The Land of Umami (And Other Flavors, Too)

The last week has been a culinary tour, from steamed chicken with perrila seed soup, to kimchi-pork-reduction, to Japan. That’s right, the reason for my absence has not been business or busy-ness, but rather travel. Last wednesday, I started my three day vacation which bled into a weekend, making it the perfect five-day opportunity to go to a country I’ve never been and always wanted to go: Japan.

A friend and I flew from Seoul to Osaka to explore the Kansai region of Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka city. It was full of temples, palaces, big gates, bonsai trees, Shinto shrine passing, geisha spottings, ramen eating, shade-seeking, and city walking. Really, it was one of those vacations that you might cornily say “man, I need a vacation from my vacation.”

I don’t have the time at present to really dive into my last week of feasting, but expect one post a day for at least the next week.

 

 

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… As A Bee

Busy busy busy days have hit the city streets of my Seoul life. From writing for some expat magazines, to finally getting out into the outdoors without an umbrella (see: the monsoons are over, say my students), to taking my southern sister – who just came from rural China were black tofu isn’t really tofu, and privacy doesn’t even exist in bathrooms – around the huge and mostly modern city, to switching schedules from afternoon and evening shifts to early morning risers, life has been completely packed. On a run yesterday, too, I realized that in these past three days, I’ve worked three extra hours each day, but my sleep schedule still hasn’t budged: up at seven no matter what.

Not only am I presently busy, I’m thinking about what’s ahead of me. Korean country side. Japan. New York. North Carolina. Savannah. Massachusetts. Up-State New York. Driving across the country. It all seems super surreal that I’m the one that’s about to embark on this travel mania.

But amongst all this planning, and thinking, and relishing in the moments that I have to just sit and enjoy a cold drink amongst the humid heat-wave that’s enveloping Seoul, I’ve got to eat. And I have been eating – artisanal Italian sandwiches, burgers that taste likes summer, cold North Korean noodles, vegetarian temple foods, and homemade bibimbap.  Throw a few watermelon slices, a carrot or two, some marinated lotus root, sprouts, and an iced Americano or nine, and I think you’ve got the makings of me in the summer in Seoul.

The North Korean cold noodles, or naengmyeon (냉면for all you adventurous types), aren’t as sketchy as you may think. Gasp, North Korea? Did you go there? Um, no. Although I did read that you could if you so desired with a highly regulated tour group that allows you only to see what they show you, and you are not allowed to leave the hotel without two government officials. But tangents aside (math joke! Success!), I recently was a food photographer for an expat magazine based in Seoul in search for the best Naengmyeon in the city. Turns out, there’s a ton of this stuff, and especially when it’s hot out.

What it boils down to is this: naengmyeon is an iced beef broth that is deep, complex, and almost overly subtle in which buckwheat noodles are placed topped with pickled radish, one slice of tender beef, chives, and hot pepper paste. Alone, the dish is mild and allows you to really experience the undertones of Korean flavors. It’s not your typical “Hi, I’m a Korean food and I’m going to make you reach for the water at all times” kind of dish, rather one you can think about.

But if you’re into the “hit me over the head with spice” aspect of this cuisine, you can reach for the salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes, spicy horse-radish-mustard, and vinegar sitting on the table. Both ways are amazing, and I hope that it (along with kimchi) comes to a table near you, soon.

On the other side of the table, I was on my email the other day and caught a friend that I hadn’t spoken to in a while. After catching up for a bit, he told me that he had been reading the blog. I was flattered, and in jest, asked if he wanted anything posted – seeing as he’d be reading it. If there was anything that I could make that I hadn’t really talked about.

Bibimbap. The simplest, most iconic of Korean dishes (save kimchi), and I haven’t really talked about it, nor cooked it.

So here it is. The dish that is my go to if I need me some nourishment. The dish that is served in a hot pot or cold bowl. The dish that is all flavors in one. The dish that has probably by this point transcended its Korean borders and made it Westward.

There are plenty of recipes out there, but I just kind of went with what I liked.

½ – 1 cup Rice (I used brown rice, because I get enough white rice where I live)

Carrot

Green Pepper

Sautéed Mushrooms

Marinated Burdock Root (우엉)

Sprouts

Kimchi

Gim (dried seaweed)

Pan Fried Egg

Boil the rice, and put it (warm) at the bottom of your bowl. Chop all of your vegetables to be match-stick size and width. Arrange. Gaze. Then add some thick-hot-pepper-sauce to it, and mix it up (bibimbap = mixed rice). It’s not supposed to look pretty. See?

Redefining The Exotic

In the States, exotic food is often not only associated with international cuisine, but also unfamiliar. At this point in America’s gastronomic history, I wouldn’t call Mexican or Italian food anywhere near exotic, because it is merely a part of the repertoire of the daily listing of possible dinner options. Sure, it might be different and, but exotic? No.

In many ways I find there are four classifications amongst our food options. The first is comfort. These are the foods that you will most likely always eat if presented, even if it’s not the healthiest thing in the word (see: my grandma’s mac and cheese, or my other grandma’s angel food cake – whew both of those are killer). The next is the quotidian. These are the foods that you eat every day if even by routine. Up in the morning with a cup of tea, slice of toast, spoon full of honey, no doubt. Getting further from familiarity, these next foods are different and exciting and special, but not challenging to our palates. In many ways, America is the King of this realm of foods. Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Middle-Eastern (sorry for the broad generalization), these are all thrown into the melting pot with us. That last realm of foods are the foods available to us, but exotic. “Oooh, I want to try something new. Why not Ethiopian (insert: Peruvian, Korean, Austrian).” These are the foods that are good, but new. Different. Enthralling. Memorable. Worth telling someone about later. This realm is also the only group of food you don’t really crave simply because you don’t know it well enough to crave it.

Before coming to Korea, Korean food was exotic. Kimchi. Dweonjeong. Galbi. Samgyeopsal. All of these foods are not English, and most of their flavors are unrecognizable by the American palate. It was full on exotic. “Oooh, what is that new place in College town? Korean BBQ? What is that? Like Southern BBQ?” Nope

Over the year, though, my ideas of Korean food started to redefine themselves; my family would send me boxes from home, trying to incorporate things that I missed or would enjoy. At first, my list was long, trying to surround myself with novelty of having oatmeal in Korea or honey from home. But as time went by, my lists turned from tangible to “whatever you want to send me.”

Most recently, Brianna came to visit. The day before she boarded the plane, she remembered to ask “what can I bring you from the states?!” “I don’t know, I don’t need anything, I have everything I need here.”

It’s not only with the food that I’ve become completely accustomed to, rather the places too. “Hey want to go to the temple?” “Weren’t we just at the temple?” “Oh yeah, I mean palace, or market, or whatever.” It’s not that I don’t care, I just have associated these parts of the Seoul landscape as normal, quotidian, everyday.

The full and final transformation of my redefinition, reappropriation of exotic came with a buffet.

Brianna and her dad were staying in a nice and swank hotel in the south of Seoul, so every opportunity I had to jet down there and hang out, I did. For the company, for the most comfortable bed in which I’ve slept in one year, and for the day’s logistics. What came as a nice and welcomed surprise was the breakfast buffet. Now, I’ve been to my fair share of buffets in Korea (they are upscale here, I swear!) but this one was exotic. It was full of the foods that I’d never think of eating nor did I crave. I mean, these foods were special, different, and memorable – even worth writing about.

Granola. Plum Compote. Bread Pudding. Grilled Tomatoes. Smoked Salmon. Cream Cheese. Capers. Fresh squeezed orange juice. Drip Coffee.  Crusty Bread. Jam. Nutella.

As I look back on those foods I indulged on, I notice that my idea of exotic has completely shifted. No longer is kimchi new, different – rather it has become the daily meal. Granola and cream cheese? Whew, those are something remembering.

A Relaxed Balance


Amongst any hectic time schedule, there always needs to be time for a little relaxing. Some find that relaxation time in large chunks, called vacation. Some find it every day, like my family sitting on the porch with a couple of refreshing adult beverages discussing the day and getting ready, mentally, for a dinner of epic local proportions (see: CSA fresh meats, greens, roots, etc.). These days, I find it either in my long runs along the flooded Han river, or sitting down to a nice big, cold bowl, cup, or measuring cup of potbingsu.

Consider this: about a month ago, I continued my playing host to multiple friends and family members coming through Seoul to see me, their own family, and onto different places. My friend, Julia, had an extended layover between LA and Beijing in Seoul. I’d say she was both in the position prime to run and explore and see, and try to find that balance with relaxation. (See: vacation).

We wandered around my favorite neighborhood and played tourist and made efforts to see all of the most important places, but when it came down to it, the most important thing was not the place, but the people who surrounded her. So, accompanied by another mutual friend and Seoulite, we took to cafes to beat the summer’s heat. It was hot, not too humid, and the perfect time to find our way to relax in the middle of the day. Iced coffees: those were no-brainers. But food? Not hot soup or heavy rice or even quick street food (not because that doesn’t appeal to me, but because we had already had all of those by this point in time), why not ice cream? Not special enough. Why not potbingsu?

Yup, did it again, introduced one more new food to the increasing glossary of Korean cuisine. Potbingsu is made up of things you, dear readership, should know by this point. Ready? Ice. Yup. Fruit and Nuts. Okay. Sweetened Milk. Still there. Ricecake. Getting a little colder. Ice Cream. But I thought you said Ice Cream was too simple! Red Beans.

Remember from last summer where I had no money and yet I just had to have a red bean paste donut? I still do. Well take that ingredient and don’t pound it to a past, rather just let it be.

Doesn’t sound like the most appealing thing all deconstructed, but together, it’s divine. The cold shaved ice silts as a mountain of neutral, refreshing foundation. Fruit is then scattered around the outskirts of the peak, accompanied by chewy-semi-sweet-rice-cake. Can’t wrap your mind around what a rice cake is? Think about a piece of Wonder bread. Now think about smooshing it into a little ball. See how small it gets? Now do that to a spoonful of rice pudding. Voila, a thought experiment in making rice-cake.

Smothering the fresh fruit and Wonder-bread-smooshed-rice-pudding are the syrupy red beans. And what sits at the top of the whole hoopla? Ice cream of your choosing. Some go vanilla. I go Vanilla with green tea powder.

With three spoons attacking the snowy peak and fruity debris, the bingsu was done in no time, which left us plenty of time to sip iced coffees, catch up, and… relax. 

Happy Birthday. Happy 4th.

Fair warning: this post is going to be rambling and sporadic and jittered just like the fingers that type it. At present, I have about one month left in Korea. What does that mean? High speed, caffeine, little sleep, vitamin water (I have a strange addiction to it, for some reason these days), always saying yes to meal invitations, absent mindedness on over drive, and sweat. Lots of sweat. Not because I’m running from place to place but July brings the hottest and most humid of times to Korea, which is just unfortunate for my worn-out wardrobe and dwindling laundry detergent.

Like I said, rambling.

But in more uplifting and less pungent news, my last month here in Korea is jam packed, starting today with the dearest of friends coming to visit me from Paris via home. She is non-stop excited which makes me even more energetic and happy to show her around the city that I’ve claimed maybe one to many (or one to little, few, less?) times. She is as in love with food as I, but with a slight challenge – she’s a vegetarian. So it will be a hurdle to introduce her to the kimchi that I devour every day since it is made with shrimp paste to aid in fermentation. But it will be a synch to show her the bibimbap I’ve grown to love for an easy lunch. It will also be a joy to take her to the vegan buffet after a long hike up a mountain, and to show her around museums, temples, palaces, markets, street art, cafes, aquariums, and simply put: a whole different world.

From there we take slight nap then my southern soul sister comes to visit fresh out of rural China. She has been a brave ol’ chap for the past year living in a place where showers are heated by the sun, pig fat is a main course, and if your not too careful – you’ll forget that the “black tofu” is actually coagulated blood. She’s had an amazing time, and she’s ready to come to Seoul, from what I know. And like Brianna, Laura is overjoyed by the opportunity of seeing what Korea really is like. She tells me on a regular skype basis that her middle school girls are all obsessed with Korea. It makes sense to a large degree seeing as Korea is a major influence in Asian (and now European too) media and entertainment. Did you hear that Rain (비) was named the most influential person in Time magazine? Yeah, he’s Korean. That’s right, I somehow claim pride in that, now.

Once the visits stop, the vacation starts – I have a five-day vacation at the end of the month, which brings me up to my very last week of Korea-town. Gift shopping, packing, exploring for the last time, and non-stop relaxing. Ah – the time flies no matter what.

Coming at you once again from another angle: I have now, officially been writing this blog for more than a year. (What? When did that happen?!) And I thank each and every one of the people taking time to sit down and read my prose. I couldn’t be more flattered.

If you take a quick look, my first post was on July 1st and almost a year to the date ago today, I was writing about July 4th, just like I am today. The only difference? I was sitting in my home back in the woods of Upstate New York, and now I sit in a modern Korean coffee shop, sipping on an Americano, trying to finish my thoughts before a lunch date with a good friend. O! How the times move, change, evolve, develop! 

Last 4th I spent with good friends and family, cooking burgers and banana pudding from scratch. This July 4th my group of friends and I harnessed the power of potluck yet again, came together, talked about which house we’d be in while attending Hogwarts (a tie between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw), drank chai tea and thought about things we missed. Open spaces, driving on open roads, eve’s dropping, talking with your neighbor, real Italian food, porches, bonfires, cookouts, lake houses all came to mind.

But what we found comfort in, amongst our nostalgia, was the company, the fact that we were sitting on an apartment floor, talking about the past and future, enjoying the present, and the food that filled the table. Broccoli pasta salad, Soba noodle salad, hummus, cucumbers, carrots, cheese and apples, crackers, corn bread, mashed potatoes, roasted spicy potatoes, blueberry-strawberry muffins, short cake, and cucumber-corn-zucchini-tomato salad all covered the available surface space on the table built for three. We noshed and chatted and ate some more until we were overly full and felt truly American. The next day, we’d meet again to shoot fireworks into the Han river that runs through the middle of Seoul (just as the Thames through London, and the Seine through Paris), and sing happy birthday to America one to many times. Also, the song that goes “You’re a grand ol’ flag, You’re a high flyin’ flag…

To the potluck, I brought along the shortcake, cucumber salad, and roasted spicy potatoes. I also made two apricot crisps, but they never made it to the potluck… I wonder why! Maybe because it was sweet, tart, chalked full of cloves, cardamom, and tasted so good after my morning run…

One more thing, since I’ve given myself the right to ramble: Read Eating Animals by J. Safran Foer. It’s amazing, inspiring, and jam-packed with good, philosophical information about America’s meat industry. If you don’t want to know, read Dance Dance Dance by H. Murakami – outstanding.

For today, we draw to a close. Happy birthday, 20something meals. Happy birthday America – I’ll see you soon enough. I welcome future collaborations with an amazing friend and outstanding blogger!  And I welcome Brianna to Korea! Let the exploration begin!

Roasted Spicy Potatoes

5-8 Potatoes (I used something similar to New Potatoes, but any will work)

Salt

Pepper

Cumin

Cayenne

Garlic

Oil

Chop the potatoes into “steak fries,” and drizzle oil over top (I used olive). Coat thoroughly with the salt, pepper, cumin, and cayenne (to taste, folks). Smash some garlic, and throw it (and the potatoes) onto a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees and bake for about 10 minutes on each side. Longer, if you like them crispier. Serve with something to drink, but of course.