International Meals – South Korea

If North Korea had a paucity of choices, South Korea is the opposite – there’s so much good stuff that it was hard to narrow it down.  Korean Fried Chicken is definitely having a moment, at least in Vancouver – you can’t throw a stick without hitting a new place.  (Although they have politely requested that people stop throwing sticks at their restaurants.)

However, deep frying at home sucks, so we decided to do something else.

First up, however, is the absolutely mandatory Korean side dish / condiment / national dish – kimchi!  And the reason it’s first up is that it takes a bit of time to ferment properly.  So with our meal scheduled for Saturday evening, we took Tuesday night to get the cabbage going.

I made another trip out for supplies, and discovered that the Korean supermarket not only sells WHOLE Napa cabbages, but you can also buy half and quarter portions, too.  Which is a good thing, because half a Napa cabbage still represents about six pounds of cabbage! To start, you salt all the leaves and then leave it to soak for a few hours.

Napa cabbage soaking

Ideally, you leave it to soak in a basin larger than the cabbage itself, but we don’t HAVE a basin larger than even HALF of one of these beasts.

Once it’s ready, you cook some glutinous rice flour and sugar in water to make a sticky base for the sauce, the rest of which consists of garlic, ginger, onion, fish sauce, fermented shrimp, and a LOT of gochugaru. (Korean red pepper flakes.)  Like, a LOT a lot.

Kimchi ingredients
Or, at least, you’re SUPPOSED to put in the fermented shrimp, and not just buy them and then leave them in the freezer like an idiot.  Sigh. (We added a little bit to the Kimchi right before serving, at the suggestion of our guest.)

Once the sauce is mixed, you also add in some thinly sliced carrot, green onion, and daikon radish.  Also something called “water dropwort,” but in this case the store didn’t have it. And then you get messy!

Applying kimchi sauce to cabbage
To do this right, you have to get in there and smear sauce on each and every cabbage leaf.  It takes a while.  But once you’re done, that’s it!  Kimchi goes into containers on the counter to ferment for a day or two, and then into the fridge.

Kimchi in tupperware
For our main dish, we’re making bulgogi. Turns out this literally means “fire meat.” Can’t argue with that.  But also can’t actually use fire, since we’re on the fourth floor now.  But that’s a problem for Saturday us.  First, FRIDAY us has to make up a tasty marinade.
Bulgogi marinade
Obviously, there’s many different recipes.  The one we went with included Korean pear, onion, garlic, ginger, green onion, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, black pepper, and carrot.  As it turns out, pureed pear looks EXACTLY like pureed onion, but you don’t want to get those two confused!

We mixed that up, smeared it over some nice thinly sliced top sirloin, and that went into the fridge as well.

Saturday, it was time to put everything together, as well as make our side dishes.  And for extra special nervous making, we had invited an actual Korean person over to share the meal! For those keeping score at home, this is the third time we have done this – the first two were Brazil and Italy.

As mentioned last week, Korean meals typically have a range of side dishes, or banchan.  If you count rice (you probably shouldn’t) we’d be having three.  The only interesting thing to say about the rice is that short-grain sushi rice, like we used last week, appears to be the standard tabletop rice in Korea.

Next up, a nice simple dish with bean sprouts.  A quick blanch in boiling water, then mix together with garlic, fish sauce, and sesame oil.  Done.

Bean sprout side dish

Our final banchan involves potatoes.  While potatoes are originally native to the Americas, they are at this point a staple just about everywhere, and that definitely includes Korea.  This is another simple one – fry potatoes and onions in oil, and then glaze with soy sauce, garlic, and sugar. (The picture was taken in the “pre-glazing” portion of the program.)

Potatoes cooking.

For the very final step, the bulgogi came out of the fridge, and was slapped onto a hot cast iron grill to quickly cook.  So quick, that I didn’t even remember to snap a picture.

Given that, let’s skip to the final spread!

Korean Meal
Clockwise from upper left, we have lettuce for wrapping, kimchi, soy sauce potatoes, chewy sweet rice flour desserts that our guest brought, seasoned bean sprouts, bulgogi, and rice.  Looks pretty tempting, doesn’t it?  Here’s a pile of everything on a plate:

Korean plate o'food
Om nom nom.  This was SO good.  My only complaint would be that I didn’t cook the potatoes long enough, so they were a bit too crunchy.  But the flavor of everything was great, and in particular, we nailed the kimchi.  Our guest (who we COMPLETLY FORGOT to take a picture with, as usual) said that she couldn’t believe we had done it ourselves from scratch, and that it was an excellent job.

Normally, I’d be concerned that she was just being polite, but not this time.  We did an excellent job.

You may be wondering about the liquid in the glass.  We had not one but TWO Korean beverages available for the meal.

Cinnamon drink and Makegoli
The one on the left was brought by our guest, and is called Sujeonggwa, or cinnamon punch.  It’s quite sweet, but it tastes of cinnamon and dried persimmon.  In other words, it’s fall in a glass.

The one on the right is Makegolli, which is a fermented sparkling rice wine.  Our guest was quite surprised that we had a bottle on hand, but it turns out there’s a local store quite close to us that specializes in making the stuff.

They’re also not technically allowed to sell alcohol for takeaway unless you buy food, because they are not a liquor store.  So I bought a scone.  They also have a basket of $1 Rice Krispie treats by the door, if you REALLY don’t want to shell out too much extra.

That aside, Makegolli is ALSO delicious.  There’s a little chart on the bottle to show how the levels of “sour”, “sparkly” and “sweet” change over time.  This was a quite young bottle, so “sweet” was the dominant of the three.

And finally, dessert!  These tasty little packages, called gyeongdan, are just rice flour with a little sugar syrup inside, but they were a great conclusion to a hearty meal.

Korean rice cake dessert

And that’s it for South Korea!  We had a wonderful time with our guest, and will be eating leftover kimchi for WEEKS.  Next up, we have to decide if we’re doing Kosovo – they’re recognized by more countries than not, but they aren’t on the UN list.

Soy sauce potatoes
Seasoned mung beans

International Meals – North Korea

Let’s get something out of the way right up front – alphabetical order is a social construct.  Sure, we could put North Korea under “N”.  That would make more sense, probably.  Or we could put it under “D” for DPRK, which is what the United Nations does.  After all, we put the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” there.

But we didn’t.  We’re putting it here. Moving on.

North Korea is one of the most secretive states on the planet.  Not for nothing is it called “The Hermit Kingdom.”  And while there is a long traditional food culture in that part of the Korean peninsula, our understanding is that your average North Korean is more likely to be hungry than they are to be feasting on traditional delicacies.

So we’re going to split the difference here – we’re going to attempt to make one relatively modern North Korean dish, which was born out of the need to make something from very little.  And to balance it, we’re also going to make a more traditional dish from the North.

All of this also has our usual caveats applied – we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re not very good at research, and a number of approximations, both intentional and un- have inevitably crept in.

The good news is that there are a number of excellent Korean supermarkets in Vancouver, so ingredient hunting was pretty straightforward.

Korean ingredients
Look at all this neat stuff!  You can tell it’s Korean by the Chinese characters on the bean curd sheets, and the Japanese ones on the mustard paste. The buckwheat noodles are at least DEFINITELY Korean, although on closer inspection they turned out to be sweet potato, and not buckwheat. Look, we’re trying, OK?

For our “modern make the best of it” dish, we’re making Injo Gogi Bop.  This literally means “artificial meat rice.”  This sounds worse than it is – the dish is actually just sushi rice inside a bean curd wrapper, with a flavorful sauce. Done right, the texture is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike meat.

Lots of sources talk about this dish, (here’s the Wikipedia article) but very few provide an actual recipe.  We consulted our friend Ji Hyun for advice and she came through with a recipe.  Thanks Ji Hyun!  Weirdly, the only recipe on the English language internet that she found for us was from… a German meal kit site.  She also found a video of some nice German people attempting to make it.

OK, so how do you do this?  Rather than making bean curd wrappers from scratch, which is part of the origin of this dish, we opted to follow the meal kit route by buying ours premade and soaking them.

Bean curd sheets soaking

And this is the first place we went wrong – the meal kit site doesn’t say how LONG you need to soak these for.  Opinions vary on the internet, but several hours is the low end, and we hadn’t allowed that.  So they never really unfurled the way they were supposed to.

Next up, you make sushi rice.  Rice cooker. Bam.

Finally, you make a sauce by frying some onions, green onion, and garlic together, then mixing that with soy sauce and Korean chili flakes.

Injo gogi bap sauce
This is actually where 95% of the flavor in this dish comes from, and it wasn’t half bad at all.

The final assembly, in theory, consists of rolling out the beautifully flat soybean sheets, putting a dollop of sushi rice in each one, and then rolling them up to make a nice “meaty” little package.

In practice, our sheets never really unrolled, so we ended up having to make bean curd – rice – bean curd sandwiches instead.

Bean curd and rice assembly

For our second, more old-school dish, we decided to make a cold buckwheat noodle recipe called Mul Naengmyeon. I mentioned that the noodles we purchased did not seem to contain much buckwheat, but it turns out that’s not disqualifying – there’s a whole family of noodles that works for this dish, and the ones we bought seem to fall comfortably within it.

Being a cold dish, there wasn’t a LOT of complex prep here.  Cook noodles in boiling water, shock in ice bath. They had a fascinating translucent color.

Naengmyeon noodles
Top with broth (yes, out of a bag – we went lazy), slices of cucumber and Korean pear, and serve with mustard paste and vinegar on the side.

Finally, we made a banchan.  If you’ve eaten in a Korean restaurant, you know that meals tend to be served with a bunch of tasty little side dishes called banchan.  We were already making two mains, so we went with just one side, a cucumber and sesame salad.

And here’s the final spread, with the sauce on the Injo Gogi Bap.

North Korean meal

Sure looks a mess, doesn’t it? Still, the important thing is taste, right?  And this poverty food, born out of necessity and desperation was… actually pretty tasty!  It’s hard to go wrong with garlic, soy, and chili as a seasoning mix.  The noodles had a fun chewy texture, although I would say they definitely needed the mustard and vinegar to perk them up a bit.  And our banchan, while basic, was also quite good.

And that was Korea, North!  Next up, we’re staying in the “Ks” with, surprise, surprise, Korea, South.

Injo Gogi Bap
Mul Naengmyeon

International Meals – Kiribati

One of the struggles of this project is to not simply cut and paste our recipes from other bloggers who have taken on this task.  Especially since they’re mostly doing a better job.

In particular, United Noshes is doing a really exceptional job.  They have dinner parties.  They donate to charity.  They’ve been on NPR.  Have WE been on NPR?  No we have not.  Are we doing nearly a careful or accurate enough job to WARRANT being on NPR?  Also no.

But when United Noshes says they are unable to identify much, if any, of a distinct food culture for a country, we know we’re not going to do any better.  In order to avoid just copying them, I will generally do quite a bit of Googling, as well as checking actual cookbooks.  But in this case?

Nope – we’re just copying them.

To get a few things out of the way:

Kiribati is an island nation in the middle of the Pacific ocean. It is the 172nd largest country in the world by surface area, putting it between Sao Tome and Principe, and Bahrain.  By population, it is 178th. On the other hand, they have bent time and space to their will.

By which I mean there’s a big diversion in the international date line which Kiribati unilaterally declared in order to have the entire country be on the same day of the week as their major trading partner, Australia.

International Date Line
Can you guess where Kiribati is in this picture?

Two more facts before we get onto the food.  1) The name of this country is pronounced “Kiribass”. 2) Kiribati is very likely to be the first country we lose entirely to climate change.

OK, so before that happens, what are we making?  Two dishes – fried parrotfish, and pumpkin simmered in coconut milk.

Both are VERY simple, as befits a country with very little land area for cultivation of herbs and spices.  Let’s start with the fish.  Parrotfish are actually found all over the world, but since they are also found in the freezer at my local Supermarket 88, we decided to ape United Noshes and go with that.  After all, we can’t argue with this irrefutable evidence:

Kiribati stamp with parrotfish.

That’s more or less exactly what the frozen one looked like.

Uncanny, isn’t it?  I am NOT good at gutting, scaling, or filleting fish, as has already been established in this project, but fortunately, parrotfish have BIG scales, so it’s easy to tell when you’ve gotten them all.  A great deal of utterly terrible knife work later, and we had this.
Parrotfish filets

And a quick fry in oil later, we had this.
Fried parrotfish
That would appear to be fried fish, all right. To be clear, I used absolutely no seasoning or breading of any kind.  Just patted them dry with paper towels and hurled them into the oil.

For our other dish, we made Te bwaukin, or pumpkin simmered in coconut milk with pandan leaf.  And there’s really not much more to it than that.  There’s literally only one ingredient (sugar) that isn’t listed in the title of the recipe.

Chop up pumpkin. (shown here mid chop)

Put in a pot with coconut milk, sugar, and some pandan leaves.

Simmering pumpkin

The pandan leaves are interesting.  They have a really lovely, sweet fragrance, and are used for seasoning desserts all over Oceana and southeast Asia.  Our entire fridge now smells like pandan, and I am not complaining.

And with that, we’re done.  Here’s dinner:

Kiribati meal

Simple, isn’t it?  The nice thing about saltwater fish is that they taste just fine when you cook them without any seasoning.  It was a nice crunchy piece of flaky fish.  And the pumpkin was so sweet (if a bit mushy) that it was basically a dessert.  Nothing fancy here, but as authentic as we were likely to get, and nothing we wouldn’t eat again.

Thanks Kiribati!  We hope everyone gets out safely.

Next up, due to our refusal to file it under “N” or “D”, we have Korea, North.

Fried Parrotfish: Seriously, just toss it in hot oil for 12 minutes or so.
Pumpkin Simmered in Coconut Milk