Trail Banter

About three days into every backpacking trip, the trail banter always changes. For the first three days, you catch up on past events, talk about future plans, gaze around you at the striking scenery, play trail games, guess which of the three is a lie, and figure out on the map how far it is to that next peak. Or trail juncture. Or shelter.

But after three days, the chit-chat always turns into a discussion of what would be the perfect meal once you get off the trail. No matter how well you back for the backcountry, there are always things missing – super fresh produce, or meat that doesn’t come in cans, or sweets that haven’t melted together in your bag because of the heat you’re producing hauling it up a mountain.

Some people start to crave exotic things like lobster and mangos, some just want a good piece of toast. I, well, I always craved simple freshness.

In a lot of ways, being on the trail is very similar to being in Korea. I love it here and find myself really getting along well with anything and everything I find here. But sometimes, all I want is a little pit stop into a small town that carries the things I desire. And that happens every so often – my family sends me care packages from home loaded with good coffee, dried fruits, and other delicious delicacies they think I may miss – but some things just can’t be sent via airmail (see: honey, kombucha!)

So what do I miss here in Korea? What will my first meal be back in the states? I don’t quite know yet seeing as I have a few more months here, but I do know that it will be simple, and look a little something like this (fresh, local goat cheese, hummus, whole wheat crackers, local greens from the farmer’s market, and kombucha… but of course)

But in the mean time, I make due very nicely. In fact, today I’m off to a fermentation festival in search of the mysterious, elusive, and delicious Kombucha! More pictures to come!

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Let’s Just Go Bowling: Day (Part 1)

This was the attitude I much appreciated during Laurel’s stay here in Seoul. Having spent the last eight months in France, and destined to meet up with her mom in Seoul for a small but worldly rendezvous, all she wanted to do was wander around hoping to fall into a nice boutique to buy a dress (which she wore for the next couple of days straight) or find a good coffee shop or indulge me in my obsession with stationary. Equipped with only four days in Seoul before she was on an itinerary with her mom, we wandered, following our desires and not a plan.

In those four days I saw most of Seoul all over again with a few new sights including the 63 building (the tallest building in Seoul? Korea? It was tall), Garusil-gil (couple’s street filled with coffee shops and expensive boutiques and all lined with trees), had an amazing burger on a whim, and scarfed down a witch’s cauldron’s worth of noodles at a restaurant in the middle of Hongdae (the artsy area of Seoul).

Because these four days were packed with wanderings, I’ve decided (tea to my right, Ra Ra Riot “Keep it Quiet” playing, windows open) to break it up into a three part series. Part 1: Let’s just go bowling: Day 1.

And the wandering begins, backdropped by a sea of Hangeul. Laurel may or may not have still been asleep here, seeing as jet-lag really got the best of her. A true trooper, though — despite the heavy eye lids, she still came out to palaces, and artsy areas with me.

“Hwe-dab-bap” and the witch’s brew. That first one is a delicious combination of flavors and textures. Soft rice comforting the fresh and bright raw salmon and roe with as many crisp and enlivening shaved vegetables on the side. Pour a little deep gochujan on it, and you’ve got yourself a party. The witch’s brew was a massive bowl of udon noodles with a side of miso soup that is not at all correctly portrayed in this picture. We, a-hem, nearly finished all of it. Mid day. Now what.

The first: Something that scared Laurel nearly back down the stairs of the subway. Every changing season in Seoul, the city puts on a “High Seoul Festival” on the Han River. Most of the time there are some outlandish performers. This day, men dressed in pink with some insane stilts for appendages. The second: Korea’s pride and joy and the golden home of the tallest gallery in the world. Behold, the building that looks tall only because nothing is tall around it. The 63 building.

The day was ripe with Yellow Dust, or smog, or fog, or overcast, or something so that seeing across the Han wasn’t the easiest of things. But what was easy was to see how Korea has been developing in strange ways some times. Like these futuristic-neo-post-apocolyptic buildings just west of the 63 building. How is this more attractive than small traditional houses?

Also. Thrill deck? It turned out to be a series of strange mirrors turned in all sorts of directions to make it look like you were suspended in air. It was interesting, for sure, but Thrill Deck? We could have come up with a better name, right?

We ended the day section of our adventures with ddeok, or rice cake. These little treats are chewy, supple, coated with green tea powder, black sesame powder, sesame seeds, or red bean powder and always filled with red bean paste. They are, undoubtedly something I will severely miss.

But thanks to both of our “let’s keep wandering” mentalities, the day was far from over.

Spices, Spreads, and Spring

As the weather warms and brightens and my schedule slowly starts to fill, as the runs start to get longer, and my time in the kitchen starts to wane, I can’t help from thinking about springtime at College. Out of the two semesters, the spring semester always seemed to be the better of the two – filled with warm weather, bright skies, smiles, and picnics on the lawn while attempting to finish that reading you’ve been putting off for a few days now, that paper that shouldn’t take too long, and, well, what seemed like a million other things.

Some of my favorite things to eat while reclining on the soft beds of green grass that were always a bit too green… were a bubbly kombucha, curry turkey salad, humus, and ginger chews.

Here in Korea, finding kombucha isn’t the easiest of things. Actually, in my eight months of weak searching I have yet to find any. I rarely, if ever, cook meat, so anything with turkey is out of the picture. But hummus. Ginger. Those things are doable.

So adapt I do, as we all do. Ginger is super easy to cook with and extremely versatile but for some reason I’ve been not including it in recent meals. But that all changed as the season did too. Equipped with tofu, onions, garlic, ginger, mushrooms, eggs, a spicy-sweet red sauce, and greens, I set out to pit two wildly different spices: garlic and ginger: against each other in a battle royal that ended up just being a balanced lunch. Sigh, where’s the drama in lunches anymore? In one corner sits the garlicy-spicy tofu and onions with hints of sesame oil over greens. In the other sat the eggplant, ginger, and eggs. The result? Two complimentary flavors sitting on one plate ready to satisfy.

And Hummus, well hummus is just plain simple to make. I didn’t think so, especially here in Korea, but in fact, it’s no big deal. The most difficult thing to find were the Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans). But a simple trip into foreigner town aka Itaewon, lead me to the Foreigner’s Food market, and there were stacks upon stacks of dried garbanzo beans. I should have realized seeing as there are Middle Eastern and Indian Restaurants for days in that part of town. Tahini wasn’t easy either, until Katie – the friend that listened to Tehcno all night long in the Moscow airport and who is now galavanting all around Scandinavia with plates full of cheese and wine in her hand at all time… opened my world up by saying “You know, tahini is just ground sesame seeds. And what is prevalent here in Korea? Sesame seeds.” Boom. Done. Explosion. I now can have hummus any time. Perfect.

So no, no more Kombucha at the moment. And Turkey? Well, I’ve been vegetarian for a little while now, so Turkey isn’t even something I think about .  But gingered eggs and mushrooms? Homemade hummus? Dare I say it — better than the food I was having at college. Now only if I could find myself a little patch of lawn to sit on here in Seoul that wasn’t half way up a craggy mountain…


A day; A hike; A treat

More often then not on my free time these days, I find myself browsing through guides to Seoul, and I’ve found a few truths from these perusings. One: Korean food is at the heart of the allure to coming to Seoul. Two: Seoul is beautiful. No, ugly. No, developing. No, surrounded by majestic mountains. No, grey. No, dynamic and stylish. No. No. No.

What you can surmise is: no one can agree as to what Seoul specifically is. Is it a tourist destination? An international economic powerhouse? Relaxing or stressful?

While browsing through, I had a few questions myself: why (first) am I almost a gestation period into my stay here and still looking at travel guides, second – what do I think of Seoul?

Well, to answer the first question: I have settled into a place of routine, and comfort and want to break out of that. Where can I go next? What’s the newest, best food on the market? With Spring in full swing, I find it time to be a tourist again.

In response to the second: I can only say that Seoul is a massive city characterized simply by a homogenous mix of wildly different lifestyles and ambitions fueled by a delicious cuisine, desire to succeed, all ensconced by dramatic craggy mountains.

And the mountains are what I find myself drawn to on the weekends. I think in every one of my “weekend plans” – which rarely are ultimately completed – includes hiking. Two weekends ago, though, I made my way up a mountain that not only had older folks beating me up the forty five degree angled path, but also had a section of the hike that required that the hiker grab a rope, and pull themselves up the hill. No safety nets. No guides. No signs. Just grab the rope, and make moves. I never really questioned it, since what seemed like ninety-year-olds were almost running up this rock face, but I did say to myself a few times “I don’t think this would ever happen in America…”

At the top of the mountain, with Seoul, and the surrounding environs in sight, the group of hikers I was with all gathered around to have lunch. Some brought out kimbab – a quick and easy hiking food (see Korean style sushi roll) – some brought out sandwiches, and others just had Oreo cookies. As you can see: hiking food is almost the same all over: proteins, few veggies, and sugar. Got to have the sugar.

I, planning ahead the night before, had brought some beer bread, strawberries (they are finally in season here!), and a new recipe: Caramel Corn (see: sugar!).

But not any Caramel Corn you may find in the 7-11 or movie theater, folks. This was homemade, slightly tacky, complex, and sweet enough to satisfy any sweet tooth.

Complex? How can a sugary treat (usually consisting of sugar, butter, and popcorn) be complex? You add a secret ingredient, but of course.

The recipe I was adapting mentioned using cayenne pepper. I think this would be amazing, but at the time, I had no cayenne, but I did have something else that was red (to start with): Saffron!

Maybe a misappropriation of saffron (only one of the most expensive spices in the world), but this treat was rich, sweet, complex, and freaking delicious nonetheless. The preparation was a bit hectic because as the saffron-caramel started to cool, you have to move fast (since it’s solidifying as fast as it’s cooling). Also, popping popcorn on the stove top can catch you, and your pot-lid, off guard. So my recommendation is: try this for the experience and be ready to not be able to think about anything but the two pots in front of you, for about fifteen minutes.

Saffron Caramel Corn

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup popcorn kernels

Scant Pinch of Saffron

3 tablespoons of Milk (not skim, folks. Anything but skim)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1.5 cups sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1  tablespoons kosher salt.

Over Medium heat, warm your veggie oil and add popcorn kernels. If you’ve never popped popcorn kernels over the stove – beware. They are angry little guys and want to attack you as they evolve from golden shell to yellow explosion. Make sure all of the kernels are popped, and transfer to a bowl to cool.

Warm your milk up a bit, and place saffron in the milk. The milk is warm enough if you see the little red threads start to bleed yellow. Let that sit for a good 10 minutes.

Over Medium-high heat, combine sugar, butter, and salt. Stir occasionally and let all of that combine real good. It’ll take a good 10 minutes, and get a little bubbly, but stick with it. It will be good times soon enough.

Remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and yellow-saffron-milk. Whisk quickly. It’ll bubble a bit, but keep going.

Now it’s a race against the clock. The Caramel is starting to cool. So pour it over your popcorn and transfer to a flat, non-stick surface (Baking sheet is the best). Let it sit for at least 20 minutes to cool off.

Now, bring it in to work or school. There’s really just too much to eat by yourself.

Wooden Bars and Korean Pancakes

It has been a long time since I’ve posted, and not because I have a lack of meals to talk about and explorations to divulge. More so, I have too many things to transcribe. With so much to write, I have a problem figuring out where exactly to begin. More recent, or stay chronological? Korean or experimental? Breakfast, lunch or dinner? Sweet or Savory. With so many questions, I take anything as a sign to write.

My latest sign? A family friend had ever-so-kindly sent my blog along to one of his friends. In his description, he said that this was a blog about Korean food, amongst other cuisines. Incidentally, I haven’t been posting much about Korean food lately. So, as a sign, I’ve decided to dedicate this post both to Korean food, and spreading the word of 20something meals.

 

Out of the wide world of Korean food, from rice dishes to soups to stews to pickled side dishes, one of my favorite dishes pajeon, or any kind of jeon (전). Unlike other Korean dishes, which I jokingly say never fill me up, this one is a hearty dish that doesn’t play around. Typically, jeons are eaten after the sun sets and the beer starts to flow. That is to say, this greasy-savory pancake is a drinking food that fills you up to sustain you through the wee hours of the night.

I’ve had jeon on a few occasions; it’s not a food that you eat regularly at all.  After a long work day a few of my coworkers and I would go to the best pajeon in my neighborhood, get a large bowl (note: bowl not pitcher) of a rice wine, and go to town on a double-decker pajeon while regaling each other with stories of the weekend, or plans for the future. There, it was both the atmosphere and hearty bites that really made me fall in love with this food. It was crispy like falafel on the outside, and chewy on the inside reveiling it’s quick pan-fried cooking technique, loaded up with green onions, peppers, onions, and sometimes a piece of squid or three. To pick up a piece between the ends of your chopsticks, dunk it in soy sauce laden with wasabi, and wash it down with a rice wine is truly 20something and Korean.

Despite it’s near perfection for that “every now and then” moment, I decided to switch one thing up in the jeon equation: the location. As with most things these days, I wanted to try to make it myself. From peanut butter to bread to kimchi-jeon, I wanted to make the delicious treat for myself, proving that I could a) do it and b) share it with others.

And with a few searches on the internet and through a Christmas present (Korean cookbook), I found a recipe worth trying. And luckily for me, it was extremely simple. Flour, some eggs, water, oil, green onions, and some kimchi (but of course), a frying pan, and an appetite was all I really needed.

I tried two versions, one being a kimchi jeon, and one being a mixed vegetable jeon, just as a comparison. Both were savory, hearty, warm and satisfying on that cold night back a few months ago. Although the atmosphere wasn’t the smoky, wooden, Korean bar, and there was tea accompanying this jeon and not rice wine, the flavors were still there, and I enjoyed every crispy, salty, 20something bite.

A quick thank you to those who are sharing my experiences with others. I genuinely appreciate any and everyone who reads this – it’s a huge compliment to know people read this blog regularly. If you have any comments, concerns, or suggestions, please feel free to comment. Thank you again.

 

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?

Pulling at the Thread


I have had this box of Saffron sitting on my spice shelf (see: window sill) since I arrived in Seoul. Every day when I cook up a sauté or soup or even make myself some tea in the morning, the saffron sits there, staring back, beckoning to be used. “I’m really delicious. Pick me! Throw me in some rice and call it divine! Come on!” Not a chance.

Really, I’ve been scared to use it for a few reasons. One being: I’ve never cooked with it before. The reason I even have this small box of aromatic herbs is not because I went to the store in search of it, rather a good friend (and maybe the one I can credit my culinary obsession to) brought me back a box of it from Greece. I was also hesitant because saffron, like truffles, is high up on the culinary hierarchy of complicated, involved, delicate, and divine flavors. So pairing the inexperience with the anxiety and the bravado of “Organic Greek Saffron” all together I was left paralyzed.

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