Monday, July 19, 2010
I recently noticed an eel restaurant in my neighborhood. The first thing to grab me was a swarm of the ugly black creatures themselves squirming in a tank outside, as is the custom for most seafood restaurants here. A sign proclaimed that the restaurant offered eel in soup or grilled and, curiosity piqued, I decided to return later with Dan.
When we showed up for dinner and realized that the place had floor seating(as do over half the restaurants in my neighborhood), the pressure was on; Dan finds sitting on the floor to be incredibly uncomfortable, so the meal would have to be impressive to make it worthwhile.
Not long after we ordered the grilled eel, our friendly waitress began emerging from the kitchen with a long succession of side dishes, about half of which were fresh vegetables and half of which were pickled. There was a spicy salad, pickled garlic, and fresh ginger slices, among others. It wasn't entirely clear which of the panchan were meant to be consumed alone and which were meant to accompany the eel, but they were all so tasty that it didn't matter to us.
The one slightly unusual side dish was a small serving of what appeared to be spines (pictured above). A discussion ensued as to whether or not eels were vertebrates, and if so, were these eel spines? Neither of us were sure, though later internet research revealed that they were indeed. I took the first crunchy bite and, not to be outdone, Dan followed. They were airily crispy, not at all bone-like, which meant they were easy enough to eat, but basically a non-event as far as we both were concerned. Considering all the other delicious food packed onto our table, we couldn't really see the point of eating them. It's possible that, like so many other Korean foods, they offer a real or supposed health benefit, or maybe people just like the crunch.
I assumed we'd be grilling the eel ourselves at the center of the table, but five minutes later we were each served a plate of eel coated in soy sauce that had already been grilled and cut up. We placed the succulent bites on top of the lettuce and perilla leaves, added accompaniments, and wrapped the leaves up and popped them in our mouths.
The rich, tender eel was a little smoky and somehow perfectly complemented any of the delicious panchan we chose to heap on it. Dan favored the red pepper leaves with garlic and onion, whereas I loved the combination of the slightly minty perilla leaves with the fresh ginger slices, pickled ginger, and a dot of wasabi--and not just because of the aesthetically lovely results, though I'll admit that was a bonus. The vast array of available sides made me feel like I got to play cook and artist all at once, selecting complementary tastes and colors with minimal effort because it all tasted and looked so good--ironic, of course, considering the source.
In the end, Dan agreed that it was more than worth it to sit on the floor.