The various seafood stews and soups from various cultures all share one thing: an intense focus on umame, what the Japanese call the fifth taste. This particular stew from Korea, soondubujjigae, outdoes anything. When I order bouillabaisse, it’s because I can’t get soondubujjigae. When I put tabasco into my Manhattan clam chowder it’s because I want soondubujjigae. Now through Maangchi’s formidable web site, I can make a very reasonable soondubujjigae at home. I did make it mild so that my reflux won’t kill me but it has enough kick to satisfy. I did use canned clams and added their broth. The soup, I strained out the anchovies and seaweed, was just a clobbering of umame. The Thai fish sauce which smells awful tastes sublime in this soup.
Among rice eating nations, there is a common dish that translates across national boundaries. Basically, you have leftovers and some rice. You chop up the leftovers and mix it up with the rice. Paella, risotto, fried rice, rice and beans with plantains and chicken, it’s peasant food that when done well is satisfying and sublime.
Bibimbap fits in this culinary niche and I remember eating whatever mom had chopped up and mixed with the rice (bokeumbap), but bibimbap is far more refined. Whenever I go back to New York, I head straight to Korea Town (the one in Queens is better but the one in Manhattan is more convenient), and over several days I fit in several of my favorite dishes. Bibimbap is right up there. Here in the Midwest, it’s hard to get to Korean food, so videoblogger Maangchi has become an irreplaceable resource for second generation folk like me who never had the time to learn the dishes that really make me who I am.
Pictured is my latest effort from Maanchi following her recipe with some personal flair. It is missing bellflower root which I’m okay with but many would consider it sacrilege not to have it. I shrug because that misses the point of bibimbap which is all about quickly throwing together little parts to make a great meal.
The hoddeok is a flat bread pastry with typically a brown sugar syrup filling with chopped nuts -traditionally walnuts, that are sold in the markets in Korea. It’s warm and filling comfort food, and I came across a youtube video by Maangchi who is now one of my favorite food bloggers. The recipe is here:
but you have to watch her video (search Maangchi and hoddeok) to get the gist of making hoddeok. I made one with mozzarella filling which my son topped with marinara (a Korean calzone!). It was delicious and very easy to make, and reminded me of being a kid in Korea.
I was on call and Jen had to leave the house for the evening, leaving me to my fate with regard to dinner. Being the on call surgeon is an exercise in anticipation. I waited like a fire extinguisher hanging in a glass box for that call -a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a cold pulseless limb, trouble in the body’s pipes. I passed the time watching a show from the History Channel about the universe. I fell asleep and woke at 7, way past my usual dinner time.
I walked out in to the family room and made my hungry face -nothing happened. No food. Just silence. I felt existentially as empty as my stomach. Without Jennifer, there was no meal. Just me in a dark box. I sat there for a while chewing on walnuts, contemplating food, and more specifically Korean food. Food holds a central spot in a Korean household and the mom is the one who makes the food. Korean food is time consuming to prepare because of the way a Korean meal is constructed.
The rice is the foundation of the meal. A bowl of rice is a cornucopia to a Korean -a magic bowl of happiness. The rice is eaten with ban ch’an -small dishes of prepared and seasoned meats, fish, and vegetables, sometimes pickled that add salty, spicy, tangy, and sweet to a bowlful of rice. The variety of side dishes is what is so appealing about the Korean meal and so devilishly hard to prepare. Most of the vegetable dishes are created from roots and leafy greens that distill large baskets of raw produce into handfuls of final items in small dishes on the table. The process sometimes takes the whole day, sometimes two days, and typically 3 or 4 of these vegetable dishes are standard.
The meat was a rarity in premodern times, and was usually reserved for festival days but prosperity has made it common. Fish, too, is standard -usually a hand sized cutlet of salted mackerel broiled in the oven is shared among everyone at the table. This emphasis on intensely flavored small portions of meat or fish allows a small quantity to flavor a mouthful of rice. So imagine a Korean war refugee who came into possession of a can of Spam from a US Army C-ration -it was ambrosia. Spam came into such high regard that even today, giving a carton of Spam is considered a suitably generous house gift.
Spam cooks to a beautiful crispness with juicy tenderness in the center of medium thickness cuts that perfectly flavor rice -especially cold left over rice. I found some rice and a can of Spam in the pantry and all thoughts of going out for a steak were gone. Filet mignon does not compare to a bowl of cold rice topped off by three medium thickness slices of Spam crisped to perfection on a frying pan. And in the near darkness of the empty house, I savored my repast to the last spoonful, feeling soothed, sated, happy. Mothered in fact.