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The83k, in the ROK: Sashimi. Sweet baby Jesus, Sashimi.

April 18, 2010

The weather in Seoul is like Chicago right now – and April rain is frequent. The walk from the house to the sushi spot Uncle Seung treated us to dinner at threatened a downpour, but we managed to stay dry. The restaurant’s modest rooms, heady with the scent of ocean, were cozy and filled with families and businessmen already half in the bag by the time we sat down.

My uncle brought along a few examples of Korean Riesling, and I will admit to some skepticism, after hearing horror stories of westerners duped into ordering wine in a culture unused to its appreciation or consumption – but the bottles we had were off-dry, bright, floral, and according to the label, less than eight bucks.

If only that was the only surprise of the evening.

That, my friends, is a crapton of sashimi. That is also only one of THREE platters my uncle ordered. Along with, like, 19 other dishes.

Course after course came out of the kitchen – sea cucumber, squid, crab, tempura, and three trays of sashimi big enough to make this diner groan in weary, delirious bliss.

My spoon has a hat.

And then the Nae Jhang came out.

Abalone is rare and a delicacy and the folks in Asia eat it like they were stoned and it was a burrito. It is dense, like beef, but supple, like the fattiest tuna, at the same time. It’s delicious.

I consider myself a pretty adventuresome eater. I could've done without this, however.

The nae jhang – not so much.

The digestive tract of the abalone is supposedly fought over among initiates for its unique textures and tastes. Let Uncle Theo tell you know – those people are fucking nuts.

The little nae jhang touched my tongue, and it bore the briny sweetness of a good oyster. But about halfway down my gullet, something happened.

The sac, containing what ever little sea creatures it had been noshing on when harvested – burst.

This is supposedly a good thing.

I’m not a squeamish eater – but friends – I’m avoiding this in the future.

Also probably going to be avoiding the Gae Mul, too. I still haven’t been able to figure out what sort of sea creature it is – but I will tell you this:

When they brought out the dish – the little critters were still moving.

We could talk about the fish eyeballs – but I actually liked those.

-Theo

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The83k, in the ROK: Mandoo and Crullers.

April 18, 2010

The world loves dumplings, and in Korea, they are called mandoo. In the Myeongdong district – one of the many shopping drags in Seoul, the high-end shops and entertaining Konglish names of shops stand among seemingly hundreds of places to nibble.

Kohl Guhk Soo has been around, in one form or another, for many decades. My mother went to the university nearby, and lived with my grandparents just around the corner – she spent many an afternoon after class supping from the bowls of noodles here.

Nowadays, it’s all about the mandoo.

They are little steamed pockets of deliciousness.

We ducked in and found the two-story restaurant filling up quickly – it was getting close to noon, and it was clear that, though the place had probably changed hands several times since my Mom had been a nursing student, they hadn’t lost a step. We ordered our food and waited for two minutes, tops – and then these arrived.

Mandoo are hand-formed balls of seasoned pork (or beef or shrimp or what have you) wrapped in wontons and steamed. The resulting pouches present multiple textures and that marriage of salty and savory that makes so much of Korean cuisine so appealing.

Those little fellows were not long for this world.

Also on this part of the trip: The fanciest Dunkin’ Donuts I have ever seen:

Crullers AND place settings, 2nd floor.

The place was three floors tall and looked like a Crate and Barrel. I wish I could confirm for you that they had table service, but I had more shopping to do and failed to step inside.

I’ll try to remedy that before i leave, and let you know if crullers taste different in Asia.

-Theo

The83k, in the ROK: Kim Jong-Il and Ginseng Soju

April 16, 2010

This bottle came from North Korea. The liquor in it originally was drunk long ago by my uncle and his friends. The soju in it in this picture was infused with wild ginseng also brought over from Jong-Il-Bob CrazyPants Happy Fun Land. Farmed ginseng is pungent and pricey, but the wild stuff is much more mellow-tasting, takes forever to grow, and even more expensive. The few South Korean factories allowed to do business across the 38th parallel is a small window of commerce into North Korea, and it is through this the bottle and the ginseng flowed though. The booze was drunk, the bottle washed, and then filled with high-end soju and a small portion of the wild stuff. It was served as a palate cleanser of sorts between the courses of scotch Uncle Seung was obliterating our jet lag with, and it was heady with notes of fresh ginger and anise. It felt like a warning to my brain, my liver, my gut, and my heart – the good times to be had on this trip will be unrecognizable to you. Keep alert. Be aware of wonder. And keep your hand underneath your glass as your relatives pour you another portion of otherworldly homemade booze, you uncouth lightweight.

-Theo

The83k, in the ROK: Best Breakfast EVER.

April 14, 2010

We landed in Incheon and sailed through customs. The employee at passport control was brusque and possibly hungover. Or maybe just ticked that her gig forced her to hang out at an airport at 4:30 in the morning with people who smelled of feet, cabbage and stale wine.

I’d never met my uncle or his family before. Sueng and his son Jong-woo stayed up all night to make sure they were able to pick us up from the airport. Their family was, in a country that prides itself on its hospitality, masters of the form. (We can talk about the scotch-drinking marathon later. Sweet Lord.)

Breakfast? More like stuffing.

This, my friends, is not a typical Korean breakfast by any means. This is something a master of the Korean kitchen spends a whole day preparing and executing flawlessly. I mean, for reals. If my mother wasn’t still alive, I would say that it was the finest example of Korean home cooking I’ve ever had. That might be the vacation talking, but those two big dishes of meat in the center were superlative examples of the Korean-style braised short rib dish called Kal Bi Jihm. The smaller dishes you see – the dishes/garnishes known as banchan – were also wonderful. Spicy salads and marinated vegetables and a whole lot of subtlety in flavor generally found lacking in the cuisine – my aunt is a PIMP. We’ll be tackling Kal Bi Jihm and banchan in another post.

But for now – gaze upon the awesomeness. And wish that you were me.

The83k, in the ROK: Asiana flight 235.

April 14, 2010

Kids. Free booze and seatback video are all very well and good – but bi bim bap at 30000 feet is pretty fricking sweet.

This flight has ruined me for all pretzel packs. For all time.

Bi bim bap is rice and sauteed vegetables, occasionally topped with some sort of protein, tossed together with red bean paste and an egg fried just enough to set the white. The yolk becomes the sauce. No griddle in the Asiana galley, but there was a little beef  – and there were soba noodles, topped with radish and scallion, served with a cold broth – a nice contrast. A small cup of fish soup and KIMCHI – this example of which, according to Pops, was most likely prepared according to a Busan recipe, which is known for a slightly saltier take on the ubiquitous Korean dish.

Did I mention that the wine was pretty good?

I was going to zonk out with the help of Johnnie Walker and a Malcolm Gladwell audiobook – but I think I’ll watch Sherlock Holmes and wait for breakfast. At this rate, expecting freshly baked bread and bacon waffles doesn’t seem unreasonable.

The83k, in South Korea.

April 7, 2010

This is either an evening shot of downtown Seoul - or a still from the new Tron movie.

They don’t really eat a lot of Korean barbecue in Korea. Since beef is at a premium over there, the stuff is so damned expensive (they’re pretty snobby about letting in imports from other countries, including the US.) It’s saved for special occasions.

So kids: no bbq, most likely. But for ten days – Uncle Theo’s gonna eat whatever else he can get his hands on. And for better or worse, you’re gonna hafta hear about it.

My parents, my brother and I are headed to Seoul for a long stretch to see relatives, drink soju, visit my folks’ old haunts – and sing lots and lots of really bad karaoke. And all the while, we’ll be talking about the place I was born – the frenetic, beseiged, mysterious Land of the Morning Calm – and, of course, we’ll be chatting about the food.

The83k returns to you later this week with dispatches from the trip, starting this Saturday.

Missed you guys. Talk to you soon.

Theo

What to drink this summer, part 1. | Aveleda Fonte Vinho Verde (N/V) | Wine

May 1, 2009
I wouldnt pair this with your mothers chicken pot pie. But for just about everything else - yeah. Its pretty good.

I wouldn't pair this with a Hot Pockets Chicken Pot Pie. But for just about everything else - yeah. It's pretty good.

I was looking for gummi grapefruit in World Market the other day and came upon a bottle of this stuff. It looked intriguing, and after a few hours in the fridge, it didn’t disappoint. It was my first experience with vinho verde, and as introductions go, it was certainly less awkward than the Saturday morning 19 years ago when my mother took me to Burger King to meet the daughter of one of her church friends. My recent dinner of curried chicken (made with Spice House vadouvan) and this bottle of Aveleda Fonte Vinho Verde was a much better match than me and…I wanna say, Harriet? Let’s say Harriet. I mean, we could say the name of any woman I knew during the first 18 years of my life and the statement would still be true, but that would get tiresome – and wouldn’t you rather be drinking some Portuguese wine and talking about Souter’s replacement instead?

Vinho verde’s flavors are delicate and moderately fruit-forward, but not overly sweet. It’s also just a touch fizzy. I think you’ll like it.

In the Chicago area, Aveleda Fonte Vinho Verde can be found at In Fine Spirits, and in some of the other places you usually look. It should average around $8 – which is good, since it goes down smooth. And fast.

Enjoy.

-Theo

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