Wednesday, February 27, 2008

korean food dilemmas

On the way home from work on Monday I stopped at the Korean grocery store on the corner of 13th and Broad. I rarely shop there, despite its proximity to my apartment and extremely friendly owner, who always stands up to greet you when you walk in.

The store makes me uncomfortable; although it is a small place, the shelves and freezers have been arranged in a fashion that make the place seem understocked, as if it has just opened for business, or is just about to close forever. The shelving, which refuses to meet my eye level, is overly simple, and the items are spread out instead of stacked up, and as a result it is hard to perceive the boundary between one kind of food and another. This confusion probably does not present itself so much to Korean customers, who likely understand perfectly well why the cans of mackerel boiled in broth are placed next to the seasoned perilla leaves in flat tins, but I am a stranger in the house of soy paste and giant bags of buckwheat noodles.

Cultural differences aside, I can never escape the feeling the owner has developed his own system of food groupings, and that the system is not imported from overseas, but via the dimensional gateways. Also, there is too much white in the place, and the monochrome brightness suggests that there are no discoveries to be made beyond a quick sweep of the goods.

The other problem is that I live in near-total ignorance of Korean food. I know bulgogi, which is so tasty that many vegetarians have been destroyed on its beefy shores. I know kimchi and its occasional assaults on my stomach. And I know kimbap, which looks and tastes exactly like sushi. I get the sense that kimbap is a distinctive snack in Seoul, but over here the Japanese version has probably muscled out the competition.

Anyway, I ended up bringing home a small jar of kimchi, canned spicy tuna and some instant noodles, which is what I get every single time I go there. The black rice looks interesting, but I can't commit myself to a ten-pound bag of the stuff. Does anyone here have a handle on what to pick up in a Korean grocery store?

13 comments:

Schmutzie said...

I think they've got some decent incense and cute pencils, but I'm as lost as you in there. The language barrier when it comes to the labels makes it difficult.

CJ said...

You think you have it rough? Try living in Korea and getting the stuff everyday.

I sympathize wholeheartedly with the assault kimchi makes on your stomach. I've learned that Korean anti-acids don't even begin to aid in recovering from kimchi gas.

Likewise, kimbap isn't as prominent in Seoul as you might think. From birth, Koreans eat a dish called ramjung. Yuck.

If you're looking for a real treat, try galbi (pronounced cal-bee). It's pork that is grilled or BBQ'ed, wrapped in a leaf of romaine lettuce and topped with sauces and other random sidedishes. Or perhaps, duncass (pronounced dung-casse) which is a breaded pork steak covered in a sauce which is much like a very salty plum sauce.

But, for the real Korean experience ... just steam yourself a bowl of white rice.

palinode said...

Excellent advice, thanks. Now I won't go up to Korean people in the street and go, "How about that kimbap, hey?" No wonder they give me those funny looks.

Sonja said...

My sister just sent me this post and do I have some advice for you. I am currently living in Seongnam, SouthKorea.It's a suburb of Seoul. Last year I lived in Seoul. Kimbap is a staple for many Korean school children as it is very easy to make and inexpensive to buy. It's kinda like our P B 'n' J sandwiches at home.
What can I recommend? Well as the Koreans say: "All Korean food is good for health and well being." So, ignore the msg, calories, and pesticides. It's all good.
I suggest samjeon (red pepper paste). It's really good for dipping meat and steamed veggies.
Another good meal is frying Kimchi, rice, sesame oil and canned tuna together. The name of this meal is chamchi kimchi dap bap. I really like to eat it with the seaweed paper. I wrap it around a mouthful of rice. Mmmmm.
The black rice is nothing to worry about. It tastes like normal rice but looks purple when cooked--very pretty.
The rameyon is great for hangovers. Eat it after a heavy night of drinking and it will clean your entire system out by the morning. It is also good to eat with a slice of processed cheese on top.
Any Korean soup that you do eat should be eaten piping hot for the full Korean experience.
When in doubt. Try it. It's usually good. As far as the layout of the store is. It's not typical. Usually the shelves are overflowing. The owner may not have a steady supply or she/he may supply when there is demand.
If you can't think of anything to buy just get soju. It should satisfy all your immediate needs as well as aid in resolving any emotional dilemmas.

palinode said...

Sonja - Thank you so much. I should add that I also know soju, and I know it only too well.

trinity67 said...

The only bit of Korean wisdom I know is my love and adoration of kimchi from Golden Bird. They make THE BEST KIMCHI and that's saying a lot because I don't care for super spicy food. Their kimchi is sweet and spicy and I'm now craving it.

And yes, the gas is awful.

unsigned said...

What to pick up in a Korean store? Hot Korean Chicks. My hood is swarming with them. As for the lack of product the place could be a Bodega! Next time go up to the guy and take your fingers and make like you're smoking a joint and gesture towards him and cough. If you're lucky he's holding Jamaican products as well.

palinode said...

trinity67 - You tempt me with the best kimchi around, and then tell me it's from a restaurant (yes?) that's not around here? Ah, damn you.

unsigned - Excellent advice. I'll drop by tomorrow and say "WHERE ARE THE DRUGS AND WOMEN?"

palinode said...

And I'll follow it up with a hearty round of "WHERE IS THE FUCKING MONEY?"

not to be confused with Where Is The Fucking Monday.

Cloudesley said...

this link may help with what to do with some of your Asian ingredients.
This site does not only have curry recipes, but videos of how to make them too.

http://www.showmethecurry.com/

palinode said...

Damnit, where's the vindaloo?

lotus07 said...

Korean....too spicy...I only like bland oriental food.

Anonymous said...

>>>Excellent advice, thanks. Now I won't go up to Korean people in the street and go, "How about that kimbap, hey?" No wonder they give me those funny looks.<<<

Hehe this is the equivalent of a Korean going up to an American and saying "How about them hamburgers, eh?" Ugh that's not pleasant, I'd hate to be associated with burgers unless it's soy.

I usually just go to Korea town around the 33rd and Bway. Kunjip and a tofu restaurant next door have some of the best food in the neighborhood. Kunjip has a massive rotation of tapas dishes that changes every day. I rarely ever eat the same side dish twice. And if you want to stay on the safe side there's a ton of bright red spicy soups with beef, seafood, kimchi, etc. With a bowl of white rice it makes a great meal. The only downside to Kunjip are the lines. A lot of people like the restaurant so it's almost impossible to be seated without waiting on line even on a weekday at noon. I wouldn't bother going on Fri and Sat nights as the wait can be over an hour long.