We had our ghetto gourmet dinner 5 back in January, sorry for the late posting! For this dinner, it was my turn to cook. Let's just say, I think it took some time to get my gears going when I cooked this meal. However, all of our friends were so patient and helpful with making this dinner as smooth as it was! Sid Kim is our guest writer for this post. I met Sid over a few years ago, first when I made a guest appearance on his TBS food program 'Seoul of Asia' (back in the day when I was working for Edward Kwon). Then from what I remember, the next few times we met, it involved wine in social settings. Now we're food buddies. Sid is one of those guys where you just want to give him a big hug when you see him! Always a smile on his face, and for some reason if you're having a bad day, just chatting with him for a few minutes will make you feel better. He's like the big brother you want to have. Not to mention his food palette and knowledge is something else. Perhaps Eunji's amazing cooking has 'spoiled' his taste buds, hahaha.
A bit of info about Sid: He is the director and founder of Wise Education, an educational consulting company that prepares students for entry to prestegious U.S. schools. "I love to eat, travel, eat, write, eat, drive fast cars, eat, ride motorcycles, and eat."
Thanks Sid for sharing your story on this dinner!
When I asked Sarah what the theme of our next dinner would be, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “It’s Korean, but not really. It’s kinda fusion, but not really. Actually, there’s no real theme, it’s just a bunch of dishes I threw together.” Hmm…so much for my plan of writing a theme-based opus-an epic piece of literature bound together by a grand, unifying motif. Oh well…
So with an open mind, unbound by gastronomic preconceptions, I ventured over to Tom and Jen’s apartment…er, excuse me…”flat,” as I’m sure our resident British pedant, Tom will be quick to correct. Whatever diction one chooses to describe Tom and Jen’s place of residence, there is no doubt that the two are extremely generous hosts.
Anyway, on to the food! As we sat down at the table, Sarah announced that the first course would be a homemade soup. Yet before she could mention what type of soup, I already knew. The unmistakable waft of cream of mushroom, thick and mealy, greeted my nostrils like an old friend. Immediately, I was transported back to my middle school days in the United States. My father had started a weekend swap meet business to supplement the household income. So for three years, while other kids my age slept in or watched morning cartoons for hours while dressed in PJs and eating big bowls of cereal, I was awoken by my mom every Saturday and Sunday morning at 4am to help my dad with the weekend business of selling $3 watches. Obviously, I hated getting up that early, especially on weekends. Nevertheless, one thing that made the whole ordeal bearable was the piping hot bowl of hearty cream of mushroom soup my mom had waiting for me on the dining room table. Like an invisible rope, the aroma dragged my still half-asleep body out of bed and ready for a 12-hour day. As I sat at the table, my mom would look at me with sorrowful eyes – eyes lamenting the fact she had to send her young son out to earn money for the family’s sustenance. To her, all she could do was to provide me with a robust breakfast for yet another backbreaking day. To me, that bowl of cream of mushroom soup symbolized a mother’s endearment of her son. The soup reminded me of the Korean word 정 (jung). It’s one of those words that are almost impossible to translate. A word encompassing the feelings of love, affection, connection, sacrifice, all rolled into one.
Sarah’s cream of mushroom soup was much more complex than the simple once-condensed offering from my mother. A little less cream, and a little heartier mushroom flavor, topped with thin slices of dates and freshly cracked peppercorn. The soup had a deeper, more sophisticated taste. I’ve always been confused when people have tried to explain the taste of umami to me. “Tastes like roasted mushrooms,” they would inevitably say. Well, one taste of Sarah’s cream of mushroom soup and I “got it.” So this is what umami tastes like.
The second dish was Sarah’s take on stuffed baked potato, but instead of using Idaho’s finest spuds, she used a biscuit-sized sweet potato or 고구마 (goguma), as we call it in Korean. Again, I was transported back to my childhood days. When I was in elementary school, I would pretend to be a gourmet chef, whipping up lavish concoctions in the kitchen. My main gastronomical canvas? The versatile potato. I would bake it, then stuff it with garlic, butter, bacon bits, fried onions, cheese, sour cream, or whatever happened to be available in the fridge at the time. My little brother would wait anxiously in the wings to taste my spud fare. It was his favorite dish, and I made it for him a hundred times at least. It was my way of taking care of him and making sure he was fed when my parents were working. As latchkey kids, we had to find a way to feed ourselves, since back then we weren’t privy to Nickelodeon kids meals and Hot Pockets. The stuffed potatoes were my expression ofjung to my little brother.
Sometimes fusion dishes work and work well. Sometimes fusion dishes should be left in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, like the time I made an oxtail, pepper jack cheese and kimchi burrito. I’m happy to say that Sarah’s sweet potato dish was one of the former. Sarah took a baked sweet potato and topped it with crispy bacon, onions, corned beef, caramelized kimchi, and Korean chives called 부추 (boochoo). The sweetness of the goguma and the slight bitterness of the kimchi had a strangely synergistic effect – sort of like a sweet and sour Chinese dish. The corn beef was an interesting addition as well, giving depth to the course. Overall, this was Eunji’s favorite dish. She absolutely loved the combination of goguma and kimchi, and mentioned that in her hometown of Wonju, it’s common to fry kimchi and eat it on top of goguma. So to her, it was the epitome of comfort food. This makes sense since these two foods are staples of the country’s diet. You could literally see the familiarity and nostalgia in her eyes as she took her first bite of dish.
Checking on the potatoes...taking so freakin long! haha
Jen making sure I'm doing a good job, haha.
The third course was a Korean soy marinated 차돌박이(chadohlbaggi), which is very thinly sliced beef usually cooked over a grill. Those of you familiar with Korean barbeque (actually the first thing that comes to mind for most foreigners when you mention Korea is North Korea, followed by kimchi, and then Korean barbeque) will probably know that meat is usually cooked over charcoal, wrapped in lettuce along with garlic and a red pepper paste called 쌈장 (ssamjang). Customized iterations can include marinated scallions, diced peppers, rice, and soy marinated onions. Those of you who have gone to these barbeque joints with Koreans will probably know that it is a sign of affection to create one of these lettuce rolls and feed a person close to you. “Ahhh…” they would say, as they stuff the slightly too large wrap into your mouth. Mothers will carefully wait for the meat to cook and make a lettuce wrap perfectly sized for the tiny mouths of their sons and daughters. Boyfriends and girlfriends will take turns feeding each other instead of feeding themselves. Of course, you wouldn’t do this for just a stranger (unless you were a friendly ajumma working at the restaurant). No, this ritual is reserved for only those you care about…only those of whom you have jung.
Sarah’s chadohbaggi wraps were pre-assembled for our convenience. But instead of using green leaf lettuce, Sarah used butter leaf, which gave it a slightly creamier texture. And instead of red pepper paste, she topped the meat with wasabi mayo, carrots and cucumbers. The mayo added to the creamy texture and the wasabi gave it the bite usually provided by the red pepper and the garlic, but in a different way, of course. The carrots and cucumbers gave it a fresh “crunch” to remind you that the dish was healthy, similar to when you bite into a roast beef and cheese sandwich with lettuce and cucumbers. The lettuce and cucumbers work to lessen your guilt a little bit so you can enjoy the meal – kind of like ordering a Super Sized Big Mac Combo Meal and then ordering a Diet Coke to make you feel better.
The next dish was Panko breaded chicken thighs with a special “Great Seas” Chinese sauce that Sarah had smuggled in from some exotic locale. Wow! The sauce was like nothing I have tasted before. It was tangy, but not vinegary. It was spicy, but not overpowering. I could have sworn that I tasted a hint of oyster sauce, but I wasn’t quite sure. There was also a smoky quality, and dare I say, an inkling of umami? (I think that from now on, if there is a taste I cannot describe, I will just call it umami) In any event, the choice of thigh meat was a good one because the dark meat complimented the sauce perfectly. I think that the sauce would have overwhelmed white meat from the breast.
So how am I going to connect the chicken thighs with jung? Well, if you don’t think fried chicken is the epitome of jung, then I have nothing else to say.
The fifth course was a pasta dish. When you think of pasta, what comes to mind? Gourmet fare created by Mario Batelli? Or maybe something special from the godfather of Italian cooks, Chef Boyardee? Well, when I think of pasta, I think of a middle-aged, overweight Italian woman hauling out a large bowl of pasta the size of small child. As seen in many movies and television shows throughout the years, the stereotypical Italian “mama” doles out huge servings of pasta on your plate and will keep serving you whether you like it or not. Many people believe that Koreans are the Italians of the East. They are loud, love to eat, and love to drink. And if you are a guest in a Korean’s house, you will be stuffed beyond recognition, since just like in Italy, one of the most commons ways to show affection is to feed you - again, and again, and again. You’ll receive a second, third, or even fourth helping regardless of your appetite. The more jung you have, the fatter you will get. When looking at me, many people comment that I must receive a LOT of jung.
*Jen battered the chicken and layed it out so nicely, there was no mess!
Sarah’s pasta dish might as well have been brought out by an Italian “mama” or a Korean “ajumma,” or actually a combination of both. It was a huge bowl full of pasta goodness with an Asian twist. Mixed with crispy bacon, onions, diced tomatoes, garlic and Korean sesame leaf or 깻입 (ketnip), I could easily picture my own mom mixing up a similar concoction at home and heaping a Mt. Everest-sized portion on my plate. With this dish, however, no one had to force me to go back for seconds or thirds. I found myself reaching back to the bowl for helping after helping. This was comfort food. This was food that satisfied the palette as well as the tummy. Bacon, onions and garlic should go in ALL pasta dishes, in my opinion. The addition of the ketnip, contrasted perfectly with the sweetness of the tomatoes, giving the dish a more abstruse, more intricate flavor.
Sid & eunji setting the lens to take some photos...
Cream of mushroom soup topped with perilla seeds and dates
At the end of the evening, after six courses, wine, beer, and the company of great friends, I realized what the theme of the evening was – jung. Through food I am able to conjure up many fond memories of the important people in my life. I remember the first time my mother attempted to bake a 20-pound turkey for Thanksgiving. I believe it was only the second year in the States for our family, so this was her way of trying to say we were “Americans.” Every time I eat turkey, I think of her. Any time I eat In-N-Out, it reminds me of my friends who used work there in high school, and how envious I was of them and their “dream” jobs. When I visit the States, I will inevitably make my pilgrimage to the home of the Double Double, then hop onto Facebook to send a note to my friends from decades ago. In the future, whenever I eat goguma with kimchi or see a large bowl of pasta, I will think of this night. Westerners say, “food is love.” I say, “food is jung.”
Frying with the frying master...Linus Kim.
Sharing stories over wine...love this group!