Chaos and Order: The Eve Before Christmas

What is Christmas without the full spectrum of complex chaos and simplistic order?  Every Christmas I can remember is rose-tinted with memories of all gathered around a fire, opening presents, and sipping eggnog slowly, interspersing some coffee here and there. But let’s get real, we all know that in order to get to that couch, under that blanket, content as can be, there was a lot of preparation. See: stove flames nipping and four pots bellies, as the stove intermittently roars awake to keep the turkey, stuffing, and gravy-to-be cooking. See: my whole family running around trying to keep shoes out of the way as we set the table, open the wine, and wrap the gifts. See: serving everyone at the brunch table and making sure everyone has enough coffee, eggnog, wine, beer, water, milk, juice, the list continues.

But that’s exactly what this holiday is about, and despite my being fourteen hours a head of my family, Christmas was still a balance of rushing and relaxing. Struggling and burning my lip on one too many dishes tasted, and sitting on a warmed floor in Seoul, sharing a meal with good friends. It was Christmas.

Family has asked before about the nature of Christmas here in Seoul. I think a quick sentence can summarize it: Christmas is a holiday much like Valentine’s Day. To explain: it is a couple – not family – holiday that ensures many cakes gifted, a lot of city promenades to view the decorations of the city and no time off. Yes, just like my days in the Thai restaurant, I worked on Christmas Eve.

But that didn’t put a stop to the feast I was planning. Any opportunity I had to think about what I would pair together – see root vegetables, comfort food, Christmas treats – I would take advantage of it. In class, on sticky notes, during preparation time, in my journal before work, there are too many notes for this dinner. I was just trying to make it special in any and every way possible.

So as nine thirty rolled around, I had already clocked out and was on the first elevator down to the ground floor. I ran home, and threw on my pajamas (to get into the spirit, of course) and turned on the stove. Pulling every ingredient I had in my refrigerator out, I had amassed an enviable collection of produce. Greens, baby bok choi, 김닙, sweet potato, pumpkin, mushroom,   red cabbage, kale, onion, zucchini, and carrots. Those ingredients combined with a little Korean flavor (gochujan), and a little southern comfort (Annie’s Mac & Cheese so graciously gifted to me by a fellow Seoulite-expat, James), Christmas Eve Dinner was going to be right.

 

 

 

With the flames (just two…) roaring, people buzzing into my apartment, my knife flying through ingredients, and friends asking if they could help, I felt like I was home again.

 

After a short 45 minutes of cooking, our late night Christmas Eve Dinner began. Sauteed Spicy Greens with red pepper threads, onions and hints of sesame leaf, Pan-seared carrots, garlic and red cabbage, Roasted Winter Vegetable medley (pumpkin, sweet potato, onions), Gourmet Mac & Cheese (sesame leaf, zucchini), and a late-in-the-game mushroom and onion dish to round out the Earthly Flavors. And for drink? An Argentine Malbec or, if you are feeling the holiday spirit, homemade Eggnog.

Here’s to snow covered Seoul, and the Christmas Morning Brunch.

For Recipes, wait just a little longer. This meal isn’t over.

 

 

 

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A Surprise, Unwrapped

My family has a tradition of opening up one gift on Christmas Eve. It used to be a way of putting me, the youngest, at bay and give me patience until the next morning where I would anxiously await everyone to get up so we could open the rest. Our tradition evolved over time to now just be a nice way of welcoming in the holiday. After a big dinner, where we’d be warm with laughter, remarkable food, and fuzzy socks to combat the bitter cold outside, the family would gather in the living room to exchange one present. Sometimes it was a toothbrush, and sometimes it was a gift card, but no matter, it was something special. It meant that the next morning wouldn’t be a regular morning; it would be Christmas morning.

In that tradition, I’ll unwrap one of my presents for Christmas. Except, this isn’t a present to me, but from me. See, at work we are all gathering together for a Christmas lunch on Christmas Eve Day and having a white elephant gift exchange. I ran through a couple ideas of what I could give someone in the office (see: scarf, blanket, socks, soap, lotion, some gag gift…) but nothing really felt like it was good enough. So what did I do? I remembered that usually my best gifts are hand made. And since I’m not all that crafty with a pencil or paint brush, I made my way into the kitchen and came up with the perfect idea: Pecan Pie.

Where’d this idea come from? No idea. But I think it fits perfectly: hearty southern dessert to get us through some whipping winds and negative temperatures!

One problem: Korea doesn’t have pecans. It has walnuts, peanuts, cashews, pistachios and some other nut that’s generally covered with sugar and served at bars, but no pecans.

Home to the rescue. About four days ago, I received a package full of – you guess it – love. That’s right folks, it’s the holidays so I can be corny every now and then. But this love was comprised of a couple of wrapped packages from my family, dried mangos, chocolate covered espresso beans, and – wait wait, don’t tell me – pecans.

So equipped with my chocolate digestive crust, some corn syrup, sugar, salt, eggs, oranges, and pecans, I set off to see if I could make pecan pie, in Korea, in a toaster oven, for a Christmas gift.

 

Deck the halls, it was a success. Firm, chocolatey crust set up a good foundation for the creamy-sweet filling and the decorative and equally essential top: arranged pecans.

 

And there, fine readers, is my Christmas Eve present to you. Don’t worry, there will be more gastronomic gifts to come over the next couple of days. Happy holidays, and stay warm.

 

The Start of Something Delicious

It only recently hit me that Christmas – the second biggest culinary holiday – is this week. Maybe it’s the sporadic weather (Seoul likes to be warm for three days, then blistering cold for four, and then back up to a crisp fall day). Maybe it’s the lack of corny decorations everywhere. Maybe it’s the lack of ubiquitous Christmas music. Maybe it’s because I’m not in America. Whatever it might be, it’s easy to forget that this Saturday is, in fact, Christmas.

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A Day in the Life: Fish Cakes

I didn’t look forward to getting up this morning. Not because it wasn’t another beautiful day here in Seoul, but because the weatherman predicted that the temperatures wouldn’t break negative ten all day. That means that from dawn break around seven forty, or so, until well into the night, I am going to have to face the biting cold, the dismissive looks, and whipping wind, all for what? A few thousand won for a fish shaped treat? At least I have a stove built into my cart, whereas those fools selling hats, scarves, knock off Gucci purses all have to huddle around a space heater.

I figure today people aren’t going to be up and about until much later. They, too, want the sun to heat the frozen bricks before heading out to browse what we street vendors have to offer this week. If I paid close enough attention, I’m sure I’d start to recognize the regulars that check on weekly debuts, but I just can’t be bothered anymore. So around ten in the morning, I start to uncover the blue tarp strapped to my cart, turn on the propane, rub my hands together with a quick injection of hot air to keep nimble, and then start in on the mixing. I mix the batter together and get the filling ready.

Now the batter doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth, since I drop it into a press shaped like a fish. And the filling – a nice red bean paste – certainly doesn’t have to be lump free. In fact, most of my customers “oo” and “aa” when there are little bits of red beans in the sweetened paste, so I generally leave it quite textured.

Mixing is probably the worst part, too. On days like this when it’s negative eleven, I have to mix the batter by hand, exposing my fingers to the air. On days like this, I envy those chestnut roasters who just pop their chestnuts into a kiln and wait for them to be roasted. Or the ddokboki vendors, who get to do everything with gloves on. But no, not me, I have huddle down into my scarf deeper and deeper as the wind picks up and feels like knives against my dried out skin.

See I do have it easier in some respects, though. Once that mix is complete, all I have to do is lop some of it into a waffle iron shaped like a fish, place some red bean past into the middle, and close the contraption. A minute or two for chewy pancake-waffle-cookie-cake like dough with the red bean paste nice and warm on the in side, or a few more minutes for a crispy outside and doughy center. Some people like to point to their favorite textures; some foreigners try to test their Korean out on me, but really I just hand them whatever I want to give them. They normally bow an absurd amount, throw around a butchered “thank you” and run away, plowing through four fish before they turn the corner.

On days like today,  don’t blame them. In fact, I join them with a celebratory “cheers.” Actually, on most days, I join them. Who wouldn’t? These little pastries are hot and fresh out of the press, offering up a slightly sweet dough filled with the substantial texture of beans as well as the sweet hint of red-bean-paste that sits oh-so-often on the top of winter pot bing su. The fish cakes, my friends, are addictive.

And now it’s sun fall. I could stay up longer and try to push these sweet treats onto more people, but for my own comfort, I’m going to head back home. If anyone wants some of what I’ve got, well they’ll have to come back tomorrow and be satisfied by a little fried food for now. A corn-dog stuffed with french fries, perhaps?

A Day of 20 Something Meals

Yesterday I made my third (or fourth, depending on technicalities) voyage outside of the beast that is Seoul. We prepared little, and planned even less. All we knew was that we were getting up before sunrise, getting on a bus, and going south to the “Culinary Home of Korea:” Jeonju (전주).

I obviously was in heaven. I had heard fables of how the legendary bibimbap of Jeonju would ruin any other bibimbap from then on. I heard that the quaint village thrived on food, and that it was a necessary expedition any self-respecting food enthusiast would take. I agree with most of that.

Up at 4:30, on the subway by 6, on the bus by 7, and in a restaurant eating bibimbap by 1030.  The fast-paced nature of the trip didn’t stop with our initial arrival either. We went from restaurant to palace to market to coffee shop to market to Korean wine museum to restaurant to a quick hike to an area of town dedicated solely to makgeoli to bar to bus station all in under 12 hours. It was non-stop moving; it was nothing but bliss.

The town of Jeonju itself looked like the result of quick post-WWII development. It was wildly homogenous and built up, rather than sprawling. What was remarkable about this town was the defined presence of tradition marked by the 800+ Hanok, or traditional houses. I’d seen them before throughout Seoul, but the houses I had seen were of museum quality. That is to say, no one lived in them; they were maintained solely for the purpose of showing tourists and Koreans alike the history Korea has to offer. But in Jeonju, people lived in these homes. So did convenience stores, bars, restaurants, and shops. These were the buildings of the southern end of town.

We actually ended up spending most of our time in this Hanok Village. It was there that we put away two meals of bibimbap (in search of that one that was going to destroy any chance of liking it again because it was so delicious), found the wine museum and wandered around a market consisting of fruits, vegetables, fish, grains, ddok (rice cake that’s almost pasta-like).

Did we find the bibimbap that would forever be ingrained in our minds? Not really. Did we eat some delicious meals, and continually consume? You bet your bottom dollar we did. And it was when we least expected it that we stumbled upon the best and most adventurous meal of the day.

After a quick hike up a mound (note: not hill or mountains, just a mound), a couple of compulsory jump-pictures, and me running around the group as if I had pounded ten espresso shots, we all consented that it was time to find out what the beverages of Jeonju were like.

Two members of our travel team – Molly and Lucy – have been in Korea for under a month. So everything they tried was relatively new which made me want to keep showing them new things. Sure we could have gone to a local Hof (Korean-style bar) and had a few draft beers and some snack food, or we could go get some Jeonju makgeoli.

To me, this isn’t a tough decision: I both love adventure and the taste of makgeoli. This drink I talk of is a kind of rice wine. Wikipedia says it’s a mix of fermented rice, wheat, and water. It’s a little weaker than wine, but you’d never be able to guess its strength. Really, it tastes like candy water – which is where problems arise.

Makgeoli is a milky-chalky-sweet-slightly effervescent drink that has no bite, and full flavor. It’s like nothing I’ve had in my travels because it touches on the same tastes as yogurt – which wouldn’t seem to blend well, at all, with alcohol. But listen up, this 20something fully supports it.

With some selling, struggles with the local dialect, and some quick decision making, we found ourselves in makgeoli town with a tea-kettle full of this chalky treat, sitting in front of a full table of free sides.

See in Seoul, and Korea in general, the drinking culture here is coupled with eating. Almost all hofs require that you get some food with your beverage. Maybe this is trying to save the drinkers from themselves (fill up on food instead of alcohol), or maybe it’s just a clever ploy to get people to spend more money.  Either way, in Seoul you have to buy both things: food and drink.  In Jeonju, we order a tea-kettle full for four people, and out came four bowls (you drink makgeoli, and many other drinks, out of bowls, not cups) a soup, fruit  corn, eggs (hard boiled, and a few fried), and about fifteen sides. Service (free). That’s right folks, the dynamic foursome hit up our last and final meal of the day suddenly in a bar, for free.

Amongst this spread, I only recognized one “standard” side: a few varieties of kimchi. The other things: hard boiled eggs, edamame, smoked corn on the cob, clementines, chestnuts, cabbage, roe, bean sprouts, muscles, octopus, snails, and cocoons, were new and welcomed extensively.

Nope, you didn’t read that wrong. There were snails and cocoons on the table. And I ate them. And I’d do it again. The cocoons were a strange texture: almost like stringy fabric that, despite their being sitting in a liquid, sucked the moisture right out of my mouth. It was an exploration in texture food.

The snails were a hit, in general, at our table. Lucy claimed that they were “like chips” insofar as to say that they were easy to eat (simply suck the snail out of shell) and they were salty.

After this debacle of new foods, and a couple tea-kettles of makgeoli, we hit up one more establishment where drinks, cookies, persimmons, peanuts, and whole-dried-anchovies graced our table, and headed for the bus station. On the bus by 8:30, I’d say we were efficient with our Jeonju time. 10 hours, one city, and about 20something meals. Boom goes the dynamite.

Recovery; Or Taking Stock

Q: How are you? How have you been? How was Thanksgiving? How is the whole North Korea situation? These are all stock questions that have been buzzing in my emails, letters, and skype conversations as of late. All of them rightfully so; I have been out of the United States now for one-third of a year, Thanksgiving did just happen, and North Korea has gotten a little uppity recently.

A: I’ve been good, keeping busy by running, writing, reading, catching up on movies from time to time, finding new holes-in-the-wall around Seoul, and planning trips skiing, to Japan, Russia, and Thailand. Thanksgiving was spectacular both in the food and company departments and North Korea’s attacks on South Korea about two weeks ago didn’t really affect Seoul in the least. It was scary for a second or two, then life resumed as normal and I found myself calming down all of the kids, which in turn calmed me down.

“Teacher, we’re at war!”

“No, we’re fine. Don’t you worry about it. They would never do anything bad.”

“Why teacher?”

“Because that would be crazyyyyyyyyy” as I run around the room as if I was crazy, to distract them.

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