Seoul Food – A Beginner’s Guide

When I first got to Seoul a couple of months ago, I was totally overwhelmed with the thought of….well, everything! But, especially trying to figure out how in the world I was going to feed our small (but always hungry) little family of two. To be truthful, Mack would be perfectly ok with eating out every night or having a PB&J and cereal, but that just didn’t seem right to me. After all, my only real job here in Korea is to kinda keep house (there’s a maid, so that’s pretty easy) and to feed our chubby (me, not Mack) selves.

So, I set out on a journey to figure it all out.

The first couple of weeks, I walked through the markets, checking out the weird-looking live fish, the vegetables that I couldn’t identify, and the rows of different colored and textured noodles…and, well, it had me baffled. I was still ok, because our stuff hadn’t come in from the US and I didn’t have a way to cook, even if I knew how. But, I knew that I wanted to work it all out.

I spent hours, walking through grocery stores and markets, looking at the photos of dishes on the menus of restaurants on the street. Still…nothing. I was beginning to worry that I was in over my head.

Oh, I knew that I could load up on American staples at the Commissary on base and that we would certainly not starve, with the alley of authentic Korean restaurants back behind our apartment. But that’s not how I wanted to play this thing.

Though I’m not a particularly adventurous eater (Mack is), I have always believed in the spirit of James A. Michener’s quote:

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”

Nobody loves a Sonic burger more than I do, but I came here for adventure. And, adventure we will have!

So, just as I was about to fall into a blue funk and give up, I found Maangchi. On You Tube. In all of her Korean glory! Though I had never heard of her, apparently, she is quite famous in Korea. Mel’s sweet friend, Lana (who grew up here), knew who I was talking about immediately. I felt like I had found a friend. A soul-mate who was going to walk me through this maze that is Korean cooking. And, to be quite honest, and not-at-all humble – I’ve done pretty well.

My new pal, described in the New York Times as “You Tube’s Korean Julia Child,” has saved my culinary life. I spent several afternoons, watching my way through her “beginner” dishes, then attempting to recreate them in my own kitchen.

Of course, the first hurdle was figuring out the ingredients. Maangchi does a great job of showing the packaging of the ingredients and explaining what to look for. I took screen shots of her examples and spent several hours trying to match up the labeling on my screenshot with the labeling in the grocery store (Kinder-pals…all of those hours we spent with matching and sorting games paid off). I made friends with a precious young fishmonger at the e-market, and he introduced me to lobster shrimp, then taught me how to “read” the Korean words for pork and beef, and how to distinguish between the two.

Last week, I was all in Tex-Mex mode, getting ready for my fiesta and the week before that I was loving having Trae and Corie around. But, the week before that, I tried out a couple of Maangchi’s recipes and they turned out great. I am recreating two more for tonight’s dinner.

The first thing I made was GIMBAP, a kind of inside-out Korean sushi roll. It’s a seaweed rice roll made of gim (seaweed) and bap (rice). It’s so easy, pretty, and healthy, too! For my gimbap, I used matchstick carrots and cucumber, red bell pepper strips, Korean pickled radish, and Krab sticks. I made sticky rice in my Insta-Pot (there’s a grand invention, if I ever saw one), and rolled it all up in a sheet of seaweed.

I wish you could have seen me, trying to explain the sushi roller thing (makisu巻き簾) to the woman at emarket. You know, that woven bamboo mat, held together by cotton string (kind of looks like a bamboo placemat). It took a while, but she got it. That charade-style thing also worked for me when I was searching for a corkscrew-the kind of “drunk-ish” look on my face at the end of the performance sealed the deal on that one…but I digress. The gimbap were super yummy and really easy to make.

The next thing I made were KIMCHI-PPANG or Korean Buns. Though it’s kind of an all-day deal, they are really quite simple. The all-day part comes from the waiting to rise twice, etc. I pretty much stuck to Maangchi’s recipe for the bun part, but I did the filling a bit different. First of all, I’m not a kimchi fan. So, I made 1/2 with kimchi and half without (I guess mine would just be called ppang…). Anyhow, they are really, really good.

When we are not feeling the whole Korean thing, I think they would be great filled with corned beef and sauerkraut and swiss cheese, with a little Thousand Island for dipping. Or, maybe a sloppy-joe filling? Well, really, the sky is the limit. The fluffy, giant white buns are the real take-away here.

And, my go-to for these past few weeks has been tempura-ed lobster shrimp. Here at the emarket, they come packaged in groups of 18 shrimp, so I divide the package into 3 baggies and freeze 2 for a simple supper on days when I want to cook but don’t have much time (or energy, as in those days when we “do” 23,000 steps/8.3 miles…ugh-like Saturday).

Of course, they thaw out really quickly, and these already come cleaned (but with the shell on). I just take the shell off and butterfly the shrimp and dip them into a quick tempura batter and fry them up. 5 minutes, beginning to end. I serve that with some Insta-pot rice (I add a handful of sweet peas to the rice at the end. A sweet lady shells them right there in front of the subway station) and serve with a tossed salad. Mack thinks I’ve been toiling all day:)

I’ve also made bulgogi (which is really delish) and Korean/kimchi tacos (a nod to our new home at last week’s TexMex fandango). I’ll tell you more about that later. More simple, and really delicious Korean meals.

We’ve certainly not gone completely Korean in our dining, and we don’t eat at home all the time. This past weekend, we had pizza, Cobb salad, spaghetti, and cheese and crackers. But, I’m proud to know that I can whip up a Korean meal with the best of ‘em (ok, with the best of the Texans). I’m excited about seeing what else my good pal Maangchi has to offer.

Here’s the link to Maangchi’s bun recipe:

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