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Working with great friends at Roads & Kingdoms is always a true pleasure. Since I first contributed to R&K a couple of years ago, the site has grown organically into a beautiful cosmos of pristine journalism and photography.

R&K is at its best when it uses food to shed light unto greater aspects of light, and its most recent Breakfast Series is an embodiment of that strength. Every day, the sight features a different breakfast dish from around the world. It’s simple – a photo accompanied by a short narrative. But the installments are informative, powerful.

Breakfast has been a religion of sorts for me. Food in general, but breakfast in particular. While many mornings these days consist of cramming down bland oatmeal, cereal, or a bagel out of haste, there have been many more when that first bite in the morning allowed a flooding of the senses and memory.

As for my piece, I chose haejanggook. Hearty, simple, bloody, it’s a pick-me-up of all pick-me-ups, an aesthetically brash yet soulfully tempered soup. You can read the piece here

Also, as an introduction to the art of breakfast, you may also enjoy Matt Goulding’s delicious piece here. Masterful as always.

The “Soup Nazi” was probably not an unfamiliar site in many developing nations in the last century, minus Manhattan. A big cauldron filled with odd bits of animal parts, radishes, cabbages, and the most basic of seasonings, boiling away for hours upon hours, to be replenished at intervals with stock and more cabbages, until all the marrow escapes the carcass and into the soup.

While many forms of soup have now become “exotic” must-haves or hangover cures for Sunday mornings, soup, at its inception, was the lifeblood of the working poor.

Therein lies the true beauty of soup.

“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel-to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

I love Nikos Kazantzakis, not only for his fictional work (such as Zorba the Greek), but also for his travelogues. As if his eyes photo-captured every lasting detail, Kazantzakis masterfully portrays the vast layers of his destinations – its people, scenery, architecture, scent, and food.

What made him an “expert” traveler  (and even more gifted travel writer) was not merely his in-depth depictions and artful prose. What made him great was his willingness – and yearning – to get out the comfort of a car and walk the streets, smell the meat market, and chat with locals about anything and everything.

Peking in the early 1900s was no easy place to travel.

“On a cool square a multitude sits cross-legged. In the center, a girl, slender, with disheveled hair, holds the large scissors which she opens and closes continually while she sings and dances slowly. A harsh voice, a hyena howl, an incomprehensible harmony. An old woman sprawled on the ground, stooping, bald, plays a strange elongated lute. Nearby, an old man with glasses and sparse gray beard and two or three thick hairs on his upper lip is sitting on a stone reading a religious book. As he fans himself, his body from the waist up moves rhythmically with his monotonous voice in a lamenting lullaby. And all around, women listen to him, gaping, with bleary eyes plagued by flies. Sweltering heat. And across at the butcher shop the butcher hangs his jacket over a loin of beef.

Two-wheeled carriages drawn by the coolies who run, panting. The sidewalks are covered with goods – old eggs preserved in lime, innumerable pickled vegetables, sour fruit. And next to them, the fairy-tale shops that sell silk lanterns, ivory fans, precious green gems and transparent porcelains with light drawings.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Japan China

The wonderment of this passage is that Kazantzakis’ description of “food” is inseparable from its surroundings. The loin of beef, eggs preserved in lime, pickled vegetables, and sour fruit are almost painted in black and white with limited verbiage, while the old woman, old man, and coolies are written in splashes of color.

And yet I feel as if I could taste the pickled vegetables. The eggs are right there, within reach of my grasp. My mouth already waters from the colorful fruit sprawled about on mats in this busy marketplace. Not from the words used to describe them, but from the accurate and lively depiction of that hot summer day in 1935.

So what, then, is the true beauty of soup?

The true beauty of soup is that, for many of them, it simply cannot be recreated from a “recipe.” A recipe is only useful for one purpose: to bring about a taste portfolio intended to be drawn out by its author. So if a recipe fulfills its purpose successfully, a cook will no doubt recreate the “flavors” of a soup, maybe even better than its original intentions.

But what a recipe does not contain are the blood-soaked wars, ravenous famines, and suppressive dictatorships from which these soups were conceived.

Take “gamjatang” for instance (first photo above).

An exquisite Korean delicacy, this stew is made from pork spine, rehydrated Napa cabbage leaves, and peeled potatoes. The soup – a culmination of pork marrow, dwenjang, garlic, and hours and hours of boiling – is simply divine. It is not a taste one can create easily in haste, and in my gastronomic experience thus far, there is not a single Korean restaurant in the U.S. that is worthy to be called a true gamjatang joint.

While it is something I eagerly scavenge for these days, gamjatang was born out of utter poverty. Pork spine (and other odd bits of animals) was cheap and easy to get, and potatoes (“gamja”) were the staple for the poor. Napa cabbage leaves from last year’s harvest were hung to dry in the autumn wind, to be rehydrated during the winter. So during the crude winter months, when good eating meant nothing more than bowls of barley, folks would throw these together in huge pots with dwenjang and boil away. And voila, gamjatang (literally means “potato soup”).

Many soups were born out of necessity – the necessity to eat, the unavailability of ingredients, the compulsion to multiply quantitatively. More from less.

Soup is beautiful because it’s a story in a bowl. It’s not just maddeningly flavorful broth you are slurping, but also heritage and history. Food, and soup in particular, cannot be accurately depicted without its cultural context. As many of you would agree, a bowl of pho one had a few Friday nights ago somewhere in American suburbia is nowhere near the same thing as a bowl of pho one had squatting on a bright red plastic stool on a street corner in Hanoi.

As the saying goes, you had to be there.

Especially for soup.

 

Scene One: Melt-In-Your-Mouth Spicy Beef and Tendon

When you think of Annandale, VA, you think Korean food. The usual suspects of various grill joints, tofu houses, bakeries and grill joints next to bakeries. Then the occasional Japanese establishments and Peruvian chicken gigs (which, by the way, is a taste of heaven, especially in Annandale).

Just the thought of coming face to face with authentic Chinese noodle soups…not the kind you find in shopping mall food courts, but the real deal with local feel. The rule of thumb is, go where the locals go. The Korean grill joint where Koreans flock to, must be something there. The pho house that the Vietnamese gather in, must be doing something right. That’s the case at A & J in Annandale.

My first time around, I tried the peanutty Dian Dian Mein, surprisingly think and spicy (both good things), and the fried chicken noodle soup (perfectly seasoned and fried). But I had my eye on a dish in particular, the spicy beef and tendon noodle soup, Szechuan style. So began my blissful eating.

First, the aroma. It was deep, and I could feel the spices emanating from the broth. Kind of reminiscent of five-spice, but much more complex, even a hint of herbal medicine. I first taste the reddish-brown broth, and that aroma hits my senses in liquid form. Not too oily, but deep in flavor, with all that spice and beefy goodness. The sheer amount of beef and tendons was ridiculous (generosity in portions is a must for me in restaurants). The beef had the perfect fat content to allow it to melt in my mouth, and the tendon was perfectly cooked. The wide noodles matched well with the overall thick flavor.

If you’re into the best parts of meat, like innards and tendons, this is a must.

Scene Two: Jjambbong is the Name

Not many have heard of the place. Even the local Koreans are not familiar with it. Inside the quaint food court area of the Lotte Mart in Fairfax, VA, there exists the best Korean-Chinese joint in town, Tian. Most of the Korean-Chinese places are in Annandale or Centreville (like everything else), but most of those joints are overrated. I’ve been a usual at Tian since my law school days, and in particular, I’m a sucker for their jjambbong.

What, you say, is that name again? If there is pho in Vietnam, there is jjambbong in Korea. Friends, if you’re like me and have a constant craving for hot soups full of noodles, meat, and seafood, give this a try. The broth can either be seafood or beef based, and if you don’t mind the heat, it is bold and rich in flavor. Not to mention the heaping mounts of mussels, clam and squid, partnered with cabbage and other veggies.

It has a strong aroma, a kick from the dried peppers and jalapenos. The broth has a deep flavor of the sea from the mussels and clams. The noodles are silky and perfectly cooked. The meal truly warms your innards on a cold day, and nostalgia takes you away to the port towns of the southern Korean shoreline.

This little-known Korean delicacy is a true contender amongst the world of noodle soups.

Scene Three: Oh What More to Say

For those of you who have frequented this blog, I have nothing further to say about pho. Or do I.

It’s something about the fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime that gets me every time. Yes, the beef broth that has simmered for twenty hours is surely divine, and the morsels of meat, tripe and tendon are indescribable. But pho is distinct in this trilogy for its interplay between slow and fast, stewed and fresh. The lively herbiness enhances its flavor triple-fold.

And no, not all pho joints are created equal. In the DC area, I still think Pho 75 is king. But Viet House in Fairfax, VA, is legit. The broth has a deeper flavor, the brisket is soft and has the right fat content, and they are not shy to mount heaps of tripe and tendon, which is what makes a good bowl of pho, great.

‘Twas the end of a perfect road trip with my wife, pounding blue crabs in Annapolis, and what a perfect way to commemorate the weekend. A cold glass of iced coffee with sweet condensed milk, the fresh bean sprouts lightly withering in the steaming broth, the company of my beautiful lady – oh the joys of life.

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Epilogue

I am proud to say that I had the delightful luxury of consuming the Mein Trilogy in the span of two days. There exists many more gastronomical mysteries yet to be discovered in the noodle soup category, and I am destined to search further and deeper. Join me in this calling.

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