Thursday, August 12, 2010

Welcome to Seoul [by Guest Contributor]

How timely of Zach to produce his take on real Seoul food after my recent bad experience with Korean cuisine in Singapore.  Zach Hooker, fellow New Yorker and Gastronommy's first guest contributor, will be doing a short series until September about his gastronomic endeavors in South Korea.  I am nothing short of envious.  - Victoria

NOMing on the Peninsula: Welcome to Seoul
by Zach Hooker

In the middle of the city, Seoul’s Mapo district is well known for its varied culinary offerings. Unlike Korea’s regional locales, it’s not a place tied to a specific dish, such as Chuncheon’s dalk-kalbi (sliced chicken stir-fried with pepper paste, vegetable, and rice cakes) or Jeonju’s bibimbap. It simply offers alley after alley of reliable, no-frills restaurants that take visible pride in their craft. And by “visible pride” I most definitely mean that you can see things like old women hacking at beef ribs as you wander past resto after resto.

Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity when Joe McPherson (of ZenKimchi) threw out an invite to chow with him and a couple others at Mapo Jeong Daepo, a grilling spot just a few short blocks from Kongdeok Station. Mapo Jeong Daepo has all the qualities you look for in a fantastic grill joint. First, it’s perpetually busy, with all kinds of customers – families, large after-work parties, college kids, etc. Second, simplicity – concrete floor, plastic stools, restrained menu. When a member of our party asked for an ashtray, the owner simply pointed to the ground. Don’t worry though; this place successfully maintains a pleasant lack of pretension without making you second-guess the hygiene level. Third and finally, they put nice little spin on the grilling experience… but I will get to that later.

We ordered two servings of galmaegisal (samgyupsal’s less fatty cousin, a diaphragm-area cut) and another two of standard deiji-kalbi (thinly sliced marinated pork rib). A standard array of panchan (side dishes) came our way, and we cracked open two bottles of makgeolli (unfiltered rice wine). Amongst the panchan, the kimchi was particularly sour, with a crispy, spicy bite – not your beginner’s kimchi, but quite enjoyable for those who’ve been around the block with fermented foods.

As our meat cooked, Mapo Jeong Daepo introduced a wonderful little tweak to the experience that completely sold me on Joe’s recommendation: using the grill plate’s circular grease well to cook scrambled eggs in. Our waiter came by after some grease had started to collect, poured the well full of egg, and then added garlic slices, wild greens, and kimchi. The result: spicy Korean omelet slowly cooked in rendered pork fat. Brilliant! The meat, of course, was also a delight. Pairing half galmaegisal and half deiji-kalbi is a smart move; galmaegisal features distinct layers of fat and pork, without much marbling between the two, while deiji-kalbi is more thoroughly marbled, the fat much less ‘in your face.’
Mapo Jeong Daepo’s pork-fat scramble is an excellent example of one method by which Korean food establishments differentiate themselves. The Korean restaurant scene can seem very peculiar to a first-time visitor. Seeing three or four (or more) of the same type of restaurant – say grilled pork or naengmyeon (cold noodle soup) – on the same block is commonplace. You’re likely to think, “How in the world do these places stay in business?” Well, no doubt closer examination reveals a lot of fine differences between each spot – the alcohol selection, the panchan, little additions like the Mapo Jeong Daepo’s scramble, etc. And on top of that, patrons might have personal reasons – family or business connections – for choosing one noodle joint over the other next door. It’s a fun world to explore, a bit more socially complex than the (almost) purely competitive restaurant world in the United States, for example.

After being sated with pork and egg, we wandered down the street to Bongpyeong Me-Mil Makguksu, a restaurant specializing in all things me-mil (buckwheat). Accordingly ‘Round Two’ included a shared buckwheat pancake, some me-mil guksu (cold buckwheat noodle soup), and me-mil kkotsul (buckwheat flower alcohol).

I found the me-mil jeon (pancake) too dense and heavy. The dish’s standard cousin, a Korean staple, pajeon, is made with a standard white flour mix that at is much lighter, letting the onions, seafood, and other additions stand out. The buckwheat’s overwhelming chewiness erased the presence of most of the pancake’s other vegetable additions, on the levels of both texture and flavor. The me-mil guksu, however, was a delight. The broth was deliciously beefy, almost consomm√© in quality. Joe pointed out that the incredibly small, translucent flakes you could discern on the surface of the broth indicated it was a homemade stock, the flakes likely being remnants of beef bones stewed for countless hours. The weight of the buckwheat worked in its favor with the noodles, adding substance to noodles that in a standard naengmyeon or similar soup can sometimes be mushy.  A variety of wild greens, dried seaweed, pepper paste, and sesame seeds garnished the noodles. Atop sat the standard half of a boiled egg. The buckwheat flower liquor was also a treat. It was a lighter, smoother version of the mass-market makgeolli we had consumed at the previous restaurant. A specialty of Kangwon province, the improved flavor was no doubt imparted by the addition of buckwheat flowers.

The group disbanded after our exploration of all things buckwheat, some to head home, some to seek out one final round elsewhere. The Mapo restaurant district proved yet again a reliable bet for a fun and delicious night in Seoul. It’s perfect for both the adventurous tourist as well as the seasoned expat, and Mapo Jeong Daepo is an excellent point of departure.

All photos courtesy of Stafford Lumsden (of The Chosun Bimbo)

Zachary Hooker is currently working on a doctoral dissertation in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University in NYC. When not in the library, he is a tireless home chef, avid home-brewer, and determined gourmand.

Zachary has previously written for the arts and culture quarterly Bidoun, as well as some arcane academic journals, but is just beginning to explore the world of food & drink bloggery. Keep up with him (@zhooker) on Twitter.


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