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.

February 19, 2005

The Koreatown Plaza

Need the latest designs in luxury eyewear? Need to get the latest outfits from European luxury brands? Feel like spending $5000 for a croc handbag? Perhaps you need a new Rolex? Or is your pleasure more down to earth and definitely less expensive, such as eating Korean food or shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables? Then Koreatown Plaza might be just the place for you. It's a one-stop mall of a sort for anyone with a big appetite and a big budget if you really intend to shop there for anything other than food.

Of course its concept as a mall is the same as elsewhere -- bunch of shops gathered under one roof -- but its clientele is almost all Korean American and, most notably, the food court is actually very good here. Some of my non-Korean acquaintances have heard of the place, they say, but with a few exceptions, they won't adventure into the ghetto. The more savy ones go there to shop for luxury items, such as sunglasses or bags, because they can usually get them cheaper than at Nordstroms. And for the truly adventurous, there's always that possibility of bargaining. On occasion, I've seen Persian women giving the business owners a very hard time to get a few more dollars off their purchase. It's a special skill. I don't happen to possess it and I'm not that fond of folks who are good at it.

The Plaza is three stories high with stores ranging from one hawking Tupperware to MaxMara or Cartier luxury goods. Years ago, when some of my Korean friends from the East or Midwest came out to LA and witnessed this place, they were stunned that the KA community could gather enough money to build and sustain such a place. It is certainly a testament to the possibility of commercial success that lies at the heart of "American Dream" that's pushed down all immigrants' throats. It's a little sad, however, that KA community has yet to put down any political weight in this town in the successful way that it finds its way to its material wealth. Like I always say, capitalism triumphs over democracy and probably always will.

M and I usually go to the Plaza when we just need a meeting place where we don't have to worry about parking. Ever. Besides, if I'm waiting for someone, there's plenty to do so it's a convenient place. In any case, we went there today so M can get his haircut. He would probably go to the cheapest barber he could find but that hasn't happened. Besides, if he goes to a non-Korean hairdresser, they are mesmerized by his "exotic" Asian male hair that they just say the dumbest, inappropriate and sometimes offensive things. And why would you want to sit through that? Literally? As for me, I go to a different hairdresser, also in Koreatown, who knows that my hair is slighly wavy. Everytime I've gone to a non-Korean hairdresser, she can't seem to get over my "straight" hair that the result is never appropriate for my hair. I have smooth texture but a slight wave in my hair and cut certain ways, my hair might look lopsided or just plain out of control. Back to M. People are prone to say things such as, "It's hard to cut your kind of hair."

OK, back to the food court. Unlike other food courts, this food court has real food. You can get Vietnamese pho, sushi, dumplings, tofu casseroles and many other Korean dishes. All meals cost around $6-7 which I think is a bargain considering what you have to pay for a corn dog these days. Its large seating area has plenty of seats so you never have to worry about having to eat standing up. Because we were thirsty, we started with a boba drink. We had a passionfruit smoothie with boba: see the little black balls at the bottom of the drink? When I was first introduced to it, it took me a while to warm up to the tapioca balls in fruity drinks but now I am a fan. Suddenly Always I want more!

Then we had our late lunch. M had Donkatsu (Deep fried pork cutlets) and I had Kalgooksoo(cut noodles in chicken soup). It was enough to fill us up for the rest of the day. Before we left, we got some stuff at the grocery store on the first floor, another difference from another mall. The Plaza Market has the reputation of having the best quality around town for fruits and vegetables. It's getting big competition from the Galleria which is just few blocks away, though. One of my father's high school friends used to be the general manager of the Plaza Market and he used to say how business had slowed when the Galleria opened up. Anyway, I like the Plaza Market because I'm more used to it. Asian pear we got there was incredibly juicy and sweet.

Koreatown Plaza is on 9th and Western.

February 16, 2005


Korean zucchini

The Korean zucchini is shorter, rounder and lighter in colour than the more common variety in the States. Hmm, I wonder what else fits that description. I find that they are generally less bitter or sweeter as well but your experience could differ. The specimen above is not the best representative as it took a little beating coming from the grocery store to my fridge last Saturday.

If you've reached your sweet tooth limit from your intake of sugar-disguised-as-chocolate this week, the very vegginess of zucchini will help balance your system. I do my best to stay away from unnecessary sweets at home (need being a very personal and arbitrary decision but I am enough of a snob to have really good chocolate) but I can't seem to have enough self-control against the bad chocolates that appear endlessly at work. And they seem to be most visible around 4'o clock in the afternoon, you know what I mean?

My farorite way to use this zucchini is to make zucchini pancakes. It's sort of a peasant food but a pretty direct way to bring out the zucchini-ness.

1 med. zucchini, julienned
1 1/2 c. flour
cold water
salt and pepper
vegetable oil for cooking

Prepare the zucchini: Cut off the ends and julienne into thin strips. I have a cheap mandoline that works well. Sprinkle salt over the zucchini and let it sit for 20-30 minutes. When the zucchini is limp, squeeze the water out and mix with the flour mixture.

Flour mixture: Mix flour with enough water to make a batter. It should be the consistency of pancake batter. Add the zucchini to the flour mix.

Cook over medium heat.

Optional: You can add an egg to the flour mixture for additional flavor but I like the taste of plain flour.

February 14, 2005

Happy Valentine's

Lest you get a different idea about me, let me say that this cupcake was made by my most delightful niece, Lauren, who came over to my apartment yesterday. I wouldn't make something so sweet looking on my own, would I?

Happy Valentine's Day.

Feb. 16: And because I can't say enough about my most delightful niece, here's the cute sign she made for her cupcakes at my office. She had the day off from school, which seems a little strange to me, so she hung out at my work for few hours in the morning. My colleagues were quite happy with their "breakfast"! I found my niece a portable white board and she was having so much fun (playing school!) that she hated to leave when her mom came by to pick her up at lunch time. Not a bad Valentine's day.

February 13, 2005

Bulgogi or the ultimate meat marinade

Bulgogi meat: sliced ribeye

This is one of the most well-known dishes in the Korean cuisine that I hardly need to say anything about it. In fact, I would say that when most people think of Korean food, they think of either kimchee, bulgogi or kalbi. Since kimchee can scare people away by its color and pungent aroma, it's usually the meats, bulgogi or kalbi, that non-Koreans experience as their first entry into the world of Korean cuisine. And why not, it's the most savory way to marinate meat.
The recipe below can marinate up to 4 lbs of beef. I like to make more marinade so I can freeze for a later time. Although it's a cinch to make the marinade, it does help me prepare a meal quickly after a long commute.

2 lb (1.8 kg) beef, sliced ribeye works well as picture above
garlic, 2 Tbs., pureed or chopped fine
scallion, 4-5 stalks cut 2" long
onion, 3/4 c (200g) pureed or chopped fine
soy sauce, 1/2 c. (110 g) regular. I use Kikkoman brand.
sugar, 1/3 c (100g)
sesame oil, 2 Tbs.
mirin, 1/4 cup
water, 1/4c (optional) to thin marinade
Asian pear, 1/4c (100g or so), pureed or chopped fine. Substitute 7-up or seltzer. (optional)

The last two ingredients are optional but highly recommended. My grandmother used to use 7-up but I like to use Asian pear. If your meat has passed its prime or you suspect that it's tough, add a 1/4 cup of pureed kiwi to soften the meat. A half of a kiwi does wonders. Don't overdo it or the meat can seem to fall apart.

Combine all the ingredients of the marinade. Except for the scallions, I like to puree them. It's a difference more of style rather than taste but I like my meat without little bits of onion or garlic. The pureeing does tend to bring out the flavors more fully and the marinating is done more quickly. I don't have a fancy kitchen aid -- my budget doesn't allow that -- but my little grinder set works wonders.

An infomercial on TV was advertising it with the name, "Magic Bullet," but I got mine years ago in Koreatown for like $20. Mine came with several containers of different sizes. I use one to grind coffee beans and the rest for other smells, such as garlic and onion. I suppose you could use a regular blender but the amount needed to puree for this is perhaps too small for a regular sized blender.

Marinate the meat for at least half an hour. Sautee over high heat. I don't cook the green onions since it can make the pan and the meat messy. The flavor should already be in the meat, so it's superfluous.

I like to eat bulgogi with lots of fresh vegetables. This time, M and I had rice (of course), kimchee, red leaf lettuce, green peppers, steamed broccoli, seasoned cucumbers. My father likes to eat sliced raw garlic and seasoned soy bean paste with his meat but that's for true garlic lovers. I have yet to achieve that status.

February 9, 2005

French Women Do Get Fat

Leek & Potato Soup

By now, you've been assaulted senseless by the hype around the pompous author and chairman of Clicquot, Inc., Mireille Guiliano, and her much talked about book, "French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure." (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) If you haven't, read Elaine Sciolino's write-up in the NY Times of the Madame and her book. Here is a little excerpt from the article.
Self-deception and sensuality are the secrets of how to eat well and stay slim,
according to Ms. Guiliano's bonbon of a book. In her world, Frenchwomen
instinctively understand the centrality of food as a tool of seduction. And
seduction, she writes, "figures prominently in the Frenchwoman's sense of

To that end, Frenchwomen eat small portions. They eat whatever
they want - even chocolate - but certainly not every day. They use ultrafresh
ingredients and avoid processed foods. They drink a lot of water, but never take
wine without food.

Frenchwomen are never too busy to go food shopping several times a week or to make their own yogurt from scratch. They are never too cash-strapped to buy farm-fresh items from open-air markets. They never eat in front of the television or standing up. They eat slowly, savor every bite and make dining a ritual - using all five senses and enjoying multicourse meals on separate plates.
Parenthood is no excuse for inaction. "People say they are busy with three young kids," said Ms. Guiliano, who does not have children. "Well, there are choices to be made. Maybe you can't watch your reality show for 20 minutes."
When questioned, she confesses that Frenchwomen with bad eating habits and excess adipose do exist. "There are plenty of Frenchwomen who are fat," she acknowledges. "But all of my friends are like me."
But there is a steely discipline behind her pleasure-loving approach. One of the main goals of staying slim is to remain appealing to men, and that is hard work. No matter that decades of feminism have taught women to think and act for themselves.
Uh, right. In my past as a parisienne, I've known enough French women whose ideas on food, weight and self-esteem were a sad combination of neurosis, depression and anxiety. And I knew many French girls who loved McDo as much as any red-blodded American girl. It's less than heartening to see that such hackneyed derivative on stereotypes can actually get a book published and become a cause celebre. Of course, worse is the effort to subject the pleasure of food to the degradation of appealing to men, which is something that our sexist society can't get enough of.

And, of course, the fact that someone like her is able to have a book deal and parade on numerous communications outlets says more about American fascination and fetishization of France -- its women, its feline seductive women! -- than anything about the writer or her book, I'd say.

The writer's mission in life, these day, is to exhort the slimming benefits of a leek purge called "Magical Leek Soup." Whatever. If I want to flush out my system, I'd rather do it with water and lemon. I do like leeks, however, and at the risk of sounding cute, I have to confess that Leek & Potato Soup was a staple in my diet when I lived in France. It was cheap, easy and went well with cheap but good bread. I hadn't thought of making it for a long time but the book's hype brought back memories of eating it.

So tonight, I made this soup. This is what I ended up eating by myself since M is off at his monthly fly-fishing club meeting this evening. He can partake in my leek-y meal when he returns.

Leek & Potato Soup
2 Tbs. butter
3 leeks, white and light green parts, sliced. (I had about 200g)
2 medium size potatoes, cubed. (I'd use equal volume as leeks. I used about 400g)
1 c. chicken or vegetable broth (I usually use bouillon)
1 c. milk (or water if don't like milk)
water as needed
salt & pepper as needed
parsley or chive, chopped, optional

Melt the butter and saute the leeks until soft. Stir in potatoes and broth/water and bring to boil. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes until potatoes are soft. If you are adding milk, do so at the end after the potatoes are soft. Add water if the soup is too thick. Add salt or pepper to taste. If you use broth, you probably don't need any salt as the broth itself contains enough sodium. Sprinkle chopped parsley or chive if desired.
Great soup to eat in cold weather. Some eat this cold, but I've always had it hot and I like it that way.

February 8, 2005

Chungkiwa Restaurant, Koreatown

You don't "explore" Olympic Blvd. or the Koreatown in general. Koreatown is not Paris, a city francophilic Americans "explore." Even at its hippest, trendiest and most exclusive spots around town, you don't "explore" Koreatown. Koreatown is a working, functional town. Its gritty functionality is occasionally cut by the hyper luxe shops scattered throughout, but Koreatown is a commercial town at its core. It's there so that people, mostly Korean Americans, can find things they can't find anywhere else or deal with people who speak Korean. To me, you don't go to Koreatown to "explore" or pass time. You go and do your business, which in the end somehow becomes part of your life. That's the extent to which Koreatown is part of my life. Not like the West Hollywood scene is part of an aspiring actor's life.

Chungkiwa is one of the older eating establishments in Koreatown. The name means blue roof tiles that decorate the building but it also refers to the ancient Korean art of tile making and ceramic. Its' menu is quite encompassing although the specialty of the house is bbq's using Black Angus beef. More on that later. It's one of those places where you can pretty much get any Korean dish you want as opposed to a place that specializes in one, not two or three, dish. One of the most popular dish is the combo, kalbi & naengmyun, the short rib bbq and noodles. It is especially popular during warm weather because the most popular naengmyun is the noodles in icy cold broth. Sometimes you'll see icy chunks of broth floating in the soup. The meals come with a very generous selection of banchan or side dishes which could very well be a meal in itself. They consist of kimchee, assorted marinated vegetables, soup, etc.

M and his father each had the kalbi & naengmyun combo and I ordered the codfish stew to share. The cod is marinated with veggies, such as potatoes and squash, and simmered over a long time so that the spices impregnate the ingredients. It's one way to flavor the sometimes bland cod. The food was delicious and the service was better than I remembered, perhaps because my father-in-law kept saying how the good the food was to the waitress. Flattery always works. Our bill came out to under $50. Not bad for all the food we had.

Chungkiwa, 3545 W. Olympic Blvd., LA, 90019 323.737.0809

February 4, 2005

The Octopus in Encino

Are you surprised, as I am, by the explosion of sushi restaurants in Southern California? Do you remember, as I do, the days when the only real sushi you could get was in so called ethnic neighborhoods? Do you remember also, as I do, the sense of mild disgust you elicited from most white folks if you were to mention raw fish? And finally, do you remember, as I do, the first time you realized that what people referred to as sushi was, in fact, that peculiarly American invention, the California roll?

Well, fear no more. These days, it seems that there's a joint in every little strip mall in LA that more or less claims to serve sushi. Heck, you can even find "sushi" in your neighborhood grocery store. Of course, much of this is attributable to the rise in American culinary sophistication or healthy eating that those with acute business acumen have been happy to oblige. The quality of these joints is, however, pretty uneven and many of them, especially those catering to indiscriminating lunch clients, can't really be called sushi restaurants as much as California roll machines with teriyaki selections.

The Octopus in Encino is not one of them. The restaurant opened in December and seems to be establishing a growing customer base through the word of mouth. It is one of the larger Japanese restaurants in the area and has a conveniently large parking lot, a very important factor for me. The decor is calm and minimalist and the service is above acceptable. Its clientele ranges from knowledgeable connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine to vegetarians which says much for the menu's wide range.

This restaurant is part of a group of Japanese restaurants that the owner and his partner own and operate. This is notable only for the fact that they buy a large quantity of fish for all of their restaurants and therefore are able to receive a quantity discount that is passed down to the customer. Thus the sushi at Octopus is (almost) obscenely big at a rather inexpensive price. And I even know where the fish comes from.

Several years ago, I followed a family friend to the wholesale fish market in downtown, the Pacific Fish Market. She knew a sushi chef who let us come along to buy fish at wholesale price. The Market is only open to professionals and retailers, I believe. There I saw boxes packed up for various restaurants in town, including the venerable Nobu. Yeah, Octopus gets the same fish as the Nobu. And if you're having sushi -- not the Japanese-South American fusion that the famous chef famously creates - you are having the same food without the heart-attack-inducing prices at Nobu.

I don't know if that's still true but it was three years ago. Of course, you're thinking that the freshness of the fish depends on what happens at the restaurant and you're right. The fish at Octopus is kept fresh with mechanical precision and once they're past their time, the fish is thrown out promptly.

I'm especially fond of uni (sea urchin; here it comes from Santa Barbara) and mirugai (giant clam) but all sushi is good there. Once you've experienced good uni melting in your mouth, you look at other food with a bit of contempt --or, is it just me? Here you can enjoy them without breaking your bank account. (Have you read the Masa review in NY Times? Yikes!)

If you're not into raw or are pregnant, the teriyaki, gyoza or bbq ribs are the way to go. If you are cold, the hot udon will do you good. If you are part of a large group and need a refreshing palate cleanser, get the Seafood Pasta - sort of like ceviche - which has sashimi on top of udon noodles and greens in citrus scented sesame oil dressing. It's a lot of food for one or two people but if you share with a large group, it's perfect. For rolls, I'd try the Camarillo, which has spicy tuna inside and albacore tuna, ikura, and sliced onions on top.

Final note: The restaurant bills its cuisine as fusion but I'd recommend sticking to the traditional fare. I'm not fond of fusion cooking, whatever that means. (Addendum: On second thought, some of their fusion-al creations can be really good. Stay tuned.) Great sushi is what you're getting there so stay with that. Or, eat whatever appeals to you.

Here are some things we ate at Octopus. Yum!

Octopus, 16733 Ventura Blvd., #1, Encino 91436. 818.380.0855

Other sushi restaurants I recommend are:
Hide Sushi on Sawtelle in West L.A. No reservations.
Arado in Koreatown on Wilshire and Wilton (The best sushi in Koreatown)

*Addendum: Feb. 13, 2004: Need kamasutra for your valentine? I went back to the Octopus several times after my the above post, enjoyed each meal immensely, and would like to share a new dish the restaurant is considering to put on its menu. Although I've stated my dislike for "fusion" in general -- JP and I have the same view -- this new creation actually worked for me although the gold on top was bordering on uber-decadence, more than I need in food. Gold, you ask? Yes, gold.

This sushi roll is going to be called "Kamasutra," which is sure to pique interest, I suppose. It is a salmon skin, shrimp(I think or my memory fails me), avocado roll with eel wrapped around it, a dollop of curry powder on top, and (drumroll, please) a little smidgeon of gold (yes, real gold) on top. M and I thought the name required an oyster on the side, but I don't know if that's going to be. The chef thought that since curry is most often associated wth India --> India created Kamasutra --> these ingredients promote health and pleasure --> hence the name. It tastes great, so I really don't care about the name. The dab of curry powder provides a nice jolt of unexpected flavor; the gold is neither here nor there but it looks fabulous and I love great looking food as much as the next person.

Here's a photo of it.