a round, torpedo-shaped roll.

The bread was here; the turkey was there; the tomatoes, onions, and pickles were everywhere.  Sadness.  I salavaged what I could... mainly the cheese (oh, my dear pepper jack), lettuce, and the other slice of bread.

So lesson learned.  Eat sandwich first; worry about candy bars later.  And be wary of where you put your unwrapped sandwich at lunch.  Do not, under any circumstances, leave it anywhere near the keyboard or carpal-tunnel-preventer tool/object/device.  Better yet, never eat sandwiches with round bread.  It's sliced bread from now on for me.  Or pitas.  Yes, pitas.

Lesson Two

Never buy samosas from gas stations in Woodland Hills, especially if they aren't made by Indians, and super especially if they've been sitting under a tepidly warm heatlamp.  Wait 'til you get a chance to hit up some true authentic places.  Ughhhhh.  Lesson learned.

Lesson Three

There is no lesson.  Don't repeat mistakes from the aforementioned lessons.  I'm going to NYC for some US Open tennis matches and some delicious grub.  Whoo hoo!

Posts to come... until then, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100903

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Post 32.2: Kalbi from the Korean Countryside (LA: Koreatown)

When most people think of Korean food, Korean BBQ is probably one of the most common thoughts that pop into mind.  Images of sizzling pieces of tender meat on a cast iron plate or smoke produced from meat over a charcoal grill are what come to mind.  Scratch that.  What used to come to mind.  I've recently come across so-called Korean comfort food from Seongbukdong in Koreatown, a restaurant that specializes in Gyeongsang cooking.  After reading about this style of home cooking in C. Thi Nguyen's LA Times article and experiencing what she calls the "trinity" of the three most popular dishes, images of steamed kalbi rather than grilled kalbi now permeate the inner thought cavities of my brain.

There's nothing more than can be said about steamed short ribs (galbi jjim) that hasn't already been said by Nguyen, The Thirsty Pig, or Stuffy Cheaks.  The meat is so tender that you don't even feel like you're chewing.  It's not the same as gnawing on grilled kalbi and working your teeth around the bone.  Here, the meat has already been stripped from the bone by the service staff upon setting the porcelain bowl down on the table.  It's hard not to have just one chunk of beef.  The salty and sweet (soy sauce and sugar perhaps) flavor combination keeps you from putting your chopsticks down.

The braised mackerel is what made it really hard to put my chopsticks down.  But unless you're amazingly adept at grasping chopsticks, fish, and bones simultaneously, you have to put your chopsticks down in order to get all the bones out of the spiny fish.  The mackerel is blanketed by a mound of kimchi... the flavor is rich, salty, and spicy... and absolutely amazing-delicious. 

On the two separate occassions I've visited Seongbukdong, I've also ordered the rice soup (gook bap) and kimchi stew (kimchi chigae).  The gook bap is great to have with the spicy braised mackerel and the salty and sweet steamed short ribs.  It gives you the warmth of chicken noodle soup but the heartiness of a tomato soup (although neither chicken, noodle, or tomato are amongst the ingredients used to prepare the gook bap).  I felt almost cleansed with each spoonful of gook bap.  The gook bap washes the sauce from the braised mackerel's kimchi away like the way the rain takes the pollution from the sky.  Mmmmm... this would be great to have on a rainy day.  Or... great to have any day.  Both Karin and one of the staff say that gook bap is one of their favorites.

The kimchi chigae is not my favorite here because it's more sour than I would like, but the service staff say that Seongbukdong is known for their kimchi chigae.  It tasted authentic, and Tiffany didn't mind it, but I still enjoy a kimchi chigae that's less sour and more spicy.

Some of my favorite banchan are the pepper with fermented bean paste, the sweet red beans, and of course, the huge chunk of steamed egg.  But I still can't get over the mackerel's fatty meat enshrouded in the little quilts of kimchi.  It's not everyone's favorite, but it's definitely mine.  Based on the reviews on Yelp and comments from other bloggers, I'm definitely coming back for the marinated spicy pork.  I'm dreaming out it already...

Read the post on Seongbukdong from The Thirsty Pig here.

Read the post on Seongbukdong from Stuffy Cheaks here.

Read the post on Seongbukdong from Food Pants here.

Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20100901

Post 32.1: Text Messages to Yoo

If your last name happens to be Yoo, Kim, or Choi, it's pretty often that you will get an unexpected text message (or perhaps it's expected by now) from me that may read something like this:

i was just thinkin bout haemul
pajeon and i swear there's a
drop of drool on my shirt..


OMG im craving HAEMUL PA
JEON right now.. GAHHHHHH..
bring me some PAJEON!

or perhaps...

PAJEON!!!!! haemuuuull pa
jeeeeooonnn + kimchiiiii... i
need it NOW please, like 
NOWWW... dies.

Last night Mr. Yoo helped me realized how utterly ridiculous it is for me to start texting anyone who is Korean in my phonebook everytime I get a craving for anything remotely Korean.  It'd be like someone texting me about Taiwanese or Chinese food items just because that person was craving it at that specific moment.  Those potential text messages may read something like this:

i cant sleep at night thinking
about taiwanese oyster pan
cake.. im dying thinking about
uh ah jzen.. oyster pancake
oyster pancake OYSTER PAN


i want some XIAOLONGBAO
right now! ohhhHhhHhHHhhhh...
DTF dumplings how i luuuuvvv

or perhaps...

WE PLZZZZ get some lu rou
nom nom nom nom

Yeah, extreme ridiculousness.  And if you're ever on the receiving end of those text messages (apologies to all surnamed Yoo, Kim, and Choi in my phonebook), that's pure randomness right there.

So thank you for that revelation, Mr. Yoo.  I may stop myself from sending those texts out when I can't sleep at night... dreaming about haemul pajeon... but in honor of the possible termination of random text messages, I will dedicate a post to (no, not haemul pajeon because I've done that already) my newfound love... kalbi jjim.

See next post.

ML - 20100831