Friday 5: Korea Guidance

I see your pun, Friday 5. Well played.

What would be a better name for the color of goldenrod-colored paper?

What’s wrong with “goldenrod”?

Where did you get your silverware?

Either IKEA or the grocery store downstairs.

It is a weird tradition in America (and possibly elsewhere) for parents to have their children’s baby shoes bronzed. What artifact from this past week would you have bronzed as a keepsake and heirloom?

Last week was pretty unremarkable. If I had to pick anything, it might be the toy dinosaur that lives with Chuck, one of my snake plants.

I have no sentimental attachment to the dinosaur or anything. (I bought as part of a Jurassic Park costume a few years ago.) I just think it would be funny to have it bronzed. Maybe I’ll just spray paint instead?

What was the most recent ceremony you attended?

The wedding I went to in August.

What east Asian cuisine is good for your Seoul?

I lived and taught in South Korea for over two years, as I’ve probably mentioned before, and one of the (many) things I miss big time is the food. The Korean diaspora means that Korean barbecue is familiar to most non-Koreans who live in any metropolitan area that approaches international; it seems that bibimbap is also gaining traction thanks to the recent health food obsession with “Buddha bowls.”

But that is only the tip of the iceberg, my friend.

Korean street food is the best, hands down. (Apologies to all of the gatuköks and Philly pretzel carts out there, but it’s true.) My favorite in this genre is tteokbokki: dense rice cakes in a sweet and spicy sauce. It wasn’t uncommon for teachers at my first school to spring for a whole tray of these for a “snack party” after a particular class finished a level test, since they were cheap, tasty, and filling. It helped that we had a little snack shack in the first floor of our building.

A step up from street food are the ubiquitous gimbap restaurants. I don’t know enough about Korean food history to know whether or not these restaurants predate the appearance of American-style fast food chains in the peninsula, but I would guess that they did. These places specialize in cheap, easy-to-make meals and are popular with broke students and people with criminally short lunch breaks. (This is also the kind of restaurant built into Korean spas.) The backbone dish of these restaurants is gimbap (rice, veggies, and sometimes meat rolled in a sheet of dried black seaweed) and all of its varieties, but the menus always include a wide assortment of variations on jjigaes, larger portions of popular street food, and a few odds and ends. Anything off the menu here will be fantastic, though my personal favorites are dolsot bibimbap, rabokki (a combination of the aforementioned tteokbokki and ramen), and cheesy ramen. I actually don’t care that much for gimbap, ironically enough, because I’m not a huge fan of black seaweed.

When it comes to “real” restaurants, places start to narrow down their menus to a handful of specialty dishes (or a handful of variations on one particular dish). Now you have your Korean barbecue restaurants, with various cuts of pork or beef to grill at your table. I preferred the chicken stir-fry equivalent, the marinated version known as  dak galbi; sometimes my coworkers and I even went out for duck. You have seafood restaurants, with raw fish, squid, and octopus. You have, borrowed from Japan, shabu-shabu. On a slightly lesser tier, you have chicken-and-beer joints. You have what are theoretically restaurants but are really bars with obligatory anju (bar snacks, or bar more-than-a-snack-less-than-a-meal), like stir-fried rice or seafood or kimchi pancake-fritters. (These bars are usually famous for the quality of their anju, though, so having to order to be allowed to drink isn’t a problem at all.)

But for me, the crown jewel of Korean cuisine is something else entirely. The city where I lived, Uijeongbu, is famous for budae jjigae, a relatively modern invention that takes a traditional jjigae and incorporates the kind of meat found in American military MREs: sausages, hot dogs and (of course) SPAM. Unlike other jjigaes, it’s usually served with ramen and glass noodles right in the dish.

A bowl of budae jjigae.
By LWY at flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwy/2184707139/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3402989

As far as I can tell, Korean entrepreneurs haven’t brought budae jjigae abroad yet. I guess the immediate connection with scraps and cast-offs from American military bases doesn’t really jibe with the image Korea wants to present to the rest of the world? But that’s a tragedy, because budae jjigae is so damn good. I’ve learned to make a lot of Korean food myself, to scratch my Koreastalgia itch, but the one thing that you can never just make yourself is budae jjigae. It’s a dish best cooked in huge heaping batches, tended by a watchful restaurant employee, and enjoyed in the company of others. Like, if I were fabulously, obscenely wealthy, I would open a budae jjigae restaurant in Stockholm. That is how much I love this dish. One day…!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *