호떡 (Hotteok, Sweet Filled Pancake)

Image by 최광모

호떡 (Hotteok) is a quintessential street food. It is rare that Koreans make this at home with so many street vendors selling this treat. Although yes, if you grew up in my household, you might be making this on your own. My parents were TAD protective and didn’t trust street vendors very much. During my childhood, the quality of street food vendors were not like it is right now.

Regardless, whichever vendor you go to, they have their own special little something added to it. It might be a little bit of green tea powder, a little bit more cinnamon, a softer dough…whatever the case, if you ever find yourself on a busy street of Korea, it’s not good enough to just sample one. If you are making this at home, please make sure to eat it right away. Once it cools down, it really doesn’t taste the same. As you know, rice flour tends to get “rigid” when cold. You want crispiness on the sides you fried and soft and gooey on the inside with the melted filling oozing out.

Serves 6 to 8
Prep time: 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on dough rising time
Cook time: 40 minutes

2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 teaspoons raw sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups white rice flour
2 cups unbleached flour

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Oil, for shaping and cooking

Put the warm water into a large mixing bowl and add the yeast, sugar and salt. Stir until the dry ingredients are dissolved, then add rice and wheat flours. Mix with a mixing spoon then knead for 3 to 6 minutes until evenly distributed. Dough should hold its shape and be slightly damp to the touch. Moisten a kitchen towel and drape over the dough and allow to rise for at least 30 minutes.

To prepare the filling, mix all ingredients in a mixing bowl until evenly blended.

Once dough is ready, lightly coat hands with oil, tear off about a 1/4-cup chunk of dough and fashion into a 4- or 5-inch disc. Place 1 tablespoon of filling into the center of each disc, bringing the edges of the disc up around the filling; pinch closed. Each pancake should now be a roughly spherical dumpling.

Place a frying pan over medium heat, and coat the bottom with a small amount of cooking oil. Place one of the enclosed dumplings into the fry pan with the pinched seam at the bottom for a few seconds to seal the joint. Then flip it over with a spatula and squish it flat. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until the bottom is light brown and crispy. Flip over and cook the other side. Remove from the heat after both sides are cooked and place on a rack to cool (a cookie sheet or newspaper will also work well). Replenish the oil in the pan as needed to keep the dough from sticking.

Eat them by hand while they are still warm and gooey, but be sure to have a napkin handy!

수제비 (Soojebi, Hand-Tossed Dough Soup)

Due to the simplicity of this soup, you might think this is a soup of common people of Korea. If you thought that, you’d be wrong. Korea for many generations has been a rice cultivating culture. This means the primary and most available crop is rice, not wheat for making flour. Also, Korea had a highly hierarchical class system. This means, like the nobility of Europe, the nobility in Korea owned most of the land. The farmers who farmed usually had to give portions of their harvest to the landowners.

If you think from that perspective, you will realize that this soup was not for an average person, but for people who had enough means to be in possession of something other than just simple rice and vegetables. Actually, most of the dishes I introduce would probably grace the tables of nobility. If you happened to be a commoner, you would only encounter them during harvest celebrations or other special occasions when noble houses would open up their home to commoners to treat them.

Serves 6 to 8
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes

10 cups water
6 pieces of Pacific Kombu (1 piece is about 2- by 3-inches) (see note)
1 medium yellow potato, peeled
1 small zucchini
1 small onion
2 green onions
1 tablespoon sea salt.
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Dough Flakes:
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten (optional)
7 tablespoons water

Put 10 cups of water into a stockpot or a large saucepan. Add the kombu and bring to a boil. While waiting, prepare the vegetables: Slice potato and zucchini into 1-inch by 1-inch by 1/4-inch pieces. Remove the skin from onion and cut into small pieces. Cut green onion into 1-inch long pieces.

Once the water reaches a boil, remove the kombu, if desired (it can be cut into smaller pieces and eaten with the soup). Add the potatoes, salt, sesame oil and red pepper and continue to boil.

Prepare the dough: Add flour, salt, egg and 7 tablespoons water into large mixing bowl (if preparing a vegan version, leave out the egg and add more water as needed). Knead for approximately 5 minutes or until the mixture is smooth and evenly distributed.

After about 10 minutes of boiling the soup, add the dough flakes. “Tear off” flat chucks of dough about the size of a half-dollar coin and add to the boiling stock. Boil the dough for 10 to 15 minutes or until the dough is fully cooked – usually they will start floating and change color – stirring occasionally to keep the flakes from sticking to each other. When the dough starts rising, add the remaining vegetables. Keep the soup at a medium boil for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Note: Optionally, you can use other seafood or meat broth.

김치전 (Gimchee-jeon, Kimchi Pancakes)

This recipe is a pescaterian version of the pancake. Most often, you will want to put some small pieces of pork meat (especially the natural version of bacon, not those strangely colored American bacon). Gimchee and pork pair really well!

I have been asked about vegetarian or gluten-free version of this pancake. Yes, by all means, please do try. I am not the one to stop anyone from experimenting with food since I cannot follow any recipe. Just to create these recipes, my husband had to follow me around while I was cooking, measuring before I randomly put things into a pot. All I can say is that pancake without flour is not going to taste the same. Also, there is a reason why Gimchee is made with a little bit of fish sauce…something to do with the fermentation process. There are vegan Gimchee recipes, but it’s just not quite the same.

Serves 6 to 8
Prep time: 20 to 25 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour

2 cups sliced Gimchi
1 onion
1 3/4 cups unbleached flour
3 eggs
About 1/2 cup water
High-heat oil for cooking

Place the Gimchi in a large mixing bowl. Use kitchen shears to slice Gimchi into pieces no larger than 1-inch. Dice the onion into small pieces and add to the mixing bowl. Add flour and eggs, stirring with a mixing spoon until evenly mixed. Add water or Gimchi juice (for added tangy flavor!) until mixture is the proper consistency: it should be just thick enough to hold its shape.

Coat the bottom of a frying pan with oil and bring to medium heat. When hot, place a large spoonful (approximately 1/8 to 1/4 cup) of the mixture into the pan. Use the spoon to flatten it out into a pancake about 1/4-inch thick. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes per side, flipping with a spatula when needed. The final product should be mottled brown and slightly crispy on the outside.

Food Shortcuts

If you have heard anything about Korea (or any culture with thousands of years of history), food is one of those things we cannot “not” talk about immediately. Unfortunately, making of food is rather “involved” for any culture with any amount of history. Food becomes part of ceremonies of daily lives so with passing of each year, preparing food becomes more and more complex and nuanced. The more history you have, the more complicated food becomes.

As a person who lives in this modern world with jobs, responsibilities, etc., following the old ways to make the food authentic can be a wee bit difficult. If you have time, I would seriously suggesting following the old recipes and take your time cooking. But, I am also a proponent of taking shortcuts to food making if you are unable to immerse yourself into the cooking process. The taste is probably not as profound, but it will at least hold you over until you find that time to cook as the generations ago have done.

I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to teach a cooking class although I am not a cook nor do I claim to be something other than someone who’s learned a thing or two looking over my grandmother’s shoulder or just hanging out in the kitchen. I prepared several “functional” shortcut recipes for the cooking class I taught so I thought I would introduce them here.

Korean Recipes (also click on “recipe” tag)

미역 무침 (Miyeok-naengchae, Seaweed Salad)

미역 무침 or 미역 냉채 (Miyeok-naengchae) is a fairly common side dish in the summer. Korean meals usually involve multiple side dishes and at least one kind of soup accompanying rice. This dish could just be eaten on its own, but I’ve seen it mostly served as a accompaniment. When I was young, I much preferred 미역국 (seaweed soup) so that’s partly the reason why I don’t have a nice cute childhood memories of this dish, but as I was teaching a summer cooking class, this dish was one of few I could think of to serve that many Americans would think as a summer dish. Honestly speaking, there’s a proverb of sorts in Korea 이열치열, loosely meant hot food summer or winter is better for you.

Serves 6 to 8
Prep time: 20 to 24 minutes
Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes

1 package wakame (1.76 ounces / 50 grams)
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 onion
1 medium cucumber, peeled

Place a package of wakame (about 50 grams) into a medium saucepan and fill with water 1 to 2 inches above the seaweed. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes or until seaweed is loose and chewy but not sticky. Over boiling will cause seaweed to be sticky and not chewy. Drain the water from the wakame, rinse with cold water and place into a large mixing bowl.

While prepping the seaweed, prepare the dressing for the salad: In a small mixing bowl combine the soy sauce, sugar, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, sea salt and red pepper until the solids are dissolved.

Slice the onion and cucumber into long narrow pieces and add to the dressing. Ensure the onions are separated into individual pieces and marinate for at least 5 to 10 minutes (marinating longer will result in a more flavorful salad).

Pour the dressing over the drained wakame and mix thoroughly. Cover and chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes. Serve chilled.

삼국지 (Three Kingdoms)

A small digression that is not technically about Korea. 삼국지 or three kingdoms story is a well known historical text in Korea that many people read. The three main characters in the story who are mythical as well as very humanistic at the same time teach many life’s lessons (sort of like the more familiar Art of War from Japan). As it is a historical text, some of the Korean representatives can be seen in this story as well, during the time of Korea’s three kingdoms (actually 4 since there are four kingdoms that settled into 3). My mother’s ancestors hail from this fourth kingdom so more to come about the three (four) kingdoms era in the posts to come.

The three kingdoms story is famous enough that it is known outside the Asian sphere so if you are interested, you should easily be able to find materials onine.

뒷간 (Room in the Back)

뒷간 literally means a room in the back. Of course, it is not literally just another room it the back. This is an old way of saying toilet. When I was growing up, the older generations still used this word, but younger generation would never use it as it was considered somewhat uneducated/uncultured. This word also has a double meaning. A room in the back makes sense of course, but the back also implies “behind” or “hidden”. So essentially it double means as room in the back, but also means your behind so to speak.

If you look up what is toilet or restroom in Korean, you’d most likely encounter the word 화장실 (this is the proper word by the way). If you ever ask someone where 뒷간 is, someone my age would be able to tell you where it is (pointing to the restroom of course), but would also laugh at you (well, not to your face, but definitely when you are far enough away). I don’t think anyone who is younger than me would generally know what this word means unless they’ve watched historical drama.

So why the talk of toilets?

Well, let’s say the house I grew up in, which was properly inside the city limit of Seoul in a decent part of the city, had this so called 뒷간 until my teenage years. Needless to say, that experience left a lasting impression on me. It is the worst thing to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, especially when it is below -10 degree Celsius in the winter. You have to not only bundle up, but also need to carry a light, then shuffle your way across the small courtyard to go to this literal hole in the ground. The hole is thankfully disguised minimally with attached porcelain squat toilet super structure, but you can still see the hole and if you are a child, you really have this giant fear of falling inside!

For those of you who wish to experience “authentic” old Korean, never fear, there are still places you can experience this for yourself.

My Great Great Grandfather

My maternal great great grandfather, my grandmother’s grandfather, is a figure shrouded in myth for me. He is said to have been over 6 feet tall. 6 장신 is the term my mother and grandmother use to describe him. So what is 6 장신? I had no clue when I heard the term. From the descriptions I heard, I gathered that it meant over 180 cm tall, which is around 6 feet, which was quite tall for a man in Korea in the 19th century. 6 ft tall was quite tall for a person even when I was a child.

I actually looked up what is as I got curious writing this so click here to read a short digression on that topic.

It could be a family tall tale (that was a totally inadvertent pun since I still don’t get pun whatsoever) that he was that tall, but honestly, I believe it. My maternal grandmother who was born in 1915, was 163 cm tall (give a centimetre or two since one shrinks with age). That is very tall for a woman of that time. I heard that she was taller than my grandfather. Of course, as I write this, I had to verify. And no, she was not taller than my grandfather whom I had never seen. I was able to get a copy of their wedding photo and will write more on that in a different post.

Before I further digress, I want to go back to the topic of my great great grandfather. What do I know about him besides that he was considered a very tall man. Well, I really meant it when I wrote he was like a mythical figure.

To summarize (which I might or might not elaborate on my later posts):

  • North Korean: Well, in those times, it was all just Korea. He just lived in a region which is now in North Korea.
  • Landowner: He owned vast area of land where you could roll continuously for a day and not reach the end (yes, this was the literal description my grandmother gave me).
  • Banker: He acted like a community bank. In those days, people didn’t necessarily have “money”. They owned livestock, field goods, perhaps some jewelry, and maybe very few had money. And none of these people had vaults or somewhere they could safely deposit their precious items. So my grandfather’s house acted like a bank vault. People would bring bags of rice and such and deposit them at my grandfather’s house, which had huge storage. They were then able to withdraw or deposit as they they needed. I have a feeling little more were withdrawn as supposed to deposited.
  • Owner of local 양조장 (essentially a brewery): I heard this is one of the reason why he was so rich.

척 (Length measurement)

척, what the heck is it?

It is a length measurement like cm and ft and I’ve heard this often enough when I was young, from my parents, grandparents and also read in folktales. Yet I had no idea what it really meant in realistic terms so I looked it up. Going down the rabbit hole so to speak.

There were various interpretations of what 척 means. According to current Google (yes, seriously, Google seems to track everything!), 1척 = 33 cm so 6척= 200 cm which would be approximately 6.56 ft. That seemed a little overblown. This was very different from a blog written by someone who analyzed height measurement written in 삼국지 (three kingdoms). According to that blog, 1척 = 23 cm, which means 6척 = 138 cm. This was way off the mark. 삼국지 after all is from hundreds of years in the past and not even in Korea. After more searching, I found another blog that analyzed what 척 meant during 조선period in Korea, which is the time period my great great grandfather lived. That page indicated 1척 = 31 cm, so 6척 = 186 cm. If you can read and understand Korean, click here to read more.

Journey Begins

Genealogy is a well-loved hobby of many around me. When I share glimpses of my personal family history, I am often encouraged to write. Yet I have hesitated because my feelings toward my family history is complex and so are my feelings toward many family members. It seems I have a love and hate relationship with my own family history. As an observer, I wish to record them. As a person who has experienced some of it, albeit distantly, I sometimes wish to put it in a box and lock them away. But love and hate I’m told are essentially two sides of the same coin. Does that mean I hate all of my family history or love them? I have no answer to my question or many questions that I have inside. All I know is that time is perhaps always running out if I ever wish to write them down. 

So I start my journey here.

The snippets of story I wish to share are not chronologically ordered. They are just stories, little snippets of my family history shared in little pieces. Some might be able to piece together the chronology of them all, but I will not do so here as the way I heard these stories was just the way I am hoping to tell them, in pieces, out of order, colored by other memories that have clouded them.


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