Thursday, July 1, 2010

Week #41 Korean

The first time Himself and I ventured into a Korean restaurant, we accumulated 18 little plates on our table BEFORE our order arrived--and all we'd asked for was an appetizer and two entrées! So if you like to sample loads of different dishes, a Korean meal will surely please you on that score. And if you like your meal heavy on the garlic and pickles, you'll be positively thrilled.

For this latest trip I made a lunch date with Charles Rosenberg, who lives right smack in the middle of Koreatown. This is his home turf, but I managed to find a good spot he'd never heard of. Booyah! Mountain Cafe is open 24 hours a day and is one of those places the locals know and cherish. While most people are familiar with Korean barbecue, this place is all about the soup. Apparently it's THE go-to place for a restorative bowl of porridge at 3 a.m., when the parties are winding down and everyone has indulged a bit too much. I just can't do 3 a.m. the way I used to, so we went for lunch, a sane hour and a manageable crowd.

We started with an order of b(r)oiled ravioli. I'm typing it this way because the menu said "broiled," but our dumplings were quite obviously "boiled." No matter. Each one was like a tiny meal unto itself, with a little bit of ground beef, mixed vegetables and noodles tucked inside. Dipped in the kimchi juices, they made a good starter.

Banchan with our starter of b(r)oiled dumplings
These myriad sides, called banchan, remind me of all the sides called "salads" you get in an Israeli restaurant. Most banchan are some form of kimchi, a pickled vegetable of some sort (ours includes cabbage and Asian radish), although the bowl in the upper left hand corner contains chunks of sweet beef. This is actually a quite modest spread, as banchan go.

Pickling isn't really the most precise word here--kimchi is fermented, so while it has a sour quality, it's not aggressively tangy. Instead, there's an effervescence to it that refines and intensifies the flavor of each item. Entire books have been devoted to kimchi, and rightfully so. The types are practically endless and vary throughout the country and with the season. In fact, kimchi is considered the national food of Korea. I'm thinking maybe I should revisit this particular food soon and devote at least one blog entry specifically to it.
I ordered the seaweed soup with shrimp. It tastes, as you'd imagine, intensely of the sea. You either like it or you don't. It's a little on the bland side, but if you've just punished yourself with an evening of excess, it's probably a safer bet than an overload of spice and fat. I added a few spoons of steamed rice to give it more bulk. However, my spoon found itself straying repeatedly into Charles' bowl...

Charles ordered this spicy, beefy soup with bean sprouts, Asian radish, Chinese vermicelli and rice. The broth alone is enough to make you purr like a kitten. It's rich and spicy, with a velvety texture, the perfect wintertime food. Fortunately we're having a cooler than usual summer here in LA.

After lunch Charles introduced me to Koreatown's Galleria Market. This huge grocery stocks just about anything you could possibly need to create an authentic Korean feast, including a vast array of prepared foods, if you'd rather skip the cooking part and go straight to the eating part.
 Ahh, kimchi as far as the eye can see! There's a pretty good chance that whatever you like pickled is available at this bar, not only vegetables but meats and seafood as well. No need to bury earthenware jars of food in your yard to, uh, mature, if you have this store in your neighborhood.
This 10w30-style arrangement reminds me of a store display of motor oil--in what looks like milk bottles, to really mix things up--but it's actually sake. At $2.95 a bottle, I'm betting this is not the premium stuff. We found it sitting next to the quick-grab items by the checkout, far, far from the proper wine and alcohol section. Wacky!

After discovering what freshly-made tofu was all about on my recent trip to Thailand, I was eager to take some of that lovely, whisper-soft stuff home with me. My introduction to fresh, hand-crafted tofu is as big a revelation as sampling my first proper baguette in Paris. I picked up several ingredients from the market and trotted right home to make myself a great pot of miso soup.

These chrysanthemum leaves are sweet, delicate and quick cooking. They add a welcome freshness--miso can be a very wintery tasting soup. They also provide a nice balance to a salad made with bitter greens. Their versatility guaranteed that I got several meals out of them. I'm eager to return to the market to sample their other greens, most of which I've never encountered in the usual grocery chains.

Lotus lace! These poached lotus root slices come bagged and ready to either crunch on or cook into a dish. They remind me in flavor and texture of a firmer jicama.

 Brown rice ovalettes don't look like much, but cooked into broth they make a nice alternative way to enjoy rice-as-usual.

I used all those ingredients and made a big pot of soup with a miso base. Velvety and crunchy, sweet and salty, it was a nice Part II to my Korean food adventure.

By the way, a package of miso paste is a great thing to have on hand. It lasts forever and is your ace in the hole if you need something warm and nourishing and you only have a few odd bits of food to work with. Just dilute a spoonful of miso in some water on low heat and chuck into the pot whatever you have in the fridge. Well, it's not quite as haphazard as that, but I just want to make the point that it's not at all complicated to make a good pot of soup if you keep some miso in stock.

Pickled garlic and kimchi are two mainstays of Korean cuisine; I can't get too much of either one of them! I bought pint jars of these at my local farmers' market, where a Korean man vends a nice selection of homemade goodies. Now whenever I crave a blast of flavor, all I have to do is reach for them. I ramped up the flavor in my pot o' soup by pouring in a little of the kimchi juice.

It's fascinating to see how manners vary, depending on where you are. They seem so very arbitrary. Drinking from your bowl is permissible in a Korean restaurant. But blowing your nose at the table is considered rude, even thought it's running because of all those hot peppers you just ate! I guess the smart thing to do is always to keep an eye on those around you and act accordingly.

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