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.