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Friday, November 18, 2011

Team Happy Bear Cooks: Mike's Garlic Shoots

As the point of the whole 1KFTFFF was to help Hansik popularize Korean food, we Happy Bears figured that we ought to supplement our packed eating schedule with a bit of cooking, too. After all, though everyone deserves to be introduced to all the wonders of Korean cuisine, not everybody is fortunate to live close to a Korean restaurant. While we can't deliver to everyone in the world, the least we can do is spread the word.

Andy and Anina have both already posted about their contributions: Gosari (Fern Bracken) and Yeongeun (Lotus Root).

I myself contributed two dishes, both of them quite easy.

First off, a very simple salad I learned from my friend Mina, the chef of the weekly "Vegetarian Dinner for the Earth" at my local branch of the Green Consumers Network. Just take a sweet cabbage (단배추, pretty similar to a Napa) and chop it up into chopstick-friendly chunks. Then, make a sauce of perilla oil, perilla seed powder, and salt. Once you've matched the proportions to your preferences, pour the dressing onto the leaves, then mix with your hands, squeezing everything with just enough pressure that the sauce evenly coats and permeates the cabbage, but not so hard that you crush them into a mush. The result: a rich, oily, and yet light salad that fits right in with the sweet, salty, and pungent side dishes around it. Unfortunately, my coworkers were busy cooking and my hands were busy squishing, so I didn't get any pictures of this one.

Second, another one of my favorites: sautéed garlic stems (마늘쫑 볶음). These were complete news to me the first time I tried them, but I immediately fell for their savory simplicity. To get started, chop the stems up into pieces about 1.5 inches long; again, just right to be picked up with chopsticks. Fill a frying pan with just enough water to cover them, then boil for about two or three minutes, just to soften them up. Move them over to a colander, drain out the water, and heat up a bit of sesame oil. One it's warm, drop in the garlic stems, and, if you are a big garlic fan, slice up a few bulbs and drop those in as well. Lightly brown the outsides of the stems, and before they get too droopy, pour in a bit of soy sauce. If you've got a sweet tooth, now's the time to add the sugar. Either way, once the liquid has mostly cooked off, remove the stems from the pan and sprinkle them with sesame seeds - for extra punch, crush them as you sprinkle, as this will release more flavors, in addition to making it easier for your stomach to absorb all the goodness.

That's all! Serve with rice, soup, and other side dishes for a splendid meal.

Garlic stems pre-sauté

The finished product

Also present:

Seasoned bellflower/balloonflower root (도라지 무침)

Don't recall exactly, but this looks to me like 시금치나물 (blanched spinach with garlic and sesame oil)

A bit of fresh fruit. We were lucky to find local figs in the market the previous afternoon.

All the side dishes in one shot! Those are Tanya's tiny little sweet-n-spicyy anchovies in the top-left, a mayo/sunchoke/carrot/cuke salad at top-center, and my cabbage and perilla salad at top-right.

The spread, including Greg's spicy oyster and mushroom soup!

We were truly happy to be able to share our food with one another and with the translator, driver, and TV crew who worked so hard to make our food tour possible. Thanks, Hansik and KBS^^

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Old School Tofu

This may not sound very cosmopolitan of me, but all the way into my early-mid twenties, I was pretty scared of tofu. I harbored an apprehension that I still can't elaborate on, one which I can only excuse by incriminating myself further: I was also scared of oranges until I was about eighteen, hash browns and refried beans until twenty, and eggs and tomatoes until twenty-two. If you doubt me, get in touch with my college roommates. I'm sure they'd be happy to confirm.

Living in a foreign land, one learns to get over such childish fears, partially because it'd be a waste of time to be abroad without sampling the local cuisine, and partially because you have to get pretty good at a foreign language before you can really be picky when ordering. Korea is particularly good for expanding culinary horizons, because no matter what you order, you're likely to wind up with a smörgåsbord of vegetable-and-other side dishes you didn't exactly ask for, most of them so unfamiliar that you won't have had the chance to form any prejudices about them. Most days, I thank Korea for having helped me learn to eat outside the box, so to speak.

Back to topic: I eat tofu so frequently now that I can't imagine there was a time when I refused to eat it at all. It's not that I really love the stuff - actually, I have some apprehensions about it, having read that overconsumption can lead to hormone imbalance, that the soybeans are often GMO, and that it's not safe for humans to depend so greatly on a single plant. Nonetheless, it's everywhere and just about unavoidable, and considering that people have been eating it for hundreds if not thousands of years, it's almost certainly safe when eaten in moderation as part of a balanced died. I had it on its own with just a little spicy sauce as a side dish for Makkeoli (rice wine) last night; the previous weekend, I had it sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with roasted laver and stir-fried kimchi as a compliment to some noodles; it's in just about every vegetarian soup that doesn't contain seaweed; and when it comes in my CSA every month, I turn it into croûtons or just lightly sear it at breakfast time.

After all these years of eating tofu without quite knowing what it was , I was happy to get the chance to participate in the process of making it at Joseon Village. After waking up early, having a light breakfast of fruit, and wandering around a bit getting a feel for the place - as I detailed in a different piece, "Applied Food Ethics at Joseon Village," we happened upon a lady sitting in a hot, smoky, not-quite-indoor-not-quite-outdoor kicthen. She was perching over a giant cooking cauldron which had been excellently designed to be fully integrated into the building's heating system so that not a single ounce of wood would be wasted. She was swooshing around a frothy, white liquid, made by grinding soy beans that had been soaked over night and then adding them to water. They need to be boiled to be cooked thoroughly, and need to be stirred lest they burn to the bottom of the pan. Greg offered to jump in and take a turn.

Greg hard at work.

After boiling the beans and stirring them continuously for the better part of an hour, taking breaks whenever our eyes welled up with tears from the smoke, it was time for the next step: separating the ground beans from the liquid that had absorbed much of their taste and nutrients. I took a giant cloth bag perforated with tiny holes and held it open while the woman scooped out the contents of the cauldron. The sediment remained in the bag, while the liquid escaped through the holes and down into our pot. At the end, I lifted up the sediment-filled bag, and we poured the thinner liquid into a giant rubber tub.

We then sat a big wooden press on top of the tub, plopped the bag of sediment on top of it, and squeezed out all the remaining liquid, leaving us with one tub of very dry grit and one bucket of very beany juice.

Another kitchen worker skimmed some of the liquid off of the top, sugared it, and served us all bowls of fresh, warm, sweet soy milk right on the spot.

Our translator, Ziyeon, with the goods.

After we allowed the same stuff in the red bucket to settle for a while, it turned into this:

Sundubu (순두부), a thin kind of tofu often added to soups. More or less like Silken stuff back home, I believe.

Then, to turn it into the stuff we're used to - the the stuff that come in cubes and holds its shape more or less like Jello - we used this little contraption.

Everything is again poured into a bag, which is itself set inside a little wooden box. The box is closed, a weight is set on top, and left for a few hours. All the liquid drains out (it didn't occur to me to ask what they do with this) and the weight and frame mold the tofu into its eventual form.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we didn't have an hour to wait around. We headed right off to visit some perilla plants (separate post here) and some chickens (and here), all of which we ended up eating (parts of).

In case you're wondering what happens to the grit, worry not: on a conscientious farm, none of it goes to waste. There's a soup called 콩비지찌개 (Kongbiji Jjigae / Bean Grit Stew) that combines the grit with fermented soybean paste, chilli peppers, and a few other vegetables. The grit can also be used to make awesome kimchi pancakes, slightly thicker and more filling than ones made with flour. Or, it can be fed to animals or returned to the land as fertilizer.

All beautiful options. Though, of course, you can also just eat it straight:

Tanya enjoys getting fed by I don't know whom!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Perilla: A Korean Treasure

It's nearly impossible to me to pick my favorite Korean food. So many different kinds exist, covering an expansive range of tastes, smells, textures, and cooking methods. Plus, since just about everything you order is served with several side dishes, you almost never eat just one kind of food in isolation. However, if pressed (slight pun alert!), there might just be one food I love more than the others. I appreciate its fecundity, admire its versatility, savor its scent, and might be happy eating it in some form at every meal for the rest of my life. Had I been more eloquent as an elementary schooler, I might have spoken this way about Pizza Combos. Now that I've matured a bit, though, I prefer Perilla.

Although foreigners and dictionaries here often refer to Perilla leaves as Sesame leaves (the Korean name, 들깨, is pronounced Deul Kkae, which literally means "wild/field Sesame), Perilla is not in fact all that closely related to the Sesame plant . Rather, it belong to the mint family - a fact to which its extremely fantastic smell testifies. Once, while volunteering on a Korean farm in the dead of winter, I was asked to help the farmer round up some leftover stalks and weeds from last year's harvest. I expected the long-dead, decomposing material to reek of decay (which is, if you care to get philosophical about it, just the smell of another form of life), but as I raked the stems and leaves into piles, I found myself surrounded by an aroma familiar but fuller and richer than what I remembered, tinged with just a bit of spice. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to eat the source, or bathe myself in it.

The plant in question was, of course, Perilla, also known in English as "Beefsteak" for no apparent reason. I love Perilla so much that, when I first decided to sign up for the tour, before the details of the trip were all filled in for us, I was hatching plans to drag my team to a Perilla farm for the whole time, so that I could learn everything there is to know about the plant. How do you grow it, and when? How does it produce so many seeds, and out of which orifices? How hard is it to harvest them and turn them the products you find on store shelves? If I walk through a field of Perilla, might I pass out and wake up thinking I've made it to heaven? Is it possible to die of olfactory satisfaction?

Those plans didn't work out (actually a pretty fortunate turn of events, considering how awesome the rest of our food tour was), so you can imagine my joy when we stumbled upon a worker at Joseon Village hanging out next to a big pile of what looked from afar like nondescript sticks.

If you could smell it, you'd already know, but since Google hasn't added that service to blogs yet, I'll zoom in and show you: here lies treasure.

These are the stalks of the almighty Beefsteak plant. It had originally looked like this,

but the leaves had already been harvested, to either be eaten raw along with meat, rice, and garlic, to be made into kimchi, or to be battered and pancake-ified. (I also use them in lieu of basil when making my own Korean version of pesto.) As if that weren't enough, though, the plant has more to give: inside each little pod rests a seed, a little pocket of nutrition and deliciousness. Each Happy Bear made an attempt to master the patented ultra high-tech Joseon Dynasty Perilla Extraction Method, i.e., grab a handful of branches, set a little basket under them, and thwack 'em with a stick. The seeds and pods drop off into the basket, as shown below. Then you do a bit of sifting to get rid of the inedibles, and, voila, you've got what you were after.

What can you do with these seeds? It'd be better to ask what you can't do with them. First of all, if you're famished or greedy, you can eat them straight. The seeds don't have all the savory herbiness that you find in the leaves; rather, they're rich and creamy and smooth. One of our team members - Andy, I believe, who was having his first taste of pure Perilla - commented that they tasted like walnuts; at which point Tanya's face lit up. Due to her nut allergy, she had never been able to taste walnuts and had long wondered what they were like. All of a sudden, she had run into their approximation in the form of a long-lost Korean step-cousin.

I'm trying to smile, but my mouth is full of seeds. This must be a what a bear feels like when it at long last gets into a beehive.

If you've got a little more patience, you can grind them into a powder or press them into an oil. The powder is often added in small to seaweed or soybean paste soups to give them a bit of hearty sweetness and to counterbalance any salt; or, it can be used as the main component of a noodle broth, as in the fantastic-if-under-known-about 들깨칼국수 (Deulkkae Kalguksu):

I hope you'll pardon a slight digression on how great this dish is, particularly for veg*ans such as myself. Imagine: a giant bowl of thick, formidably chewy noodles, in a sauce that reminds you of Alfredo, only slightly thinner and minus the greasiness, indigestion, and regret. Steamy, creamy, and oh-so-filling, the broth is made by adding powdered perilla seeds into a savory stock (most restaurants include meat in the broth, but all you need to make a purely vegan version at home is a bit of vegetable boullion); the perilla seeds are packed full of good stuff like plant protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and E, and dietary fiber, all of which are important nutrients to have in your diet, vegetarian or not.

And there's more: crushed and powdered seeds (들깨가루, Deulkkae Garu) are also used to make a creamy topping for various side dishes, most notably fern bracken and lightly pan-fried tofu. Speaking of which, when pressed, the seeds release an oil (들기름, Deul Gireum), which is exceptionally useful when stir-frying at low temperatures and a represents a great domestic alternative to olive, canola, and other oils imported from afar. There's also one more awesome recipe I'm looking forward to telling you about, but it's kind of top-secret, so you'll have to wait for my post about the meal that my teammates and I put together for our final day's breakfast.

If you're interested in incoporating some Perilla into your diet, you shouldn't have too much trouble. You can find perilla-broth noodles many noodle shops, particularly now that the summer is over and iced bean-broth noodles (콩국수) are off the menus. Grain/bean/seed stalls at traditional markets usually have the seeds by the bucketful, and the oil and powder are available at most local/organic/health food shops as well as, of course, at the megastores. Ah, and one more thing: Deulkkae is traditionally known in Korea for helping people fight off colds and sore throats. Go find yourself a source before the winter sets in!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Applied Food Ethics at Joseon Village

Vegetarians, myself included, often think they have the market cornered when it comes to eating ethical. Killing is bad, causing suffering is bad, and being selfish is bad, so the less meat you eat, the better, end of story. While I do think that for the most part these premises are correct, and that the world would be a better place if everyone tried to keep such principles in mind while making decisions about food, much of my reading and living over the past two years has complicated my notions about what I ought to be eating. My experience at Joseon Village was no exception.

Joseon is the name of the dynasty that ruled over the Korean peninsula – North and South – between the end of the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. To quote from wikipedia, “The Joseon's rule has left a substantial legacy on the modern face of Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and even the modern Korean language and its dialects stem from the traditional thought patterns that originated from this period.” Andy was right on, then, when in his article about the traditional heating systems at Joseon Village he said that he felt we had been sent back in time.

Our bedrooms

We turned in pretty early the first night, having gorged ourselves for most of the day, so I woke up early, determined to explore and get in some good photos before our whirlwind food tour recommenced. As I ambled around, I made an effort to take in all the sights, sounds, and textures of the place. Maybe it's the lack of cars zooming around, or maybe it's the fact that there are no buildings so tall that I couldn't have climbed with my own bare hands; something about Joseon Village feels distinctly human. Things are small and simple: a rabbit hutch with ten inhabitants here, a stable with two cows there, a few chicken coops, some peppers out to dry, pots of fermenting vegetables and sauces. Tall trees, huge rice paddies - everything that's big is also natural, inspiring a sense calm awe and proper proportion. The TV camera guy started following me around, taking footage of me taking pictures of just about everything. He asked me how I felt, and I told him it was nice not to be surrounded by asphalt, concrete, plastic, and glass.

Still full from the previous day's escapades, we snacked lightly on apples, persimmons, and mandarins for breakfast, then got on with the day's work. The first stop was the kitchen, where we observed and helped out a bit with the process of making tofu (details in a separate post). Then we took a stroll and got to do a little hands-on work with perilla, one of my favorite substances on the planet (details also in a separate post). Next came perhaps the most intense experience of the tour, when the five of us told the crew that we wanted to be the ones to kill the chicken that would be prepared for our lunch.

This was the first experiment in food ethics. It's easy to say that we do or don't have the right to kill animals, but it's much harder to do look the issue in the face. Being present at, and being involved in, the moment of slaughter gives you a much truer connection to the feeling and meaning of the act, and furthers your insight into the questions of whether and under what circumstances the taking of innocent life may be justified. Greg, a former vegan and current "there's-no-name-for-this-but-I-try-to-consider-the-effects-of-all-my-food-choices," was the one who snapped the generous bird's neck. His thoughts and impressions can be found here.

After the kill, we dunked the chicken's lifeless body into hot water, swished it around for a minute or two, then pulled it out, plucked it, chopped off the feet and head, removed the organs, and sent it over to the kitchen to be made into Dakdoritang (Greg's post here), chicken soup in a spicy broth loaded with red pepper flakes, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables. We also had Baeksuk (Andy's post here), a milder chicken soup with a few more herbs, and a nice assortment of side dishes.

The highlight for me, though, was that I had the good fortune to sit down across to the owner/philosopher regent of the village, whom I had been thinking all day was just an eccentric who liked to pace around wearing odd hats.

I had had a funny, if tense, conversation with him earlier in the morning. As he walked by the five of us and our translator hanging out and messing around with tofu, we greeted him. Hoping to make a joke at our expense, he said, in Korean "You're in Korea now, you ought to be speaking our language." To which I replied, nonchalantly "OK, not a problem for me." He cracked a big smile, gave me an enthusiastic hand shake, asked me how I had gotten so good, and invited me to come back anytime.

We went our own separate ways for a while - that conversation actually took place before the chicken slaughter - but we started chatting a bit again when he sat down at the table. I asked if they grew all the food nearby, and he said of course, that he and a team of about eight others, including his wife, took care of it all. Then, thinking back to the time when I lived in a similar eco-village in India where we composted all our (human) waste, I asked him about the toilet system in his village. Somehow this really set him off (in a good way): he mentioned how they used to have a traditional composting system, where you just do your business into a big pit, but that city people weren't careful enough, and kept dropping their keys and cell phones in and demanding the staff go get it. They also apparently used to draw their water from a well, but the younger guests often took to dropping stuff in and ruining it for everybody. It also seemed to me that he mentioned something about someone committing suicide, but he was on such a roll that I couldn't stop and ask him for clarification. He continued, complaining that they used to serve real traditional Korean food, with different spices and with kimchi over a foot in length. In the old days, people would have stuffed the whole thing into their mouths; now, though, they want it cut up into bite-size pieces before it's plated. A lot of guests in the village even bring in their own snacks and ramen; if the The Chief (his name is written in Chinese characters on the business card, but I can't read it) sees them, he kicks them out, saying they clearly don't know how to appreciate his village. What a guy!

That was just the beginning. He went on to explain why he thinks that our general lack of appreciation for is a serious problem. Up until recently, most people spent a significant portion of their time working with food, either by sowing, harvesting, hunting, preserving, or preparing. Household relationships were also culinary ones; men, women, and children would each have their separate roles, and would work together towards the common goal of feeding one another. It was the man's responsibility to provide the food, the woman's responsibility to cook it, and the kids' responsibility to do whatever they could. This may sound a little sexist, but The Chief insisted that the system of obligations was mutual, and that different roles didn't mean different statuses. True, women were expected to cook; but, by the same token, men were required to return home to eat. Not eating a meal that had been cooked for you was as great a sin as not preparing a meal for your family in the first place. If a man missed a meal and wound up eating leftovers and complaining that they didn't taste great, shame on him for failing to place appropriate value on his wife's work and on the food itself. If a man was strong and wealthy, and his children in good health, then all credit would go to the woman, who was clearly feeding them well (in addition to all the other work she would have been doing to maintain the household).

This was all very interesting to my modern ears. I do have a few reservations about what he said. In particular, I doubt that men and women really need so many pre-defined expectations and set-in-stone rules in order to cooperate, and I wish that I had had the opportunity to talk to my two female teammates about the guy's speech. Still, every day I think about the ethical and environmental implications of what I eat and where it came from, but I find it harder to keep in mind that there's a whole 'nother dimension to the story, which The Chief got me thinking abotu: that my food choices and eating habits affect my family, my community, and spiraling outwards, my society as a whole.

Now, in our age of instant noodles and microwave pizzas and canned beverages, all of which are pumped full unpronounceable ingredients combined in factories using processes we can't imagine, from plants picked and planted by we don't know who, how is it possible to be authentically, deeply grateful for your food? Who can you look in the eyes and thank? Who can teach you the history and the meaning of what you eat? How much other knowledge is left for parents to pass down to their kids? And what pretext can bring the family together repeatedly, day after day, year after year? We often think that we're saving time, effort, and money when we pay others to do the majority of our food work. We're often right. But we also pay for this convenience with our health, with the health of our relationships, and with the health of our environment. I don't know what the answer is, exactly (edit: there's surely more than one answer), but I'm glad to have been given a chance to continue looking for it.