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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Simple is better. For food.

Shorter is better. For writing.

But deceptively, simple and shorter is hard. Very hard. Both in food and in writing.

Can’t go wrong with fat-laced beef ribs, boiled for hours on end, succulent, tender, moist. My wife – Chef de Cuisine and Saucier of our household – literally spent an entire day with those ribs. First draining excess blood in ice cold water, boiling the ribs once to rid of “some” of the fat, marinating the ribs in a masterful blend of soy sauce, garlic, green onions and black pepper, re-boiling the ribs until the delicate meat is ready to fall off the bones.

In the end, this is what it “boils” down to.

A bowl of hot broth that will send your favorite pho joint scurrying away. Chunks of tender ribs, melt-in-your-mouth like Land-O-Lakes butter. Radish, oh that radish, so flavorful after soaking up the beef juices and fat for hours. And a lot of fresh, chopped scallions.

Simple yet a product of one painstaking process.

Twitter is the same way. The 140-character limit for each tweet forces you to extract everything of your writer’s brain, down to the last nibble. Writing ten-thousand word blahs are relatively easy, filled with fluffy fillers and endless jargon. But expressing the essence of what you want to say, in a way that intrigues followers, is damn hard.

As the great Thomas Jefferson once said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

For me personally, editing is dreadfully tougher than writing. Editing – mainly, making shit shorter – takes a surgeon’s meticulous yet crude skills, cutting away of all unnecessary excess, one morsel at a time. Blood spurts, nerves are shocked, but in the end, that one masterful tweet, is one of purity.

So before we curse Twitter’s word limit, let us choose our words carefully.

So what do you know about kimchi?

Most of you have heard of it by now, maybe even tried it. Most likely at some Korean joint as a side dish, along with (I dare say) rather boring cuts of Korean “barbeque”. One thing in this disorganized and chaotic world is clear: Korean carnivorial culture is vastly understated and misunderstood. Misrepresented. That is a topic for another day. Today, we shed light unto a relatively unkown scene in kimchi culture – “gimjang”.

“Gimjang” is an annual familial (or communal) event, where folks gather to make fresh batches (and batches and batches) of kimchi. This tradition originated from times when refrigeration and greenhouse farming were non-existent. Vegetables used for kimchi – mainly, cabbage and radish – were harvested in the fall, and only in the fall. To stash away your vital supply of kimchi for the winter months (yes, I do mean vital), you had to act and act fast. Family and friends all came together, washing, soaking, chopping, sometimes over a few days. After makgulli and unbelievably delicious home-cooked meals here and there, the finished kimchi was placed in clay jars and buried underground. The science is similar to that of underground wine cellars; the cool earth would keep the kimchi refrigerated (but not frozen) for the months to come.

This scene is diminishing. At the very least, few people actually harvest their own cabbage and radish anymore for gimjang. More and more urban dwellers just buy their kimchi (available twenty-four months) at the local grocery chain. Understandably so, since kimchi-making, and especially the quantity involved in gimjang, is a pain in the ass.

I am proud to say that my grandparents still carry out this tradition. To the east of Seoul, on the doorsteps of the majestic Sorak Mountain, away from the bustling, smog-infested city, my grandparents live in a two-bedroom house they designed themselves. Yards away from their home, they have a patch of land – nothing grand but plentiful – to carry out their vegetation exercise. Cabbage, radish, cucumbers, peppers, shiso leaves and much more. Every November, they harvest their organic vegetables for gimjang, enough to feed themselves, aunts, uncles, cousins and many friends.

This is a chronicle of this tradition. A tradition that is becoming forgotten. A tradition that cannot be bought. The vivid images are the courtesy of my mom, a step-by-step memory of what is the only true way to make and taste kimchi.

* * *

Right in their front yard, my grandparents dry the radish leaves and stem. These are a staple in traditional Korean gastronomy, and can be consumed in many ways – chopped and used in kimchi, or further dried and used in many soup dishes. Nothing goes to waste. When times were tough, especially during the winter months when nothing was growing and there were no refrigerators to stash Hot Pockets, these were crucial to survival.

The harvest is here. Many parts of Korea were hit by severe drought and flooding this past year, but these managed to survive. Hundreds of cabbage, radish, green onions, chilies and much more. Everything is organic. They take “from garden to kitchen” literally; go to garden, chop cabbage, carry cabbage to kitchen. If cabbage could move, they would be squirming as they enter the kitchen’s slumber. Fresh has a different meaning out there in the mountains.

The quality of the cabbage is largely determined by the quality of its golden innards. The inside should be a bright, rich yellow, should be firm with a crunch and should have a sweet aftertaste. These are gorgeous. The halved cabbages need to be soaked in sea salt and water overnight. This maneuver both seasons and softens the cabbage. Mind you that this day was one of the coldest days of the year in Korea. Brave men and women. Looks warm in these shots, but sticking your hands in freezing saltwater is no joke. But all is worthwhile for the kimchi stash.

Day two. The salt-soaked cabbages are rinsed (in ice-cold water) and drained naturally. The cabbages are wilted but not soggy. In the first shot, you may notice – besides the rockstar beanies – the huge clay pots in the background. That is the lucky jackpot, holding homemade condiments. Chilli paste (gochujang), fermented bean curd (dwenjang) and soy sauce. You can’t buy this anywhere. Korean dishes live or die by the quality of these pastes and curds, and homemade organic is the best you will find, anywhere. I was told that my grandma even made her own fermented fish sauce for the kimchi. I love my grandma.

As those cabbages bathe luxuriously in the pristine sunlight, awaiting their massage of sexy, red seasoning and filling, the crew works tirelessly, julienning the radish, chopping the radish leaves and stem, in preparation of the red filling that will soon smother the wilted cabbage. They will be wed in holy matrimony, inseparable.

Tub-sized containers are a must to prepare the filling for the hundreds of cabbage that await their fate. The julienned and chopped radish and friends are tossed with red pepper flakes, loads of garlic, sea salt, homemade fermented fish sauce, and some other secret ingredients that I probably don’t remember. All that is held together by a white, serum-like rice paste. Serious upper body strength is involved here. Everything is tossed and tossed until the red is evenly distributed, resulting in a mound of heaping lava-like, salty and spicy creation that is probably delicious by itself with a steaming bowl of rice.

In the end, here is what my parents brought back for themselves. And there were many, many more containers left. Back at my parents’ place in Seoul, these cartons will be placed in refrigerators specially designed for kimchi – called “dimche” – where they will ferment and ripen at just the right tempo. Yes, there exists refrigerators made especially for kimchi. Again, just think back to wine coolers. Fermentation at different temperatures, for different durations, will affect how the kimchi ripens. There are even different temps and humidity levels for different types of kimchi, as cabbage is far from being the only main ingredient for the dish. The vast array of different kimchi dishes is another lesser-known aspect of Korean gastronomy.

After a cold, hard day’s work, this awaits.

Pork belly, boiled with bean curd and onions until buttery soft. A few edible herbs from the mountains, tossed lightly with sesame oil and salt, edible roots tossed in the same way. Bowls of cabbage and bean curd soup. And a whole plate of that kimchi, now cloaked in ruby red, made just minutes ago. Simple yet elegant. Straight to the core. A true workman’s lunch in the quiet, calm mountains of Korea.

Even the local cats know where to find their grub that day.

* * *

And that’s a wrap on kimchi. Done in tradition, done with family and friends, done right. Gimjang is a workman’s feast, a festive occasion where a year’s harvest, through sweat in the freezing mountain cold, is transformed into a dish that embodies the welcoming, earthy element of Korean culture.

The chronicle continues. I can’t wait to see what next November will bring.

It has been days and days since my last posting. My intellectual gas tank – never close to full to begin with, possibly leaking profusely – has run dry. Taking longer and longer to even finish books, and the news has been so depressing that my guts refused to exacerbate the global tendencies by writing about them here. I’m still stuffed with ample dark meat from a fifteen-pound turkey (and the best parts, the skin and the fat gristle). Honey-basted ham, four different casseroles, corn bread, pie, more gristle, more pie, more corn bread.

So my girth is revived, my brained amply moistened with fat, my taste buds flattered, nourished, and spoiled for days to come.

I wake up and head straight for the couch with hot coffee. And the following exchange with my brother personifies the ultimate state of turkey day hangover. Fat-shocked mental

*     *     *

Me: Library?

Bro: Fo sho.

Bro: U know it.

Bro: Whachu up to.

Me: Listening to bagpipes.

Bro: Where?

Me: On the couch.

Bro: That’s cool.

*     *     *

The dichotomy is pristine clear.

My brother, the ever so studious, meticulous, up-at-four-in-the-morning med student who takes joy in spending his nights in the ER drilling holes into skulls.

Me, the lackluster lawyer, drained of all academic curiosity, proud cynic and coffee-at-one-in-the-morning guy.

But bagpipes on the couch with rich Honduran coffee, now that is soothing. That is soul food. We discover our muses on different grounds, in different circumstances, on different couches. Music helps. Music as your muse? Maybe. Bagpipes, though, have an odd medicinal quality. Any motivation-depleted, call-seeking dreamer can tune into holistic medleys of grand bagpipes on an iPhone and be instantly transformed to the green hills of Scotland. Haggis on the side? No more.

What calm, what joy, what hope.

Turkey day plus two.

Over the years, my father has passed down an important family mantra of sorts: the best food comes from the shabbiest shacks.

Birthed from decades of soul-searching amongst hosts of Korean noodle joints, this family motto proved to be particularly true back in the home Peninsula. Some of the best meals I’ve had by far in Korea were at five-table huts in the middle of reeking (in the best of ways) fish markets, many with no signs at all. You sit down, and a simple (time-tested and customer approved) menu is awkwardly hung on the wall. An elaborate menu is usually not needed, as these places are usually known for one or two specialty dishes. The food is direct, to the point, unpretentious. The flavors speak for themselves. The people are genuine, their hands speak of their years in the kitchen.

Following this mantra, I was recently led to an Indian joint in the middle of somewhere in Arlington, VA. Somewhere on the border between Arlington and Falls Church maybe, somewhere between the yuppie part of town and the ethnic mixing bowl of Northern Virginia. I’ve always been fascinated by ethnic food, especially restaurants that are frequented by “locals”. Ever more so since working as a contributor for Roads & Kingdoms, my hunt has led me to remote corners of the DC suburbs, in the midst of the most vibrant of immigrant communities, basting in centuries of culinary excellence.

Driving by without much thought, you would have missed the place, no doubt about that. The red brick building rests upon a slab of concrete, and if it isn’t for a small sign that flashes “Kohinoor Dhaba Buffet”, there is no way you expected one of the best Indian establishments to come out of the place.

There are five parking spaces in front of the building, and three of them are occupied. The place looks authentic enough (good sign), in the middle of nowhere, shady exterior, shadier interior, and a proprietor slash manager type who is eagerly determined to stop me from shooting his restaurant (good sign?). My imagination sparks, scribbling stories of Indian mafia(?) and their buffet joints. What could be going on in here? How odd, I think, while I stash my iPhone in my pocket, carefully eying the two other grumpy-looking men guarding the register.

The buffet counter was six-feet long, packed with vibrant colors of orange, green, brown, and red. The odors were hypnotizing. Goat curry was thrashed generously onto my plate, along with two types of chicken curry, chick peas, and two more types of veggie curries for which I cannot recall the exact nomenclatures. The videography-resistant manager brings us a steaming plate of fresh naan. We walk up a narrow flight of stairs to another dining area, where an episode of the Judge Alex show is showing on a ancient TV set. Perfect, I thought, until a few other hungry Indian customers came and changed the channel to some Bollywood soap opera. In between spoonfuls of rice and goat, in between our exchanges of post-election politics, my friend and I curiously tuned into the soap opera (it had subtitles, after all). What an atmosphere. Quite the experience.

As shady as this place was (I will probably never get the full story behind the no-filming gag), the food was spot on. My father’s mantra proved to be infallible even in the remote wilderness of NoVa. After plates of curried meats and fresh naan, my friend and I walk out, gastronomically stunned, always a good thing. We agree that this place is not the most girlfriend/wife-friendly establishment. Well, we correct ourselves, maybe once, for the food is worthy of the somewhat gloomy and ominous atmosphere. It could’ve been the weather, the dying trees and leaves and all that.

With lingering notes of spices, we move forward, back to yuppie Arlington and its Northside Social, for a round of coffee.

Children, it seems, have always felt chronically repelled by my presence, more or less. I have nothing against children – especially when they’re three or four years old. Still cute and cuddly yet without too much mischief to cause a pain in the ass. I actually like children, and although it usually takes time, once they warm up to me, they (probably) like me too.

The year before law school, I was mentally at a loss. Confused, out of focus, blurred, foolish. Detached. I had no idea why I wanted to go to law school. I had no idea what to expect, and frankly, I didn’t care. I was teaching English in Seoul, making decent money, not a worry in sight. I was accepted to some no-name school in DC, but it was in the top tier, so I couldn’t complain, given my utter failure on the LSAT.

My shifts were from 6:30 am – 10:30 am, and from 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm. “Odd” is the least I will say about that schedule. Given all my free time during the day, I volunteered to teach an after-school English class at an elementary school in a poorer neighborhood in Seoul.

As an aside, Korean households spend an inexcusable amount of money on out-of-school English education, in addition to all the other out-of-school tutoring expenses, in preparation for the college entrance exams. This could very well be a future post, an exposure of the ridiculous English education system (and secondary education in general) of Korea.

These kids could not afford the hefty price tags on private English tutoring, so we brought our classes to them. I was in charge of ten or so fourth-graders. Adorable. Absolutely delightful. Loud, obnoxious, annoying at times – all of that was true. But I had a blast. Many of these kids were living below the poverty line, some even had head lice. If it wasn’t for the after-school programs, most of them would either be home alone or wander the streets, for there was no one at home to care for them.

Let’s just say that the lessons were not on the forefront. On a good day, we would go through about half of the material I prepared. The rest of our time was spent laughing, at everything and about everything. These kids were so bright and full of life, as if life’s hardships have not yet left a permanent dent in their beings, their souls. If I had one goal during my tenure there, if I could instill one takeaway point in all my lessons, it would be to implant and encourage the hope that they could blossom into anything they imagined.

So, as I ran by a group of toddlers after escaping the office on Halloween night – zebra, pumpkin, hamburger, they were all there – I reminisced those days. Our games, our crafts, our pictures, our ice cream. Our laughs. I wonder where they are now, what they are doing. Are they still in school? How are their studies? How has life treated them? In the midst of societal and familial chaos, I pray my children have the guts to dream on, to hope, to strive, and to not take no for an answer. I pray that they may take life by its horns and laugh at its face.

I miss my kids.

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