KOREA ROUNDUP: FROM ACORN JELLY TO ETHEREAL TONKATSU
It's been over two years since I last wrote. A lot has happened but my passion to make, find and eat good food hasn't changed. I was inspired to highlight some of the best meals I had in my last trip and document the duds so you all don't have to make the same mistake (and because IG isn't enough room).
This acorn jelly, though. It's definitely not for everyone but Chunghwajung (청화정 안동국시) in the southeastern suburb of Suji (not the starlet, for Kpop fans) makes one of the best versions I've had. Called dotorimook moochim (도토리묵 무침), it's jelly made from acorn powder that's then seasoned with chopped kimchi, sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds and shredded dried seaweed. The flavors and textures blend perfectly well together to make the best appetizer or side dish to any meal.
Chunghwajung also does an excellent sooyook (수육), or steamed sliced beef. It's not the most photogenic dish but every bite of the meat was extra soft and tender -- the perfect accompaniment to a traditional Korean rice wine called makgolli (막걸리). Better yet, wrap the meat in one of the perilla leaves (kennip or 깻잎) marinated in soy sauce and green onions. Or should you like spicier flavors, wrap the meat in the Korean leek (boochoo or 부추) kimchi for an explosion of flavors in your mouth.
What this restaurant is known for is its so-called knife noodles, or kalguksoo (칼국수). While good, kalguksoo isn't my favorite type of noodles and I really use the noodles as an excuse to have the perilla leaves and leek kimchi by wrapping each morsel of noodles with these greens.
Comfort food at its best.
The restaurant serves different levels of jungshik (정식), a classic Korean meal with the works. The namul (나물) included the usual suspects but the vegetables were steamed, stir fried and seasoned just right. They included shitake mushrooms, carrots, radish and two kinds of greens that don't really have a common translation (one being chui namul, 취나물).
The rice itself came with the popular green, gondeurae (곤드레) and we then mixed in the veggies from the previous image. The tofu blocks seasoned lightly with red pepper flakes in a broth were the second best thing from the meal. We could taste the deep soybean flavor that came from hand-making the tofu from scratch. We kept asking for refills.
The biggest revelation, however, was this trio of sauces. One was spicy and another was salty based on fermented soybean paste with a baby anchovy broth base. The one I keep dreaming about, though, is the green sauce made from a secret combination of greens with some garlic and likely crack. I couldn't get enough of this sauce in my rice that I had never tasted before. This trio of sauces is rather unusual in that restaurants don't normally offer different sauces to mix with the rice. It's usually red/spicy, soy sauce-based or based on the fermented soybean paste only and definitely had never seen or tasted anything like this green sauce. Must hack.
Other side dishes were equally solid including the good ol' acorn jelly that you can see was served differently from the previous one that came seasoned. This is served with a sauce on the side based on soy sauce, red pepper flakes and green onions to apply to taste.
One of my biggest beefs about Los Angeles is that despite having a sizable Japanese American community and expat Japanese business community in South Bay, its tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) game blows. I mean, seriously, get with the program, LA. I'll be happy with a chain straight from Japan like Hibarin because it's simply excellent and we should have one in LA. It's a more upscale version of the chain, Saboten, that I've written about here and owned by the same company. Hibarin only has one location in Seoul (Hyundai Department Store at the Express Bus Terminal) for now but it's a matter of time until they expand Starbucks-style. Hibarin takes its tonkatsu seriously. It offers three kinds of high quality pork including the famous black pig from Jeju Island, green tea-fed pigs from Boseong area known for its green tea fields and ginseng-fed pigs. For each of these categories, it offers different cuts of pork tenderloin. It also offers the multi-layered one I had raved about in earlier posts but I didn't feel the need to have this version because the chunky version was moist enough so dryness wasn't a concern. I tried both the pricier cuts of green tea pork and Jeju pork and they were both amazing -- juicy, moist and crispier than any impostor versions out here.
Speaking of impostors, I was so looking forward to having this ttukbokki (떡볶이), rice cakes in a spicy sauce with fish cakes and boiled egg with a side of fish cake broth. It was featured in a Korean food show but alas, it was highly disappointing. I could have this dish every day but I couldn't even finish it. This is the kind of dish that's not possible to make at home either because it has to have MSG to taste right or the sauce just doesn't come out the same. I tried a million times to make it at home to no avail but walk into any old hole in the wall in Korea and you'll get a half-way decent plate of this street food classic. Jopok Ttukbokki (조폭 떡볶이) in Koreatown does a passable but not great version if one gets desperate. They even have uncooked to-go packs if you want to make it at home.
Last but not least, my big family dinner party was a huge success with my favorite dish being this chicken and chorizo casserole that was perfect for a cold winter day. Ok, I know that chorizo is cheating. Major crowd-pleaser.
I also liked the green lentils rice with caramelized onions that was nutritious and sweet. Its mild flavor went well with the rest of the dishes that were quite spicy and salty. I also flew in some serious pork hatch red chile tamales I made as part of a tamale party here that I cooked and froze to take on my flight. Huge hit. After all, what's not to like about red chile tamales? Happy eating and cooking!