One of my favorite things about Seoul are the traditional markets dotted all over the city in every neighborhood.  They are a place of adventure and excitement of what awaits to be discovered. No less true when one day I randomly ran into the Gwangjang Market that I have heard of but have never been.

Gwang-jang market.

It was after one of my cooking classes on a Saturday evening, having an errand to run, I headed towards Dongdaemun area keeping an eye for interesting eats.  Close to Jongno-5ga, I found a sign for a market selling clothes, blankets and random things, a common market scene in this area.  But as I walked further in, I saw glowing lights ahead, and to the delight of my tummy, the sight of food stuffs started to appear.

The mysterious alleyway.

I peered down a small mysterious alleyway to my left.  I saw a buzzing crowd and a row of eateries that I thought must be serving something yummy.  My eyes quickly scanned the Korean words looking for clues as to what they were serving.  As I walked further in, I saw old ajimmas (ladies) in front of the restaurants ushering customers in to small 12-seat joints and fresh, shiny red meat and liver displayed in the front.  My first thought was that they must be serving some BBQ, but oddly, I thought, no smells wafting my way.  Then, I finally clued in.  Ah, the signs that said “hwyae”, which is Korean sashimi, is actually referring to raw beef and raw liver!  My realization was confirmed as I turned my head and saw a ajjoshi (man) dipping his raw beef in a sesame oil seasoning enjoyed along side his soju.   I know some Koreans have an obsession with raw foods, including raw beef sashimi, but eating slimy, RAW cow’s liver… that is really extreme food!  I thought you DIE if you eat this stuff.

This is cow's liver sliced up, eaten sashimi style.

Fortunately, I found an even more buzzing food scene as I walked further down the market hall (that seemed endless).  Suddenly, the crowd was bigger.  There were bigger food stalls and lots of people sitting around drinking and eating everywhere.  There was ajimmas frying nokdu (mung bean) pancakes, even grinding the bean in front of you with an old stone grinder.  For a good few minutes, I just took in the whole scene – the little food mountains everywhere, like japche, jokbal, and kimbap, the older gentlemen enjoying soju with their friends, the steamy pots and pans of yummy-looking food, and the buzzing noise of people just going about their own business enjoying dinner.

As I walked from one food stall to another, the ajimmas behind at each stall gestured for me to take a seat and asked what I was looking for.  Finally, after doing a little circle around, I took a seat at one of the benches and asked the ajimma for tteokbokki, a classic street food of rice cake cylinders smothered in spicy chili sauce, and soondae, a Korean blood sausage made of pig’s blood, glass noodles and glutinous rice.

Ajimma slicing my soondae order.

Soondae on the left, and the tteokbokki with the sweet and spicy red sauce.

I took my first bite at the soondae, seeing that the tteokbokki looked and smelled a little spicy.  I don’t know if it was just because I was hungry or if it was the atmosphere of the market, but it was the best tasting soondae I ever tasted.

On to the tteokbokki.  Honestly, after one bite, I was in tears.  Nothing emotional here, my eyes were just sensitive to the spiciness and the steam from the fish broth that was a few inches from my face. Next thing I know, the wells of tears in my eyes had turn into full streams of tears running down my face, and I was starting to feel slightly awkward (it’s not like I can run to the bathroom!).  The guy next to me passed around the toilet paper roll that was used as napkin, and soon enough, everything was under control.  The tteokbokki was spicy indeed, but SOOOO tasty that I finished it all.  I mean, the sauce was killer, in a good way.  It looked like it had been reducing on the burner for hours, coating the fat rice cake cylinders just perfectly, which itself had the perfect soft, chewy texture.

After the satisfying meal, I headed out right away escaping through one of the alleys.  The rest of the exploring will have to wait for the next visit, now that I know how to find this market.

 

There are certain foods that I have pseudo-given up being in Korea in the spirit of cooking Korean food and for better health.  I speak about butter, one of my best cooking buddies, and THE secret ingredient that makes everything taste delicious.  Oh, how I do miss thee.

Luckily, there is some consolation to replace the saturated fat in the diet: the pork belly.  Yes, Koreans are absolutely obsessed with pork belly.  You can get green tea-fed pork belly, Jeju black pig pork belly, special pork belly that doesn’t smell.. and who knows how many other kinds.

All have a different price point and different taste character.  How do I know?  I have to admit that I always do my rounds at Homeplus when they are sampling samgypsal (grilled pork belly).  I just can’t resist most times.  I wonder how many silent calories that adds up with every trip to the grocery store…hmm, food for thought.

But let’s not worry so much about calories, health obsessed Koreans have a different view of this fatty meat than, say, Westerners, where fat has a bad reputation.  Whether it’s true or not, Koreans believe that pork fat, unlike beef fat, passes right through the body instead of gravitating to your love handles, and it also removes toxins from your body. Amongst the many anecdotal health claims in Korea, this one I WANT to believe.

So with that, here are pork belly two ways – one Korean bo-ssam style, and Japanese-style slow braised. I’m a big fan of bo-ssam with the burst of bold flavours that you create in your own individual morsel. It is essentially boiled pork belly slices wrapped in steamed cabbage accompanied by raw oyster, ssam jang and julienne turnip fresh kimchi.  It is particularly delicious when fresh kimchi is made in the late fall during kimjang, and when napa (baechu) cabbage is at its best with its tender, sweet yellow inner leaves.  In fact, I had it only for the first time last fall when I went over to my Aunts for her kimjang.  At the end of the day, all there’s left to do is to boil a chunk of pork belly for about 1 hour, and an array of components come together on the table from the ingredients of making kimchi. Very delicious and satisfying.

I searched for another way to prepare pork belly, a slow braised method, which I think brings out the best in this cut of meat.  I used a very simple recipe from justhungry.com for a slow braised pork belly mildly seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, ginger and sake (which I replaced with soju).  And I braised it in the slow cooker, a method I highly recommend, as not only was it easy to make, but it resulted in the most delectable soft jelly texture.  To put it simply, this dish is all about savoring the glory of pork belly itself and is a must-try recipe at home.

Piece of pork belly with julienned radish kimchi and ssam jang on steamed cabbage leaf.

The inner leaves of napa cabbage. They are beautifully yellow in colour and very sweet in taste. The very best for bossam.

BOILED PORK BELLY FOR BOSSAM

  • about 1 lb pork belly (in one piece)
  • 2 Tbsp Korean miso paste (duenjang)
  • 1 large piece of ginger
  • about 1L of water
  • about 15 cabbage leaves, steamed (either napa cabbage or green cabbage)

Accompaniments:

  • store-bought ssam jang
  • turnip (moo) kimchi, made fresh, not fermented
  • raw fresh oysters (optional)

In a pot, bring to boil the pork belly and water.  Add duenjang and ginger.  Reduce heat, and simmer about 45 minutes, or until meat is tender and cooked.

Separate the cabbage leaves and wash with water.  Steam in a steamer until tender.

To serve, slice the boiled pork in about 0.5cm slices.  To eat ssam, wrap a piece of pork, kimchi, ssamjang and oyster and try to eat at one go!

Gorgeous piece of pork belly and absolutely melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness.

JAPANESE BRAISED PORK BELLY
recipe adapted from justhungry.com
  • about 1 lb pork belly with skin
  • 2 Tbsp sugar — used brown sugar
  • 1 piece of leek (about 6 inches) — used large green onion
  • 1 large piece of fresh ginger
  • 1 star anise — omitted
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp sake — replaced with soju
  • 2 cups water

Cut the pork into cubes, about 1 inch or so squares.  Heat up a large pan with a heavy bottom. Sauté the pork belly cubes until browned on all sides.

Place the browned meat in the slow cooker.  In the remaining fat, add the sugar and heat until caramelized.  Lower the heat, and be careful not to burn the sugar.  Scoop out the melted sugar with some of the fat and add to the meat.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the slow cooker; cover, and set on highest level.  After about one hour, set on medium to low level for about 7 hours, or until meat is very tender.

Serve the pork belly with a little of the braising liquid and a splash of high-quality dark soy sauce.

Lovely local tomatoes.



There is something so juxtaposed about “sweet” and “green” to describe tomatoes in the same sentence.  It is so unexpected that I had to write about it here.

I found these green-hued heirloom-like tomatoes at the local Wednesday market where they sell high quality seasonal produce.  There are plenty of tomatoes of different varieties available in the shops like E-mart in Seoul, but even with their bright matte-red coat, they don’t compare in flavor as they are often too tart and flavorless in the winter.

In contrast, these tomatoes are ultra sweet and have only a slight tart finish.  You can saute dices in a omelette or throw fresh dices in a pasta salad.  Both were in fact on the menu today for breakfast and for lunch, (kinda nice when you don’t have to work on a Thursday… but for the rest of the world) could be a great highlight to a weekend brunch or packed lunch pasta salad.

Keep in mind that these sweet green tomatoes are rather firmer than what you might expect.  That alone would in most cases dismiss these little guys as being under-ripe.  Somehow, though, this is not a bad attribute; the extra firmness helps to retain its shape through cooking. Mushy tomatoes are not exactly a pleasant texture unless it goes totally into sauce.

They are really so unexpectedly delicious that makes you think about where these little guys came from.  After doing a little research, I learned that these tomatoes are from Daejeo (in Busan) and they are just coming into season now.  In fact, there is a Daejeo Tomato Festival in early April.  Ha! Even Korea has its own tomato festival!

If you find these in an open market near you, or perhaps in a department store grocery, try them before they’re gone!  This was the pitch given to me, and I wasn’t disappointed.  They are not cheap but worth it at W10,000 for 10 small tomatoes, each about 2″ in diameter.

Tomato & Broccoli Pasta Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

  • 4 small tomatoes, diced
  • 1 head of broccoli
  • about 125g short dried pasta
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp fresh lemon zest
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • fresh herbs if available

Boil pasta with plenty of salted water until tender as desired, drain and set aside.  I used orecchiette with spinach today from my luggage pantry (i.e. favorite pantry items that I carry from one country to another, this one sourced from home in Toronto).

We have an awesome steamer which can steam the broccoli while the pasta is cooking underneath. Super efficient.  If you don’t have this option, steam broccoli in a separate pot until tender, then cool in ice-cold water, and drain.  Cut into bite sized pieces.

To make dressing, zest about half a lemon and squeeze the juice from the lemon half into a large bowl.  Add grated or minced garlic clove.  Slowly pour a thin stream of extra virgin olive oil while whisking until homogenous.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and fresh chopped herbs if available.

Toss the drained pasta to the dressing to fully coat.  I find this step to be much more efficient at imparting flavour to the pasta rather than sprinkling dressing all the vegetables and pasta at once.  Toss in broccoli and tomatoes, and serve.

It has been awhile since I’ve posted.  I have a ton of recipes to write about as I’m about to finish my classes from the winter term this week.

The update on pumpkin makgeolli – well, I have to sadly admit, I let this one slide.  It was going well until I didn’t strain the makgeolli at the right time and let it sit for way too long.  In truth, I guess I lost my motivation for awhile.  I learned that good tasting makgeolli isn’t impossible to make but not exactly easy to do it at home unless you have a way to control temperature within 1 or 2 degrees over 2 weeks.  Often it produces a very sour taste that is rather unpleasant, which can be masked by adding sugar or syrup but to me that’s kinda cheating when it comes to making traditional alcohol.  I mean, it would be unthinkable to do to wine, but it is a common practice with industrial makgeolli made now (often aspartame is added).

On our last class on Wednesday, I took a sample of my pumpkin makgeolli to class after learning that we had to showcase something we made at home to the teacher.  I really didn’t want to show it since I knew it had rather significant off-taste which was of course picked up right away.  I need to redeem myself!   I will make another shot at makgeolli at home, or maybe I should try to make rice wine with higher alcohol dose since it’s supposed to be a bit more fail-proof.

In the end, I doubt I’ll be making alcohol all the time at home, but it would be great skill to learn to take back with me to Canada. The ingredients are ridiculously simple, it is only tending to it a little bit each day over 2 weeks.  The starter culture is a crucial ingredient through, and one of these days, I’ll make a posting on making nuruk, which is made by spontaneous fermentation.  The rest of the ingredients are rice and water.  3 ingredients, 2 weeks, and tasty alcohol (or at least with some practice) – not bad.  Simplicity at it’s best but the craft and skill to make it well can’t be understated.

Turnip wrapped fresh vegetable rolls. The thinly sliced Korean turnip is soaked in brine for 30 minutes to get soft, pliable sheets.

Korean Radish Wrapped Fresh Salad Rolls

I love the idea of salad rolls, very similar to fresh thai or vietnamese rolls.  This is a Korean fusion recipe from our alcohol cooking class – this appetizer was matched with sweet pumpkin makgeolli.  I was nearly appalled by the combination of yellow mustard and peanut butter, but in the end, it tasted good.

Serves 4-6

  • 250g Korean radish, large, about 20cm diameter
  • 1/2 of each red, yellow and green sweet bell pepper
  • cucumber, peeled
  • 1/2 pack of sprouts
  • sliced ham

for brine solution:

  • combine 2 cup water, 2 tsp sea salt, 6 Tbsp vinegar, 8 Tbsp sugar.

for peanut dipping sauce:

  • combine 1 1/2 Tbsp peanut butter, 1 1/2  Tbsp mayonnaise, 1/3 Tbsp mustard, 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice, 1/2 Tbsp corn syrup, 1/3 Tbsp sugar, 1/3 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds.

Thinly slice the radish, about 0.2cm thickness.  Mandoline would be best tool for this, but we did it by hand.  Soak the sliced turnip in the brine for at least 20 minutes.  Drain, and pat dry.

Cut the vegetables and ham about 0.2cm thickness and 5cm length.

Wrap the vegetable, ham and sprouts with the turnip sheets.  Serve with peanut dipping sauce.

Making sweet pumpkin makgeolli at class. The colour is so intensely yellow, just from the pumpkin.

This is the plastic container of sweet potato makgeolli I took home to ferment. This is day 4 - the clear liquid top layer will get larger and larger as the natural yeast ferments the sugar into alcohol. At this stage you can hear it bubbling like it's alive...it's the CO2 gas being released!