A Place to Encounter Best Grilled Fish in Seoul

Grilled fish (mostly mackerel, 고등어) is a very popular dish in Korea. It is popular so many restaurants have it as an option, especially in the touristy area of Seoul. However, one thing to note about Korean restaurants in Korea is that most authentic and good ones are very specialized. They don’t usually have a menu composed of all kinds of different foods, but specialize in a single topic. So if you want to find the best grilled fish, you go to a restaurant where the primary topic of their menu is grilled fish related items. Also, there is usually a spot where many restaurants all congregate and specialize in grilled fish. It is strange how that works since you’d think grilled fish restaurants would open far away from each other, but for some reason, many of these places are right near each other.

One such well-known grilled fish place in Seoul is Honam Jip (호남집). It is near Dongdaemun (동대문, east gate) at the busy marketplace there (specifically, Dongdaemun subway station stop exit 8). Be prepared for one of the best tasting mackerel (with rice and accompaniments of course). Do not worry if your partner is a vegetarian and/or not into fish. There are other things on the menu, but if you don’t taste the grilled fish, you are missing out.

생태 식해 (Saengtae Sikhae, Spicy fermented pollock)

The fondest memories I have of my grandmother is helping her with her yearly food preparations. 생태 식해 (Saengtae Sikhae, Spicy fermented pollock) was one of my father’s favorite dishes so of course, my grandmother made it every year.

She would usually go to a fish market to get the freshest pollock early in the winter as that is the season they are of the best quality. She would never use a fish that was ever frozen as that affects the taste. She then washed and cleaned them thoroughly and salted them for several days. After a number of days, they would be cut into smaller fishes then put in the traditional Korean pot with spicy pepper powder, cooked millet, and shredded radish. The dish was ready to eat after a week or two. As Korean winters are fairly cold, Sikhae would last a fairly long time just outside in the pot. But often, we would put it in the refrigerator to make it last longer.

Sikhae is often made with many different kinds of fish, but my grandmother only used pollock as that was the one she thought that was the most quality fish. So every year, preparation of Sikhae was one of the early winter rituals we went through. The day fish was prepped, we would usually make spicy fish soup with the leftover parts of the fish. I would sometimes help her clean the fish or prep them for salting. For some strange reason, her Sikhae always tasted so much better than the ones that were store bought. I am not sure what secret ingredient she put in as I don’t think there was anything out of ordinary. It is probably that she only used the best and freshest fish, and used her own prepared red pepper.

Three Sauces Nostalgia

Here I go again! Another post about Korean food. But it’s really hard to avoid topic of food when talking about Korea and my childhood memories.

There three main essential sauces in Korean food: 된장 (Doenjang, soy paste sauce), 고추장 (Gochujang, red chili paste sauce), and 간장 (Gangjang, soy sauce). My paternal grandmother used to make these from scratch each year, starting from soy beans as all three sauces come from the same source.

I always knew when she started this process as the house would be full of the smell of steamed soy beans when I come home from school. She usually bought a very large sack of soybeans in the fall and steamed them all at once. I have no idea how she managed to do that since her steaming process always happened while I was in school during the day. All I know is that by the time I came home mid-afternoon, she would have steamed and somewhat cooled the large sack of soy beans already.

Image by 온맘으로

And the fun begins!

Both my grandmother and I would stand on the large steamed sack of soy beans and start smooshing them under our feet. It is a bit like those videos of wine makers who are crushing grapes with their feet although the beans were inside the sack and mushier. I often got really enthusiastic and jumped up and down on the sack and thankfully nothing splattered. Every time you step, there is this smell of steamed soy beans everywhere. As much as I associate that smell with my childhood, I did not like the smell when I was stepping on them. I just liked crushing the soy beans with my feet.

Eventually you do need to take the soy beans out of the bag and make sure they are paste-like. There are always some larger chunks of bean here and there (that’s part of the charm), but essentially you should be able to shape it like a clay. The shape my grandmother usually made was a cube, about 10 cm (or close to 5 inches) on each side. Of course, me being the child, I often made 2-3 chunks into cones or other fun shapes. My grandmother usually let me make whatever shape I liked for a few of them although I now know that some of those weird shapes were not optimal for the fermentation process. These shaped soy bean pastes are called 메주 (meju).

These meju pieces are then dried very carefully. My grandmother would usually set them carefully under the shade right outside the back of the house, protected from the rain (rain and freezing is a no-no). And there they sat until the weather started to get cold. She treated meju like her pets. Once the weather got cold, the meju pieces would come right back inside the house and take up very prominent places right next to 연탄 난로 (Yeontan stove – Yeontan is a coal briquette that was commonly used in Korea for heating when I was young). That and heated floors (more to come on this).

Around February is when the next phase starts. It is still cold out, but not completely frozen over. My grandmother would take these cubes and put them inside a large 독 (dok, Korean clay pot) and fill it with sea salt water. Sea salt is very important. Even though I was young, she made sure to tell me we never use just any regular salt. Don’t ask me why not…something to do with it being natural? Some kind of aid in fermentation process? No idea.

I don’t know how the magic happens, but once the cubes starts floating in the water (initially they stay at the bottom), the water turns dark. This is essentially beginning of soy sauce. I am sure I have forgotten some little process that happened while I wasn’t paying attention, but this miraculous sudden floating of cubes and dark water in the pot was what is left in my memories.

My grandmother would then fish out the the wet meju and divide them in half. The soy sauce would be used as soy sauce of course. Why divide the now again soy paste (but fermented) in half? Well, there are 2 other sauces to make. To make doenjang, one half of the paste is put into another dok and covered with sea salt to ferment further. It should be done in a month or two although you can let it ferment as long as you like. There are “young” doenjang and “old” doenjang and anything in between and are used for different dishes.

The other half of the paste is mixed with red pepper flakes — Preparation for this is a whole another story. Essentially, my grandmother would spend weeks drying red pepper on our balcony. You cannot go near this balcony while peppers are drying since it is so hot you will start crying — and rice flour (and there might have been some barley flour in it, etc. But mostly the 3 main ingredients are meju, red pepper flakes, and rice flour. This mixing process happens in a gigantic bowl. My grandmother used to have a wooden spoon that was about 3 feet tall. I used to stir the bowl by walking around it holding the spoon.

These three sauces are just basic, but they take 6+ months to make. If you buy soy sauce, I recommend you always looking for “naturally fermented” and ones without some kind of additives or wheat in it. The sauces are fermented so the preservatives are not necessary. I do not understand why companies that make these sauce nowadays add just random stuff. Needless to say when I go shopping for these sauces, I literally spend more than half an hour reading every brand’s ingredient so I find the right one with no preservatives, naturally fermented, and no additives.

Another note…I introduced just three sauces here, but within each 3 sauces, there are incredible variety of sub-sauces. There are soy sauces for soup, dipping, cooking, etc. (all different, I know!). There are dozens of different kinds of doenjang and gochujang for different occasions.

As this post is getting long, I will have to introduce you to the incredible Korean pots (독, dok) that behaves like a refrigerator in my later post. Stay tuned…

뽀끼 (Ppokki, Sugar treat)

뽀끼 (ppokki) was one of those street foods that I have fond memories of in my childhood. It is essentially a melted sugar treat.

Ingredient: Sugar and baking soda (super simple!)
Directions: You put sugar on a large spoon or in a small pot to melt (make sure to stir often so it doesn’t burn), then as you see sugar melting and becoming light yellow, you add some baking soda which will make it puff up. You stir some more and when it becomes light brown, you take it off the heat, put on a flat surface and flatten it with something. It cools down quickly into a flat sugar candy. There’s nothing more to it.

So…why the nostalgia? After all, I can practically make this every day in my own kitchen. The nostalgia is associate not only with the taste of the candy, but the experience of getting one of this when I was a child. There’s a reason why it is called ppokki, which somewhat means 뽑기 (ppopkki: draw, or pick out). The ppokki vendors of old usually operated out of a small tent. You go in and you pick a shape (these are like pancake or egg molders you would see nowadays). The vendors basically put a shape on your ppokki as they flatten the sugar candy. There were many shapes, some really simple like circles or squares, others more elaborate such as stars or shape of a bike or something like that. The simple ones were cheaper and smaller and you get them for your sweet tooth. The more complex ones were little more expensive, but if you were able to eat around the shape so that you can keep the shape without breaking the whole candy (this is where pick out/draw meaning comes from), you got to have a smaller ppokki for free! Keeping the shape on your candy was not as easy as it sounds. You can try on your own and see how it works for you.

Of course, another reason for nostalgia is in that I had to often sneak around to get this treat. My parents were not very approving of these street vendors. In those days, they did not use sugar and baking soda as those were expensive ingredients. They would use cheap ingredients such as saccharine and baking soda substitutes. My parents were not proponent of me eating so much sugar, but they were willing to let me make this on my own if that would stop me from going to these street vendors. Unfortunately what they probably never realized was that at home, I did not get to experience the thrill of getting another ppokki by maintaining shape as I ate my first one.

If you can read Korean, I found a page with a detailed instruction on how to make it with accompanying pictures!

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

Dough:
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

Filling:
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

Broth:
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.