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?


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