30 December 2004

Happy New Year

No food blog today. Just a short, simple, and sincere post from the heart.

It saddens me to think that 2004 could end in such a tragic manner. The tsunami is an act of nature far beyond the control of us mere mortals. No one can tell what tomorrow may bring, so value life and live your life now. My heart goes out to the victims, their loved ones, and the many who are still missing. And to the selfless rescue and relief workers, volunteers and local residents, you have my admiration, if not the world's.

This blog has brought me many new friends, though "virtual" you are and faceless you may be, you're a part of my daily life now and I cherish that. I would like to wish each and every one of you, and yours, a Happy New Year and may 2005 bring you much happiness, prosperity, health and lots of good food.

Have yourself a Happy 2005!

Sincerely yours,
FatMan Seoul

27 December 2004

Galbi Jjim

Tonight we're having galbi jjim (갈비찜), or beef ribs stew. I've been meaning to blog this ever since I started this blog, but never got the chance till now. Armed with my camera, I told myself I'd do it before year's end. So here it is.

It's a wee bit quiet here tonight, probably because I'm early. It's about 6.00pm and a tad early for dinner by local standards.

This is their menu. The signature dish here is evidently their galbi jjim.

Let's get the side dishes (반찬 - ban chan) out of the way first. Here's blanched mustard greens with shredded carrots and onions, with a touch of sesame oil and soya sauce.

This is pan-fried squash in egg batter. Pretty standard stuff.

Boiled then chilled seaweed strips with vinegared chili sauce. The seaweed's a little gooey and has a "unique" (read slimey) taste if taken on its own, but when dipped in that sourish chili sauce it's pretty good.

Everyone's favourite, the jab chae (mixed vegetables) - blanched spring onion leaves, carrot, onion, black mushroom, and lots of dang myeon ("glass" noodles made from sweet potato starch). The dang myeon is boiled in water that is mixed in with soya sauce, sesame oil, laver, onion, garlic, pepper, salt and sugar, to give it flavour and that darkened glossy finish.

Hand mix everything and season generously with soya sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper. Very nice.

Not authentically Korean, but this is typically served in most places here - shredded cabbage in ten hundred island dressing. For the mathematically impaired, ten hundred = thousand.

This has to be in every meal, isn't it? Cabbage kimchi in fiery red flames.

Here's what we came for - the galbi jjim - short ribs of beef which have been simmering for hours in this wonderful brown sauce. No we haven't been waiting here all these hours just for this meal. It's all pre-cooked, silly!

They just scoop the beef ribs from a larger pot, top it off with some straw mushrooms, button mushrooms, shitake mushrooms, large onions, carrots and green bell pepper (capsicum) and bring it the table as pictured above. The table-top stove continues cooking the vegetables for a couple more minutes and you're ready to have a go at it.

The portion pictured above is the smallest of the 3 available sizes - KRW20,000. Medium (3-4 pax) goes for KRW30,000 and large (4-5 pax) for KRW40,000.

The sauce is a nice blend of I-don't-know-what-so-if-you-do-please-tell-me and is sweetish and just a slight hint of chili-heat. The Chef at this restaurant was not willing to part with his secret recipe, so here's my feeble attempt at trying to decipher what's what in this galbi jjim. The sauce has these elements - soya sauce, sugar, onion, garlic, ginger, black pepper, sesame oil, chili powder, rice wine, jujubes and Korean pear juice. The sweetness of the sauce is further contributed by the accompanying vegetables - carrots, capsicum and onions.

All that hours of simmering infuses the delicious sauce deep into the beef, resulting in a soft, juicy, bursting with flavour meat that falls off the bone. The meat is cooked just right, not overcooked and tough. Yes the much-cliched "it melts in your mouth" applies here as well. The sauce goes great with steamed rice too.

This is one of those tourist-friendly dishes that I'd recommend to Korean-food virgins. It's a very nice break-in dish for newcomers to the cuisine, before moving on to the other tongue-numbing snort-inducing Korean favourites.

10 December 2004


Today we're having little octopus, or nakji (낙지).

These are the little nakjis resting peacefully in the tank. But not for long ..... (play Jaws theme here).

It's usually quite a full tank, but we're kinda late for dinner tonight. This restaurant specialises in all things nakji.

Here's what we're having tonight.

Straight from the tank onto the plate - in less than 8 minutes. Raw octopus (낙지회, nakji hwee) can either be eaten whole or sliced up. Obviously, my guests chose the latter - cowards!

The nakji arrives at the table all squirming and wriggling, very worm-like when you think about it. It's served with a healty dash of sesame oil and topped with roasted sesame seeds. Nothing else - no salt, no pepper, nada.

The fun bit is getting them onto your chopsticks and then into your mouth. These fellas will squirm and wriggle their way out of trouble. And the suction cups on their tentacles can be pretty strong, even as they slide down your throat! Hahaha ..... talk about your food fighting back.

Someone once told me that it's easier if you used wooden chopsticks instead of the metal ones, but I do fine with my metal chopsticks, so no problems there.

After 2 hours of soju-ing and chatting, you'd think that these fellas would all be goners by then. Nooooo ..... they sit idly on the plate when not provoked, but the moment you stick your sticks in there, they're up and wriggling again .... even after 2 hours!

Taste wise, my best description for it would be this - it's like eating soft plastic, chewy but not very tasty. I guess the novelty value runs low after several times. But for first timers, I'd say "you only live once, so go for it". It's one of those "been there done that" event.

I have a short video clip of these squirmy buggers. I'll put them up if you guys can tell me if there are any servers out there willing to host my short video for free. Else, just send me an e-mail request and I'll e-mail it to you. The video is approximately 32 seconds long and about 727kb in size. No biggie.

[ update - pieman over at noodlepie has graciously offered to host the video clip. So if you're interested, head on over here and download the file. Thanks, pieman. ]

This plate of nakji hwee is a single portion, comprising of 2 nakjis, and cost KRW22,000.

Next up is the less exciting but more delicious octopus casserole (낙지전골, nakji jeongol).

Usually, at these sort of nakji restaurants, you have a choice of two varieties of nakji - saeng (live) or naeng (refridgerated i.e. dead) - and prices differ drastically between the two. The live nakjis go for about KRW16,000 per person whereas the non-live ones go for about KRW8,000 per person. Just so you know.

This is a three-person portion. It's loaded with sliced octopus, round cabbage, chinese cabbage, leek, tofu, straw mushrooms, bean sprouts, large onions, sliced radish, and topped with a healty heap of seasoned gochujang paste. Add the seafood stock and let it simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

This heat from this very spicy dish creeps up on you unsuspectingly. A couple of minutes into what starts off as a sedate dinner and you'll be reaching for that glass of cold water in no time. The gochu paste is mixed with a generous amount of sugar and sesame oil, so while it's spicy, it's also sweetish and fragrant all at the same time. Nice.

BMW - Big Money Wheels

I saw these in the window of a BMW boutique in Apgujeong, Seoul. It's one thing to stick your logo onto the occasional t-shirts, key chains, coffee mugs and the likes. But this?

Anyone care to guess how much one of these wheelies cost?

On the bright side though, at least it's more eco-friendly than the Toyota Prius. :oP

A case of branding gone too far? Only in Apgujeong.

Sidenote - Apgujeong is often touted as the "Beverly Hills" of Korea, that section of Seoul for the haves to see and be seen. The shopping and eating in this neighbourhood reflect its affluence accordingly.

07 December 2004

Good Eats 2

Continuing with our Good Eats series ......

Kkangjang at Kkangjang jip, Gwanghwamun behind the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.

Lining Up for 'Kkangjang' Stew Is Definitely Worth the Wait
By Lee Yong-sung and Kim Hyun-cheol, Staff Reporters

The restaurant "Kkangjangjip", which opened back in 1986 as a tiny little Korean diner behind the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, has grown to become one of the most crowded places during lunch hour in the entire city.

"Kkangjang", the most popular dish here, is only 4,500 won, yet the restaurant's owner has been named as one of the most successful non-franchise restaurant owners in the country, including being listed in a recent book about highly successful eating places in Korea.

The restaurant has been a success over the last 18 years since its opening. During that time, the ownership was transferred from original owner Lim Pil-soon to her son, Lee Kwang-jin. However, one very crucial thing has not changed at the restaurant, which explains the secret of its steady success: the taste.

Kkangjang is a shortened word for "kangtoenjang", which basically is nothing more than a strong-flavored and unprocessed "toenjang", or soybean paste. However, as it is, "kkang toenjang" is too thick and salty, so it is mixed with processed toenjang and half an onion to add sweetness and lessen the original salty taste, which creates mouth-watering kkangjang.

Other key ingredients are finely diced pork and squid, garlic and hot pepper. One key point is to cook over a high flame for a short time, according to Lee.

Kkangjang is served with a bowl of rice and a larger bowl containing lettuce, bean sprouts and leeks. There are surely as many ways to eat kkangjang as there are customers at Kkangjangjip, but the most common way is to pour the rice into the bowl with the vegetables and mix it with the kkangjang, much like eating "pibimbap". Don't forget to try the restaurant's special "yolmu mulkimchi" (water kimchi made of young radish). Its cool, fresh taste goes well with kkangjang.

Besides kkangjang, "kkongchi ttukbaegi" (spicy saury stew, 4,500 won) is another popular item on the menu, especially during winter. Despite being a fish stew, customers shouldn’t be dissuaded from trying it since it lacks an off-putting, fishy odor that other soups often have.

For drinkers, various other side dishes are also available, including "toenjang possam" (boiled and sliced pork served with cabbage leaves to wrap into bundles, 15,000 won), "haemul pajon" (seafood pancake, 10,000 won) and "nakji bokum" (hot, stir-fried baby octopus, 14,000 won).

An additional bowl of rice is served at no extra charge for every menu item. After the meal, coffee and green tea are also available for free.

Maeoon kalbijim at Ondoljip, Seocho-Dong near Yangjae subway station.

Extra-Hot Kalbijjim Will Take Your Tongue on an Adventure
By Kim Hyun-cheol, Lee Yong-sung, Staff Reporters

As you may already know, hot and spicy is not really a taste so much as a sense of pain. But enthusiasts will also acknowledge it is addictive; the pain makes them happy. And South Korea may have far more of these "dens of pain" than many other places on the globe.

When devouring the dishes, customers don't really look happy with their faces dripping in sweat and tongues hanging out from the excessive heat. However, somehow they keep coming back, as if magnetized to those spicy restaurants. If this is you, you’re probably already hooked on the hot taste.

Those regularly on the prowl for new spiciness will already be familiar with the name "Ondoljip" (House with stone-heated floor), a restaurant specializing in hot food, located in Seocho-Dong, Southern Seoul. Just two years old, and the place has already got a name among those who crave that particular taste.

Upon entering you will see messages from satisfied customers decorating the walls, most of them proclaiming how much they enjoyed this "specially hot" moment. A good prelude to a gourmet's adventure.

But, don't expect a vast menu - there is only one item, maewoon kalbijjim (hot and spicy beef rib stew, 12,000 won). But you can have it in three ways - maewoon (hot), aju maewoon (very hot) and mujinjang maewoon (extremely hot).

Most customers have maewoon or aju maewoon kalbijjim. It might sound weird but Lee Choon-poong, the restaurant's owner, says he tries to stop customers from ordering the "mujinjang maewoon" unless they're regulars because according to Lee it is "the hottest dish in South Korea".

A bowl of rice with bean-sprout soup will be served first, along with some simple side dishes. But you better not complain both rice and soup are cold, unlike in almost all other places. You will soon be thankful when the main dish of kalbijjim arrives in a steel pot, half-cooked in the kitchen.

The pungent steam from the boiling pot will assail your nostrils and if you're a peppery-taste maniac you won’t be able to help jiggling in anticipation, even just from smelling the delicious stew.

It is highly recommended you just have "maewoon" style at first, because once you take your first spoonful the hot burning sensation will hit you full in the mouth. To lovers of the flavor it wouldn't be a mere exaggeration to call it "a moment of catharsis".

Then the next move is clear. You will have to stop right there, or find yourself guzzling it as if there's no tomorrow. But no one there seems to stop eating.

The owner Lee said the secret of the dish's sauce is to use abundant vegetables with quality peppers for a natural flavor and use less garlic so it doesn't get overwhelmingly stimulating.

"Many people visit this restaurant after hearing about it by word of mouth and I'm sure our dishes will satisfy them as long as they love the hot taste" Lee says.

Pajeon at Nagne Pajon, in the vicinity of Kyung Hee University and Hankook University of Foreign Studies, near Hoegi Subway Station.

Hoegi Subway Station Boasts the Best Pajon Restaurants Around
By Lee Yong-sung, Staff Reporter

Up until now, the most common translation for "pajon" in English has been Korean pancake. However, I you've ever been to any of the pajon restaurants clustered near Hoegi subway station in northeastern Seoul, you would have recognized almost immediately that the word choice was not right at all.

First of all, pajon served in the unique, more than 30 year old college town restaurant district is as large and thick as regular pizza (not typically thin Italian pizza, but closer to American pan pizza). What makes the translation most inappropriate though, is not its size alone.

Different from the pancakes most frequently found on North American breakfast tables, in a whole round piece of pajon, sea food like squid, shrimp and oyster, along with Welsh onion ("pa" in Korean) are abundantly used, all mixed together and then cooked in a frypan.

Then what should we call this unique Korean dish in English? Considering its size and the variety of ingredients, pizza seems to be the only candidate that barely comes close to pajon, but in fact, that’s basically all they have in common. So why can't we just call pajon "pajon" in English? As it is, in every way a uniquely Korean dish, like kimchi.

Among some ten pajon restaurants near the subway station, the oldest is "Nagne (meaning wanderer in Korean) Pajon". Opened 34 years ago, the diner has made special moments of poor college students even more special, with big, extraordinarily cheap and delicious seafood pajon.

Pleasing the taste buds of students from nearby Kyung Hee University and Hankook University of Foreign Studies, the Nagne Pajon now has three more branch restaurants near Hanyang and Korea University respectively, and two overseas branches in China. "Those who customized our restaurant 20 years ago as students now bring their children," Kong Kyung-ja, the owner of the diner said to The Korea Times. Opening the store right after her late husband’s company went out of business, Kong offers a pan of pajon a thousand won cheaper (6,000 won) at the main store, in appreciation of those loyal customers.

One of the key ingredients in its long-loved pajon is egg. Once cooked, the mixture of seafood, ground pork and Welsh onion is refried, covered with beaten egg. The use of egg not only adds extra nutritional value to the pajon, but also pleasant crispness to the texture.

Besides the all-time popular regular seafood pajon, "oyster pajon (10,000 won)" and "tonggurang ttaeng (small Korean meatball dish, 6,000 won)" are also recommended. A regular pan of pajon is big enough for three hungry mouths at dinnertime. So don't order too much just because it's cheap! One last thought: Pajon is excellent accompanied by makgoli (traditional Korean rice wine, 4,000 won/bottle). Have a good time!

01 December 2004

Samkak Kimbab

Samkak kimbab (삼각김밥) are triangular kimbabs typically found in convenience stores all across Korea. They make for an excellent quick snack.

Samkak kimbabs are a variation of the standard cyclindrical-shaped kimbabs (see earlier posts here and here). Interestingly, I've noticed that samkak kimbabs can only be had at convenience stores. The kimbab stores don't do triangles - so don't even bother asking for it - yeah I received a bevy of bewildered stares that day.

On a side note, a recent article in the Korea Times reported that there are approximately 8,100 convenience stores in South Korea. That's a whole lot of convenience.

There's plenty of fillings to choose from - chicken, beef, pork, tuna, squid, vegetarian and so on; and cater for most tastebuds - spicy, mild & non-spicy.

Each samkak kimbab is about the size of a fist.

This is the spicy tuna kimbab. KRW600.

This is the spicy chicken kimbab. KRW700.

Comes complete with instructions to unwrap. So that's what those sequentially-numbered arrows on the wrapper are for.

After much deciphering, I managed to figure it all out - 1, 2 and finally 3.

This takes the prize insofar as wrappers goes. The plastic is a complex fold of 2 layers, neatly separating the dry crisp seaweed from the moisture of the rice, so the laver (or seaweed as I prefer to call it) never touches the rice until you pull the wrapper apart. Even when you do, it doesn't unravel the seaweed wrap. Ingenious!

P/S : I've had other samkak kimbabs where the seaweed is in a separate plastic wrap, so you basically tear 2 wrappers - one for the rice roll and the other for the seaweed - and then assemble both yourself. The one above is so much better - it saves me 27 seconds.

The samkak kimbab unwrapped - and feeling somewhat embarrassed.

This is the spicy chicken. The chili does a splendid job at being spicy - just the right zing without being overpowering. There is also a touch of sweetness to the sauce (just sugar - nothing fancy) that takes some heat away. Chicken? More like minced crumbs of "chicken", but then again, you get what you pay for.

This is the spicy tuna. Tastewise, it's similar to the above.

Most samkak kimbabs go for about KRW500-KRW700 each, and on a good day, you may find between 6-10 varieties of these in any convenience store. You can eat them cold or pop them into the microwave oven for a few seconds. There's always a microwave oven at the convenience store if you need to.