27 January 2005

Good Eats 3

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

Ttok with a modern twist at Jilsiru in Ywaryong-dong, downtown Seoul.

Tradition Meets Innovation in Rice Cakes
By Lee Yong-sung & Kim Hyun-cheol, Staff Reporters

Food evolves as time goes on. Sushi served at a Japanese restaurant here cannot be the same as genuine Japanese Sushi. By the same token, the kimchi we eat everyday can hardly be the same as that of centuries ago in tastes and style.

The important thing is that it always changes in a way that satisfies more of people's picky tastes. Long-loved as a traditional dessert in Korea, "Ttok" or rice cake (not the dry, crispy American health food type of rice cake) has been destined to follow this evolution as well.

Ideally made of rice, ttok had long been treated as very special, eaten only on holidays in those days when foods were scarce. However, recent times have been richer and, with the surplus rice, the rice cake quickly lost its special status as the most popular national snack, failing to appeal to the taste buds of young Koreans. Smitten into fast foods of Western origin, they tend to think that biting into big chunks of ttok is far from cool. Well, at least until an institute specializing in the study of traditional Korean food came up with the idea of a "ttok cafe", where about 50 different kinds of both traditional and newly developed rice cake items are sold like hotcakes.

Located on the first floor of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food, Ywaryong-dong, downtown Seoul, rice cake cafe Jilsiru (named after the unglazed earthenware steamer used to cook rice cakes) has lured back the younger generations, as well as foreign visitors, into eating rice cakes, with bite-sized ttok coming in all shapes and colors. "I used to hate ttok because of its sticky texture, but it is totally different here", Lim Soo-ji, a 25 year old graduate student said.

Opened in January of 2002, the cafe takes ttok far beyond the rice flour and beans variety. Coffee, apple, cocoa, berries and even dried tropical fruits like mango and pineapple are baked into ttok here. Beautifully dyed with natural juices, their colors hint a wealth of flavors, self-explaining the meaning of the old saying, "Ttok that looks good also tastes good."

The most popular on the menu here is the ttok meal combo (5,000 won), which includes a ttok sandwich with salad filling, along with ttok rolls with kimchi, fried ttok with caramel dipping sauce and a piece of coffee ttok cake. Various type of ttok is available in piece (1,000 to 2,000 won) and large ttok cakes (20,000 to 35,000 won) are also made to order, with an hour advance notice.

Jilsiru is also well known for 14 different traditional teas, which are all brewed from fresh ingredients. One of the most famous tea items here is Siru Mugwort Tea (5,000 won), which is made of dried mugwort gathered during spring. The uniquely deep, fragrant smell of it is key to its popularity. Another famous tea is Siru Flower Tea (5,000 won), which is made of fermented green tea flower that starts to blossom from the middle of October.

Don kaseu (pork cutlets) at Dr. Oh's Pork Cutlet (Obaksane Tonggas), Sungbuk-dong, northern Seoul.

Drivers Love Dr. Oh's Pork Cutlets
By Lee Yong-sung & Kim Hyun-cheol, Staff Reporters

Drivers' restaurants, or "kisa sikdang" in Korean, are a unique variation of regular Korean restaurants, whose main customers are taxi drivers who cannot waste time searching for a restaurant with parking or even in the act of eating.

Those restaurants are unique in that they promise not only quick service but also free parking and some even offer free car washing service. Located at the entrance of the fancy residential area Sungbuk-dong, northern Seoul, Dr. Oh's Pork Cutlet (Obaksane Tonggas) is one of the better-known eateries among Seoulites.

Meeting all the criteria of a fine driver's restaurant, the diner specializing in pork cutlets provides free parking and quick service, but that's not all. Pork cutlets here are as big as a car tire! Okay, maybe not that big, but it certainly is closer to the size of a steering wheel.

The taste is not exactly first class but it's more than good enough considering its price of 5,500 won. It is not like the popular Japanese-style pork cutlet, which is loved by younger generations. The pork cutlet at Dr. Oh's is thinner, larger and crispier (the most conspicuous difference between Japanese pork cutlet and the local version will be that chopsticks, instead of fork and knife, are used to eat it). In fact, pork cutlet originated in the west, but after going through the localization process, it has become one of the most popular dishes in Japan, as is curry and rice.

Those who were in college during the '70s through the early '90s, when fancy franchised restaurants had not yet invaded local college towns, will find this restaurant sentimental. Back then, a huge crispy pork cutlet served with white cream soup and a simple cabbage salad was something that made special moments even more special, though the restaurants were far from modern and stylish.

Dr. Oh's Pork Cutlet has revived them all, including the soup and salad. The restaurant attracts about 500 customers, not just the cabbies, but everyone who believes the prime virtue of food is quantity, of fairly good quality as well.

All of the dishes are served almost as soon as they are ordered, but they are never precooked. Each dish is made-to-order, guaranteeing freshness. In addition to the pork cutlet, hamburger steak (6,500 won), which is made of ground beef and vegetables, is another popular dish. Fish cutlet (5,500 won) and beef cutlet (5,500 won) are also recommended.

Budae jiggae at Kwanghwamun Pudaejjige in Kwanghwamun, Seoul, right across from Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

From Trash to Delicious Treasure
By Lee Yong-sung & Kim Hyun-chul, Staff Reporters

Most food we eat doesn't have noble origins of course, but talking about one with a unique origin, almost nothing matches "pudaejjige (spicy stew made with Spam, sausages, ramen noodles)" among Korean food.

Also known as "Johnson tang (stew)", or army base stew, the origins of the dish can be found in Korea's leaner years in the aftermath of the Korean War, when the poor used to collect discarded food from American military installations for use in stews.

With a little bit of exaggeration, the dish is one of the few relics passed down from the most tragic event of the country's modern history, as well as a perfect example to show how tradition combines different culture to create a new cultural resource, which later becomes part of the tradition.

Although leftover food is not used for the stew today (not openly at least), as it probably was done after the war, the recipe remains almost the same, in which items of Western food are submerged in the traditional hot and spicy Korean stew to produce a unique flavor not found in other Korean dishes.

Whatever its origin, pudaejjige is now widely loved as a Korean dish, not only by young students with no money, but by just about everyone. Opened this month, restaurant Kwanghwamun Pudaejjige serves high quality pudaejjige (sounds like an oxymoron, but its true).

Located in the new combined commercial and residential district of Kwanghwamun, right across from Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the upgraded diner attracts a power crowd during lunchtime already, with top quality ham and sausages, and a fresh attitude.

Usually, beef bone soup is used as the soup base of pudaejjige. However, Mun Bok-rye, the restaurant's owner found it a little greasy, which led her to come up with the idea of tasty but not greasy pudaejjige (5,000 won), in which tangle weed and anchovy are used in place of the bone soup. Mun got the idea from her 13-years know-how of running a swellfish (pok-o) restaurant (fresh soup is the key to good swellfish stew).

Ham and sausages used here are all high quality brands purchased from a reliable retailer,not generic brands. Besides pudaejjige, grilled sausage and bacon (6,000 won) is also a specialty. It promises to taste best when eaten with grilled kimchi, adding a little bit of garlic powder on it.

Combined with hot pudaejjige, the grilled dish will provide a very unique cross-cultural feast that is sure to help you forget the bitter cold weather for a while. Unlimited bowls of rice and ramyon noodles are also served without any extra charge.

Thai food at Khaosan, in the Hongdae/Hongik University area in western Seoul.

Thai Delight Comes to Southern Seoul
By Kim Hyun-cheol & Lee Yong-sung, Staff Reporters

It is not strange many of those who have been to Thailand have been fascinated by the fathomlessly unique world of Thai cuisine, from the morsels from street vendors to lucrative full-course dishes in fancy restaurants.

But it is also understandable when they miss the taste that they hesitate to try some of the Thai restaurants available in Seoul. How could it ever be pleasant for them to have to pay tens of thousands of won for the dishes they enjoyed for not above a couple thousand won back in Thailand?

In that regard, "Khaosan", a Thai restaurant located in the Hongdae, or Hongik University area in western Seoul, has been a reliable place since its opening in 2002, serving quality foods at reasonable prices to Thai-food lovers. Now the place has taken up a challenge _ it has opened its second store in the Kangnam area in southern Seoul, an area totally different to the backpackers' street in Bangkok, after which the restaurant was named.

Most pleasing to fans of the place is that the prices stay the same as in Hongdae, even though it lies in one of the most budget-guzzling regions of the city. All the dishes range 5,000 to 6,000 won except special ones like "tom yum kung (spicy shrimp soup)" (8,000 won) and "poo phad pong kari (stir-fried crab with curry)" (9,000 won).

"Yam unsen", or Thai-style glass-noodle seafood salad (7,000 won), is an interesting appetizer that reflects the character of Thai cuisine with its intense harmony of spicy, sweet and sour flavors.

Dishes like "khao phad sapparot (fried rice with pineapple)", (5,000 won), or "phad thai (fried noodle)", (5,000 won) appeal to most Korean eaters as non-risky choices for those not familiar with Thai food. All other items on the menu list are served with plain rice or rice noodles.

Some loyal Thai-delectable devotees, however, will prefer to try some of the full-scale dishes on the menu, which will unexceptionally include tom yum kung, a world-famous soup. However, if you want to experience a real exquisite combination of hair-raisingly sour and spicy tastes with a gentle touch of coconut milk, don't miss this unexpectedly surprising dish of "tom ka gai (chicken and coconut milk soup)", (8,000 won).

A handful of "pakchi", or coriander, on the soup will be enough to make you feel as if you were right under the sizzling Thai sun, but you will have to ask for that separately, because unlike in Thailand proper, dishes served here don't include that particular herb as it is not favored by most local customers.

Even though Thai dishes might be too strong-flavored to some Korean people, the place doesn't make their items as mere "fusion" cuisine catering to the novice tastes, said Lee Jung-im, owner of two Khaosan restaurants, and Lee Dong-eun, manager of Khaosan Kangnam and also sister of owner Lee.

"We bring all the materials like spices and herbs directly from Thailand, except for common vegetables, meat and seafood", Jung-im explained. "It is true the dishes served here are a bit milder than the original ones, but we follow authentic ways of cooking them, especially for tom yum kung and poo phad pong kari".

Dong-eun added: "Thai cuisine is distinctive, pleasantly stimulating and also nature-friendly as they focus on livening up the original flavors of ingredients with various kinds of natural spices".

"We believe more Korean people will be enchanted with the diversity of Thai food bit by bit".

Kimchi jiggae at Jangttugari in Kwanghwamun, Seoul, in the vicinity of the US Embassy nad Kyobo Book Store.

Enjoy Rich Kimchi Stew at Jangtugaree
By Kim Hyun-cheol & Lee Yong-sung, Staff Reporters

Of all the delicious Korean cuisines, "kimchi chigae", or kimchi stew, is no doubt the dish most favored by Korean people. It is the taste they miss after a long stay abroad and also the very first image that comes to mind when they hear the words "flavor of home".

That's why most Korean restaurants have this item on their menu, and also why it's not really easy to find a really lip-smackingly good one either. Indeed, most Korean men claim to have at least kimchi chigae down, but on the other hand, it seems to be a dish that is quite hard to cook really well. Just the notion of kimchi chigae as the most common dish makes it hard to attract the mass of Korean gourmets.

Most lovers of the dish prefer it in authentic style, usually characterized by a thick heavy soup. However, if you want to try some other styles, "Jangttugari", a newly built restaurant in Kwanghwamun area, will offer you a good alternative choice.

Just about four months since its opening, Jangttugari has already gained a favorable reputation, becoming packed with customers in every lunch break and forcing latecomers to queue up for a long time outside. And almost every one of them comes here to enjoy the kimchi chigae.

The dish served here is more modern but with a touch of elegance added to this traditional dish. Actually, the kimchi chigae here is called "kimchi kamjong" (6,000 won) on the menu. Kamjong is the Royal Court's word for chigae.

At the first mouthful you will notice a sharp but light-feeling mixture of sour and spicy tastes, stimulating the taste-buds enough but different from your run-of-the-mill kimchi chigae. The well-balanced soup somehow reminds one of "tom yum kung", Thailand's world-famous hot and sour shrimp soup.

The key to its full-bodied gusto comes from the special kimchi. All kimchi used goes through a maturation period for one year, as it is often served in the Cholla region, enriching the dish of kimchi kamjong. Fresh pork meat added to the stew also makes a nice combination with the kimchi stock.

"Kyeranmari" (5,000 won) is a Korean-style omelet and another favored item to be ordered along with kimchi kamjong. With cheese stuffed inside, unlike original Korean style, the kyeranmari served here first pleases the eyes with its surprisingly generous portions and then pleases the mouth with the rich and exotic taste of a Korean dish with a western touch.

"Ogyopsal" (12,000 won) is another major item on the restaurant’s menu. The word ogyopsal means it has a better taste than usual "samgyopsal (barbequed abdomen part of pork)", and the slices are 12 millimeters thick, since it tastes best that way, according to the restaurant. Cooked on a stone plate with kimchi, Jangttugari's kimchi chigae would surely seem a rich, even lavish meal for even the most discerning gourmet.

Sigol changto gukbap at Sigoljip in Chongno, downtown Seoul.

Taste of Traditional Marketplace at 'Sigoljip'
By Kim Hyun-cheol & Lee Yong-sung, Staff Reporters

Anywhere you go in Korea, there is a marketplace, an exciting and invigorating place full of liveliness and real, regular people. Even though an authentic traditional market can no longer be found in big cities, the image of it still remains as nostalgia to many of their residents.

Just like the memories of the place, its most representative dish of traditional beef soup with rice, or "changgukbap", has been one of the all-time favorites for Koreans, especially adults. The meat soup, long-boiled with various ingredients, is a comfortable dish that can make one feel full by just looking at it.

"Sigoljip", which means "country house", a 17-year-old restaurant located in an alley facing the main street of Chongno, the heart of Seoul, takes customers back in time while enjoying the atmosphere of a marketplace and eating to your fill.

Sliding open the large gate to enter the shabby tile-roofed house reveals two large pots boiling away with broth. The look and the pungent smell of the soup with peppery oil on top immediately begin to stimulate customers' appetites.

On both sides of the pots lie small, partitioned eating rooms with Korean-style papered sliding doors around tables in the middle hall.

The most famous item on the menu, no doubt, is country-style marketplace soup with rice, called "sigol changto gukbap" (5,000 won). It is bone-based and quite hearty with chunks of beef, vegetables and blood curd, or "sonji".

The soup is surprisingly thick from being boiled down and thus looks quite greasy, but doesn’t actually taste that way. It is good for a meal and often favored as a hangover soup after a night of drinking. The rich, strong flavor shows one of the essences of Korean cuisine, the art of boiling soup.

Another recommendable choice that goes well with sigol changto gukbap is gridiron-cooked beef barbeque, or "bassakbulbogi" (15,000 won). It can be seen ceaselessly being grilled over a briquette fire in an open kitchen at the corner of the restaurant.

It is a chopped beef brisket with the fat removed and marinated simply with traditional soy sauce and sesame oil. The adequately seasoned barbeque au naturel makes a perfect combination with the soup and tends to make people want to accompany it with some Korean liquor like "soju" or "makgoli", quite spontaneously.

With some other dishes like assorted grills, or "modumjon" (8,000 won), you won't be in need of fancy restaurants. If you want an informal meeting with close friends for a rich and substantial meal at a reasonable price, Sigoljip is the place to go.

Earlier in the series:
Good Eats
Good Eats 2


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