Thursday, May 27, 2010


I was raised on a steady supply of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, so tteok, the omnipresent Korean dessert made from glutinous rice flour, was a bland disappointment the first time I tried it. I thought that the subtlety might grow on me, but it hasn't. I used to wish there were some sort of element of interest to it until the time I was given pine needle flavored tteok by a co-worker, which made me much more appreciative of the basic, tasteless tteok.

There are some varieties of tteok with sweet fillings that I like, but I feel pretty confident that regular tteok will never please my spoiled palate. However, that doesn't mean I couldn't appreciate the beauty and variety of the tteok on display for a competition last week at Seoul's folk village. Particularly impressive were the entries whose creators had brought their own screens as backgrounds for their displays. I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the taste of any of them, but I enjoyed the spirit in which they were created, and fortunately they were meant to be feasts for the eyes anyway. (By the way, the plates were all covered with saran wrap, so I apologize for the sheen on some of the photos, which I did my best to minimize.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

O'ngo Cooking Class

Friday was Buddha's Birthday, a national holiday in Korea that is best celebrated in the mountains, where hundreds of glowing lanterns bob to the hypnotic sound of monks chanting. I was trapped in the city this year, so I decided to try out one of the classes that Daniel Gray over at Seoul Eats offers at the O'ngo studio. Because I work long hours and live alone, I've been doing very little cooking lately, so the communal aspect of making and eating food with a group of people appealed to me. With Chef Shawn leading the way, we cooked very simple but tasty vegetarian dishes in honor of the holiday.
We started with a chive salad and bibimbop, the traditional "mix it up" rice and veggie dish. Nothing fancy, but it was a lot of fun, and despite the simplicity, I'd never made either of these dishes before. As a bonus, Chef Shawn had prepared his own hand-made dwenjang sauce (fermented soybean paste) beforehand. It was too good to miss out on, but I love red pepper sauce on my bibimbop so I used a bit of both.
Next, we made zucchini and mushroom dwenjang jjigae. I'd never cooked or eaten dwenjang jjigae without any form of meat before, but the vegetarian version we made was excellent, and Dan was right about the tomato being a great addition to the stew--it mellows out the dwenjang flavor without masking it.
The studio is cozy and elegant, the class was well organized, and the final meal was fresh and satisfying. In all, it was a well spent holiday, and the abundance of vegetables gave me an excuse to scarf down kalbi for dinner later that night. Sorry, Buddha.

Zucchini & Mushroom Dwenjang Soup
zucchini 20g
tomatoes 20g
mushroom 20g
spring onion 10g
dwenjang 1 Tbs (fermented soybean paste available at any Korean grocery)
water 1.5 cups
chopped garlic 1 tsp

Wash all ingredients and cut zucchini into cubes and slice the mushrooms, tomatoes, and spring onions. Add water, garlic, and dwenjang and bring to a boil. Add the mushrooms, tomatoes, and zucchini and continue to boil the soup until it has fully cooked. Add spring onion and season as necessary. If you are vegetarian, be aware that some dwenjang contains anchovy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Boh Deul Gol

With tea kettles hanging from the roof, windowboxes filled with sea shells, and a dark wooden interior plastered with white business cards, Boh Deul Gol is a whimsical little shellfish shack that stands out from the many other restaurants crowding the back alley of Itaewon in which it's located.

I accidentally arrived extra early to meet friends on Saturday night, but the miscalculation worked to our advantage because there was a long wait for the next available table. While I waited, a friendly server brought me shikkhye (a sweetened rice drink) and Korean cookies, and I watched the colorful Saturday night crowd parade past. About thirty minutes later, a table opened up just as my friends were arriving.
We started off with the tender, perfectly grilled fish with sea salt that comes complimentary with every meal.
This part goes much more smoothly if at least one member of your party has impressive de-boning skills. Thank you, Summer.
Soon afterward, our waiter arrived to take our order; in fact, our vigilant servers anticipated our every move throughout the night. We ordered the grilled scallops first, and when the plate arrived, we all cooed in awe. The vivid red dollop of sauce, white sliver of garlic, and green slice of pepper made the scallops look like dots from a Chuck Close painting, and to top it off, this already spectacular plate was garnished with pansies.
By this point, I was so charmed by this pub's attention to detail that I was worried the food itself might be a let-down. As it happened, the scallops were incredible. The spicy red sauce was slightly sweet and the garlic was incredibly potent, yet miraculously, the combination of these two things complemented the scallops instead of overwhelming them. The garlic was so concentrated that it actually tasted spicy, and I have to admit that for fear of overkill I skipped the green pepper on top.

The scallops were so delicious that they required a satisfied sigh or small declaration of love after each bite, and I wasn't the only one sighing and making the declarations. In an obvious effort to test the strength of friendships, Boh Deul Gol serves an odd number of scallops. Fortunately, we called on a bit of Korean kid wisdom and decided "rock-scissors-paper" was the only fair way to dole out the final scallop. Jenn, whose skills at the game are constantly honed thanks to her work as a sixth grade teacher, was the lucky victor.

At this point we trusted the place enough to order raw oysters, but we were disappointed to learn that none of the considerable raw menu was available because it wasn't the right season for it. We went with the grilled shrimp instead, which were served on a bed of salt.
These were the night's one disappointment; the aluminum foil and salt retained serious heat, which burnt our hands and overcooked the shrimp. They were just fine, but after having broken through the clouds with the unbelievable scallops, "just fine" was enough to make us thud back to earth.

It was time for some carbohydrates to soak up the makgeolli we'd been drinking and provide the more substantial dinner we needed. We ordered the noodle dish with conch and vegetables, which turned out to be another piece of art.
The crisp vegetables made the whole meal taste bright and fresh, and the dish was studded with the ideal amount of slightly chewy snails. The sauce had that slow burning heat that fools you into thinking it's not all that spicy at first, but ultimately leaves you sweating. The mediocrity of the shrimp was forgiven with this final triumph.
To get to Boh Deul Gol from the Itaewon subway station, walk down the street across from the Hamilton Hotel and take the first alley on your right. It will be about 20 meters past the Wolf Hound on the right side.
Thank you to Summer for the first picture and Jenn for the last.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The weather has finally caught up with the season here, and the restaurants of Seoul have thrown open their doors. This is the time of year in Korea when my food obsession reaches a fever pitch--the exploding blossoms are gorgeous and the temperature's just right for hiking, but it's the scent of barbeque hanging in the air of every alleyway that really gets me excited.

Last night my co-workers took me to my favorite type of Korean eatery: small, quirky, and full of spicy grilled meat.
2.5 Dak Galbi lies in the shadows of Dongguk University and its six tables fill up quickly at meal times, but fortunately we arrived just as several groups of boisterous college students were clearing the place. We started off with the cold and refreshing soup that comes with each meal, which is a soft pink color due to the presence of red fermented cabbage.
For the main course, there were several varieties of dak galbi (the spicy chicken dish that you may recall I last ate out of a shovel) to choose from. We went for one that included sweet potato and duk (chewy rice cake) and skipped the options that featured cheese and baby octupi.

While we waited for the dak galbi, we enjoyed the hand-drawn pictures on the wall.
This hirsute chicken with Fabio pecs has just taken a little taste of himself and is declaring that he is amazed by and also trembling in fear of how delicious he is. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Korean signs, for a pigs' feet restaurant: a pig with a unicycle-like wheel in place of his chopped off feet, smiling and holding a plate brimming with pigs' feet.

The main course arrived in a decidedly plain vessel, but I quickly forgave the lack of inventiveness when I tasted how succulent the chicken was. It was lined with just enough fat to make it juicy and delicious, but not so much that I ended up with an uncomfortable mouthful of it. The sweet potatoes were cut into thin, tender slices, and I thought the sauce was perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy.
Two of my co-workers, both middle-aged Korean men, felt that it was too sweet, but these are guys who can't manage more than one bite of a standard western dessert because they have such a low tolerance. By my estimation it was slightly less sugary than bulgogi, but there was a nice kick to accompany it (although it wasn't nearly as spicy as some dak galbi I've had).

If only 2.5 Dak Galbi had a fun gimmick to recommend it in the same way that the shovel pub did. Wait a minute, is that duk in the shape of...? Oh, yes. Instead of the usual thick noodles, the 2.5 duk comes in the shape of hearts and stars.
I preferred it to regular duk, but I think that's just because the smaller pieces were more manageable than the typical large, chewy tubes. Evidently heart and star duk is a fad these days, and I'm crossing my fingers that we'll be seeing even wackier and more ingenious shapes in the future, perhaps in the form of dinosaurs or Yuna Kim.

After my co-workers and I were utterly stuffed with chicken, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and heart-shaped duk, the final course arrived. The blessing and curse of so many Korean meals is that just when you think you can't possibly eat anymore, the server turns the heat in the pan back up and the leftover sauce and bits on the bottom are fried with rice. Even though you're already moaning and sighing about how full you are, you somehow find a tiny bit of room for more because it's almost always the most delicious part of the meal. This was no exception.
If you're in the Dongguk area, 2.5 Dak Galbi is worth a visit for the friendly staff, the perfectly cooked dak kalbi, and the thoroughly amusing wall art. I'll definitely be back.

To get there, walk straight out of exit 2 at the Dongguk University stop. The sidewalk will become an alley; keep walking straight. When the alley diverges into two paths, take the one on the left (past the GS25). It's on the right a bit past Zen and before you reach Von's.

Monday, May 10, 2010


The first bite of the lamba samsa from RaTa transported me back to my childhood in the valley of the Chirchik river; after a warm autumn afternoon playing amongst the walnut trees and the Hawthorns, I'd return to find our house filled with the scent of samsa. This pastry is so transcendent that I promise you'll have manufactured nostalgia about your fake Uzbek childhood if you taste it too.

At least, I hope it's Uzbek; if you have information to the contrary, please let me know. While wandering around the central Asian section of Seoul, lost among the Cyrillic signs, I happened upon this quiet bakery just outside of the fray and wandered in. The tiny shop had two tables pushed together in the center. At one, two middle-aged women were sipping tea and indulging in a number of savory pastries.
After a minute of browsing cluelessly since there were no signs in any language, the lovely shop owner approached me and told me in Korean what I was looking at: three different varieties of lamb pastries, one pork, and one potato. I picked out the lamb samsa (the samsa part having been deduced later on the internet) and a chocolate something-or-other that looked like a mini eclair. I discovered I'd already reached the limit of her Korean abilities when I asked for my items "to go." No problem; a quick bit of miming and we had an understanding. I walked out with the samsa, the chocolate dessert, and a bag of caramels for under 6,000 won (about 5 dollars).

Back at home, I heated it up on my stove and then cut it in half to take a picture. As far as I could tell from its underwhelming appearance, all that was inside was lamb and onion.

My expectations were low as I bit into it, which made for a heavenly surprise. I'd say the contents were kissed with butter, but I'd probably be kidding myself; most likely the inside of this pastry got to at least second or third base with butter, but it didn't taste excessive. The pastry was flaky and the lamb and onion were perfectly seasoned in that way that, on the rare occasion I am lucky enough to come across it, makes me scratch my head and wonder how something can taste so simple and yet so delicious.

The dessert was also a surprise; beneath the chocolate was a moist, crumbly spiced cake that was packed with walnuts.

I finished off with a couple of the gooey milk caramels (imported from the Ukraine) and promised myself I'd be back soon to find out what other delectable surprises this unassuming shop holds.

To get to RaTa, take exit 12 out of Dongdaemun Stadium and walk in the opposite direction, away from the traffic light and towards the Two Two Chicken. Take the second left down the alley just before the samgyopsal place, and walk straight down the alley until you reach the end. You will see RaTa across the street and to your right.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Street Food Extravaganza

Food stall banquet.

Silkworm larvae, known here as bundegi. Its unique smell is difficult for me (and I think for most westerners) to take, but it's a popular snack and is sold in grocery stores too.

This woman caramelizes the sugar in the little pan, then plops it on the flat surface and flattens it with the round implement, immediately thereafter imprinting it with one of the cookie cuter shapes.

Shikhye is a traditional Korean drink made by steeping rice in malt water then boiling it with sugar. In the basement of Shinsege they have "hobak shikhye;" pumpkin flavored! It's one of my favorite desserts on a hot day.