Herein is a brief rundown of the food I’ve eaten since arriving in Daegu:
- (Of course) Kimchi. Before my trip, everyone familiar with Korean cuisine that I spoke to told me that kimchi is an acquired taste, and since arriving here I have found it to be somewhat polarizing for foreigners in Korea. Some love it, some hate it, some consume it as medicine (apparently really good for the sinuses), but so far it’s hard for me to pass judgment. There are nearly as many forms of kimchi as there are people to eat it, but what I’ve seen most of has been a highly perfumed, fermented, and pickled amalgam of cabbage, chile powder/garlic/red pepper, fish paste, radish, and onion. It looks like watery tomato juice and it kicks like a mule and it smacks of vinegar all the way down. I have decided to like it. Grade: B
- This Saturday I wandered around Seomun Market (for only about ten minutes–I have plans to wander indefinitely in that labyrinthine kingdom in the near future) and stopped at a few of the street vendors. Stop number one: Pajeon. Pajeon consists of chopped leeks fried in a thin batter with red chiles sprinkled throughout. You can get them without the chiles and if you ever have to opportunity to eat pajeon I might suggest that you do so, since the chiles turn what might otherwise be termed comfort food into a raging, hiccup-inducing inferno that burns with the fury of a thousand suns. We revisited pajeon Saturday night at dinner at a proper restaurant, where they cut back (a little) on the chiles and instead included squid and tiny shrimp. Pajeon is round and flat (most westerners just call it ‘pancake’) and large enough for five people to share and get more than enough. It’s also fairly greasy, with a thin, thin layer of crisp on the bottom before you reach the leek-garlic-squid heaven. (It’s occurring to me that this doesn’t sound as appetizing as it ought to…) Grade: A-
- Post-pajeon we stopped at a booth where three women were vigorously slicing what appeared to be intestines (to my sorrow, we did not sample the intestines. Someday.) and shuffling tiny triangular pockets about on an enormously greased grill. We ordered a helping of the tiny pockets (they resemble wontons and those Greek spinach things: Spinabifida?) (Yikes I just looked it up. Spanakopita) which, as it turns out, are called mandu and are filled with rice noodle bits and chopped onion. They are essentially Korean pierogi: dumplings whose filling varies based on season, chef, taste, etc. Apparently the grill’s only purpose was to reheat the pre-cooked mandu, which were boiled. Technically the fact that they were boiled instead of fried makes what I ate mulmandu. They were blander than I expected, but the intestine-slicers included a side of onion-ginger-soy dipping sauce, which made all the difference. Without the sauce it was unimpressive; I have high hopes, however, for gunmandu (pan-fried). Grade: B-
- After scorching off my tastebuds with the fiery pajeong I enjoyed (too weak a word for this) the sweet ministrations of hoddeok. Korean food is not always a full-contact sport. Hoddeok is just about the easiest thing in the world to eat: imagine, if you will, a sweet, slightly dense pastry surrounding a filling of brown sugar, cinnamon, honey, and crushed nuts. Now stop it. Stop imagining. It’s real, and it’s fantastic. Apparently Hoddeok is traditionally a fall/winter snack; God in His ineffable goodness saw fit to send me here at the very start of hoddeok season. When I do inevitably return to Seomun Market, I will find this hoddeok again, and I will eat til I can eat no more. Grade: A
I’ll be posting a follow-up (or several) on Korean food as I encounter it in the weeks to come. Try to contain your excitement.