March 26, 2006

Do-To-Ri Mook, or Korean jello

Acorn jelly with soy sauce

During our first years in the US, it wasn't uncommon for my parents and folks of their generation and above to point out all the edible things that were growing along the roads when we were driving around. Sometimes, much to my and my sibling's deep chagrin - or utter horror - they would venture out to the side of the road when the road conditions permitted and start picking whatever it was that was edible. I remember one particular time when we stopped for mustard plants that were growing wild all over the side of the road. Sometimes, my cousins who had been born and raised in the US would joke, "There's our dinner," when we'd pass by shrubs or just plain weeds by the road. However, the humiliation of waiting for adults gathering food on the side of the road like desperate refugees didn't stop the young ones from enjoying the fruits of their labor. I myself am fond of steamed mustard plants seasoned with sesame oil and garlic.

I think of those adventures, which are now far and between, because my mother was making dotori mook, or acorn jelly, the other day. You could buy this from any of the Korean supermarkets in town but my mother rarely buys them prepared, ones that are most likely less than 100% acorn or natural. She prepares this when she's gotten acorns from somewhere - meaning, someone was industrious enough to gather enough acorns from who-knows-where to share with her. It helps that we live in California where there's an abundance of oak trees in certain areas and that Koreans aren't above picking up stuff from roads along which they may be taking a stroll.

The oak trees where my parents live produce acorns that are usually smaller and thinner than the ones in Korea but a careful observer can usually find one area where the acorns are big and fat. No doubt, it was from such a tree that a friend of my parents gathered enough acorns to share with them.

To me the most interesting part of using acorns as food is that acorns were a crucial part of California's Native American diet and Koreans and Native Americans share the same preparations to make acorns edible. I know this only anecdotally so I may be wrong about the details but it's interesting to note that our ancestors were equally resourceful on this one way of surviving.

To make the acorns edible, you'd have to peel and soak or soak and peel. I think soaking gets rid of some chemical that's poisonous. Tannin? Then you dry them and grind them to powder. To make the jelly, you mix the acorn powder with water and a pinch of salt and keep mixing in a pan over medium heat. You can add more water if you want your jelly very wobbly. You let it sit for a while until it hardens to a texture of jello. Unlike jello, you don't add gelatin or other artificial ingredients to make it firm.

It's a lot of work for something that tastes, frankly, not much. I don't mean it tastes bad. It just doesn't have any particular flavor that would wow you so that you'd remember. At least to me. To describe, its flavor is very subtle, slightly earthy with a hint of a bean-like flavor. You want to dress it with a bit of soy sauce mixture. But its texture is quite sublime, silky and smooth to rival the softest tofu out there.

Do-to-ri is pronounced extreme, fast staccato. My niece used to say "Doe-toe-rhee" to make fun of people who spoke Korean with an American English accent. That was our code for "funny." Now I've made it an open secret.

March 20, 2006

Making Kimchi: Kimjang style

After several weeks of my mother's "I should make kimchi" or "It's time to make kimchi," she finally made her trip to the Korean grocery store last week and bought a box of napa cabbage. As every kimchi-making household or wife knows, the end of one batch of kimchi creates a certain sense of fait accompli that another cycle has completed its course and then the subsequent feelings of anticipation, unease and even doom over the fact that a certain amount of effort and time would have to be devoted to the making of another batch of kimchi. I can't say I'm one of those women but I can certainly say my mother is one. For her table, not having kimchi is liking not having rice which means not having a meal at all. Well, a Korean meal.

I came upon the process a little late this time. Usually, my help is appreciated at the beginning of the process when she's washing and salting the cabbage and preparing the radish chilli stuffing. "Pour the salt," "A little more," "Sugar. That's enough," etc. This time, she had already salted the cabbage and had prepared the inside which was held in a large container wrapped neatly with some plastic wraps.

What goes into this preparation is particular to each family or even each person who makes it. And this is where most of the effort goes in since you have to cut the daikon radishes into small strips, along with gathering and preparing other ingredients. If you don't have a good mandolin, this is the reason to get one. A good mandolin doesn't have to cost a lot, though. My mother uses one that's less than $20. The main ingredients are raddish, ground chili peppers, garlic, onion, scallions and fish sauce. I've known folks who put 7-up, Asian pears, oysters and a whole a lot of stuff but I don't think my mother used these this time.

I wouldn't be able to reproduce the recipe even if I tried - I don't think my mother could either for that matter - since no Korean cook ever measures anything. It's all about intuition and experience. If haute French cuisine is a matter of precision and innovation, Korean cusine is all about intuition and authenticity. The paradox is that no Korean family's cooking tastes the same as another and, other than rules regarding certain sets of ingredients, what is authentic tasting in Korean food is arbitrary yet fiercely held as an arbiter of good Korean cooking. You ask any Korean, and he/she can tell you if something tastes "authentic" or not.

As for the fish sauce, there are many versions of it. This time, my mother used one made with tiny shrimps that she purchased in a gallon jar. "When are we going to eat all that?" I ask and she relied, "It's so much cheaper to buy in bulk." Right. That fish sauce will be in the fridge for a long time. It's salted so it'll never go bad. and it's odorless, almost. Thank goodness. Along with the quality of the chili peppers and cabbage, my mother prizes the quality of fish sauce as the top in bringing out the flavor of kimchi.

Once you have the cabbage and the stuffing, all it remains is to stuff the cabbage. This is the kimjang style, as opposed to cutting the cabbage in small bits and directly seasoning with chili peppers and other ingredients. Traditionally kimchi was made kimjang style just before the cold months of the winter when fresh vegetables were not available and you needed a large quantity of kimchi to last you through the winter. Kimchi was made and stored in large pots that were dug into the ground. Although I remember women "doing" kimjang when I was little in Korea, I think the practice is rare these days and the practice of "burying" kimchi underground is even more rare. Now with kimchi refrigerators not to mention regular ones, along with veggies available year around, kimchi can stay "fresh" and yummy for a long long time.

After you stuff individual cabbage - here they were cut in half or quarters - you wrap it into a little bun before placing in a container of your choice. And you really want to wear rubber gloves.

Now, all you have to do is wait a few days or weeks until kimchi reaches your desired fermentation. My family likes kimchi when it's fresh and just ripe. After that, they are kimchi stew.

March 15, 2006

Spring is here!


I know I live in Southern California and don't really have much of a winter to speak of but it's been slightly dreary - if that's possible here - and cold recently. But the weather is warming up and I look with great anticipation the opening of each peach blossom everyday. The spring brings warm weather which affords one of the greatest pleasures for the sock-hating ladies - yes! the sandal season is coming! - and I suppose it would be a cliche to say that spring is anticipation itself of things to come, great and small but nevertheless exciting and perhaps new, but I can't help myself. just.

My spirits are up!

Here are some more of beautiful plant lives in the backyard. Just look. Don't they make you want to go out and spin around in the green, Julie-Andrews-style?

March 9, 2006

Hello Hellooo

My hubby brought these back from his recent trip to Korea. He used to say that Hello Kitty was yet again symptomatic of the way Japanese view or like to view their women, i.e. without lips or mouths hence voices, but what does it say when both woman and man, clad in Korean attire no less, are lipless?

I think they're cute, regardless. They were for my niece but she was decidedly less excited about them as I was. She even offered to give them to me. I don't think I can do that to a kid, though.

December 2, 2005

Asian on a bun

Korean BBQ sandwich with kimchi and a boba drink at the East West Sandwich in Westwood

Sometime ago, a colleague outside my department and I formed a lunch partnership. It started as once-a-week bitch session where each of us could vent to an outsider about things happening in our own departments. It was convenient that we weren't involved in each other's department intimately but at the same time knew the characters and personalities involved in the dramas in which we were unwilling pawns.

Over time, as bitch sessions can only go so far in helping to establish a friendship, these sessions turned into a more positive affair, one that was less exclusionary and psychologically and physically more satisfying. It became community of culinary celebration where, more often than not, I'd introduce my friend to the world of exotic - at least to her - foods and fruits. Each week, I'd open my lunch with some strange - to her - Korean food and share a fruit, persimmon for example, that she had never tasted before.

Gradually, we'd invite folks from our own departments who somehow had sniffed their way into our culinary excursions. So in a matter of few months, these gatherings have now become a staple in my department (the less dysfunctional of the two in question)'s weekly life. Instead of my own, personal, intimate time of refuge, it's become a weekly gathering for a rather large number of folks who can cram into my friend's SUV in search of the next interesting culinary experience. I'm not complaining.

For our weekly lunch gathering this week, we headed over to Westwood where some had already experienced the Asian food on a baguette. It didn't sound that strange to me but apparently it was to some others in the group.

There, in the rather spacious and very casual restaurant, you can get pretty much some kind of Asian food on your baguette. You can get Korean bbq, Chinese pork, chicken satay, teriyaki, lemongrass beef, tofu curry, etc. The clientele is composed mostly of students and staff from UCLA and the hospitals nearby.

I tried the Korean bbq. I didn't have high expectations and my expectations were met. The meat was overwhelmingly sweet and the baguette was soggy. In addition, the boba was really hard but if you complain to the staff there, they'll offer a replacement. Since I had had enough of sugary water, I declined.

The thought is good, but I think I'll pass next time.

East West Sandwich
"Chopsticks not required."
1116 Westwood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024

February 22, 2005

The Sweetest Potato

By now you've probably heard about the unusual weather we're having in Southern California. Except for the massive traffic congestion the rain causes in this region, I rather like rain. I like the sight and sound of rain drops falling and the fresh smell it brings after it's gone. That freshness is pretty rare in this car crazy town so it's a change I welcome. Besides, it's the perfect time to cozy up to the TV, book or anything comforting with a hot cup of tea and your favorite comfort food.

One of my favorite comfort food -- or vegetable, actually -- is the Korean sweet potato, goguma. In its raw state, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish this variety from yam or sweet potato, often from the Caribbean. When cooked, this variety has yellow, rather than orange flesh, and is firmer than other kinds of sweet potatoes. It is less sweet than yam and has a real chestnut-y flavor that I can't get enough of.

In Korea, goguma is often sold roasted on the street in the winter, similar to the roasted chestnuts in the winter. I don't know if this kind of business is still popular there but the smell of roasted sweet potatoes wafting through the icy cold weather is priceless. Here in LA, you can sometimes get roasted sweet potatoes outside the Korean markets. I usually buy mine at the market and roast them in the oven (350 for 45 min). It's not as good but still comforting. And after a crappy day dealing with modern life and traffic congestion, it's a great way to re-balance my system.