Monday, May 24, 2010

Eating Out The Mysteries of Asia

Happy Monday intrepid readers! My weekend didn’t turn out anything like I expected it to. I somehow got the idea that I had a ton of stuff lined up and couldn’t for the life of me remember what a whit of it was. So instead, a bohemian Saturday morning lead to questions about the Korea Market, which I had cased a week or so prior. It’s a cute little market in the Mission Village shopping center, having moved I’m told from somewhere in the wicked North. We’ve been short on a couple ingredients I use for my faux Japanese style meals and some of the culinary tales from friends who’ve been to Korea pretty much cemented an afternoon food safari in our itinerary.

Now, I learned the fine art of browsing and bargain hunting from my dear mother. So when I hit a spot for the first time, I’m quite thorough in my snooping and sifting through their capitalist offerings. Like most grocery stores, they also have a small selection of cooking implements, appliances and curios. My two favorites were the oodles of pink salt bricks and hunks for display and plating purposes and the little electric tableside hibachis. Not to mention a fair selection of Korean language movies and shows if that’s up your alley.

But we’re here for food baby! And it’s a wide and weird selection. Absolute tons of red chili paste and powders, a nicely varied selection of rice and noodles, fresh and frozen fish (anchovytastic!). Sauces, oils, lotions, potions, you name it. And dumplings! Frying dumplings, steaming dumplings, boiling dumplings, precooked dumplings…I’m about to have a dumplegasm! Terrestrial meats are more limited, mostly in nicely pre-shaved shabu shabu style beef and pork, or some gorgeous looking unsmoked pork belly, lookin all sexy like a fat slab of unsliced bacon. I refrained from rubbing it up and down my gut like an obese Roman gladiator scraping scented olive oils from my rippling Americanness as to avoid an international incident.

Ultimately we settled on some (from left) shabu shabu beef, fresh Korean ramen soups, chili sambal, ginger, rice vinegar, fresh homemade kim chee, spicy seafood flavor ramen, cooking sake, Korean red pepper paste, dry udon noodles, more ramen, spicy curry mix, a wee gift bottle of soy sauce given to us by the owner and a bag of the infamous shrimp chips. All for the tune of about $40, most of which was the shabu shabu beef at $10 per pound. And such wonderful service! I’m guessing the owner assumed we had no idea what we were buying but were afraid of it all, since he glowingly extolled the healthful virtues of our purchases and ensured us that all our products lacked the demonic MSG. Poor guy didn’t know that as a smoker, I could care less…never mind the fact that as a kid Accent (the US brand name for MSG) held a prominent spot in our spice rack. Still, it’s nice to know our culinary choices were a silver bullet for the grim reaper right?

So we trundle home with our goodies and begin to ponder how to turn them into something resembling a meal. We’ve still got some dumplings in the freezer, so gyoza sauce is a must. But we’ve got all these noodly things crying out to be consumed! So the round-eye improvised hot-pot shall be birthed! We’ve got the fresh ramen, some great mushrooms from Sun Smiling, sexily thin beef and tons of seasonings. I think we can make this work!

First course is the ramen hotpot of doom!

2 packs fresh Korean ramen noodle soup
5 cups water
½ lb shabu shabu style beef
1/8th lb oyster mushrooms sliced
1/8th lb shitake mushrooms sliced
1/8th lb enotaki mushrooms sliced
1 bulb baby garlic minced
1 baby shallot minced
2 med carrots shredded
1 cup fresh kim chee

Directions for the ramen indicate to bring 5 cups of water to a boil (2 ½ per package) and add in the noodles, soup base and veggie pack and cook for about 4 minutes. Add in the sliced mushrooms along with the soup packets at the beginning and bring back to a boil. If things appear a little dry, you can cheat in some beef broth and a little of the red chili paste (or powder) we picked up to stretch the soup. Once the noodles are almost perfect, cut the heat and add in your beef slices one by one. Not for any scientific reason, just because it’s awesome to watch them flash cook in the broth. If you’re super confident, you could serve it piping hot from the pot with the beef added right before service, allowing the diner to submerge and finish cooking the beef. But if you’re scared of your beef, do it on the stovetop. To finish, scoop noodles, mushrooms and beef into bowls, then top with a hearty scoop of kim chee with a large pinch of garlic, onion and carrot each to one side of the bowl and top with enough broth to fully cover the noodles. Ta-da! Spicy, sour, salty and mildly beefy! Certainly a variation on ramen I’ve yet to see in a college student cookbook and will totally sue if I see it appear after today.

La de da. De. Da, da-dum-da-dum-DEEE-DAAA Dumplings. I suck at home pasta, so I’m still rocking the frozen, fry in the pan style. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, but you can suck it. Even stiff necked food anarchists need a quarter pounder once in a while. At least they’re a strange and different convenience food. And so simple! Just heat up some oil in your non-non-stick pan, place the frozen buggers flat side down and fry ‘em until they’re getting golden and crispy on the bottom. Then pour in a couple tablespoons of water and slap a lid on them to allow ‘em to steam for a couple minutes. Pop the top and you’ve got soft topped, golden crunchy bottomed dumplings for you to mow your way through. They’re like an asian pizza roll that are faster, yet slightly more complicated to make. And a million times better! Now we need a dipping sauce. No ranch here buddy, nuh uh! This here calls for Pook’s Patented Pork Pasta Pillow Plunge! Or…as the unimaginative call it:

Gyoza dipping sauce

1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced baby garlic
1 tablespoon minced baby shallot
¼ cup soy sauce
1/8th cup mirin (sweet cooking sake)
1/8th cup rice vinegar
½ teaspoon red chili paste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (yuzu preferred)

Simple! Put it all together into a bowl and wisk a bit to combine the chili paste. Which can also be substituted for any number of flavored oils like sesame or chili oils if you like. Chill for about an hour, overnight isn’t a bad idea either. Amounts are approximated, since it’s really a matter of taste how sweet, salty or sour you prefer your sauce. It’s VERY tweakable, since if you add too much of one thing, you can just add more of the others and wind up with more sauce! It’s a fairly large recipe though. But I have yet to waste any, as the leftovers find their way into a chicken marinade or are just outright destroyed in the dumplingpocalypse that ensued.

So, next time you’re in your ‘hood and notice that there’s a little shop opening up that sells munchies from magical and exotic lands. Stop in and snoop around for a bit. Let your inner food nerd get a little high off the strange sights and smells, a sort of metaphorical “moment behind the backstop” if you will. Shout down the little apple polishing bastard and settle in to something a little more simple. Who would ever think to step up to ramen as a delicious exploration into a nation’s food? Ok, probably Koreans and folks from just about any culture where ramen is actually good. Touche. But to Crackey McCrackerson over here, it was quite the revelation to be delightedly tearing through a dish that in other, lesser preparations, I had gone to bed hungry rather than suffer through.

And kim chee! I dunno who though up letting cabbage layered with chiles, spices and anchovies rot in a jar, but I could kiss that stanky breath’d bastard. It’s got this…farty aroma that you notice well before the spicy garlicky notes. Your first taste, it’s dare food. Could be Fear Factor, could be Iron Chef. But after that first bite I was crazy impressed. As I was chewing the crunchy, sour, salty and spicy affair, I immediately noticed a deep craving for a beer. Goodbye salted nuts! Hello fermented cabbage! And it’s got such a great heat level. Not superomfgwheresthemilk hot. It hits a nice medium heat level (on my scale anyway) without going over the top towards actual pain. It’s scary stuff conceptually. Hell, mine burped at me when we opened the jar! It’s ALIVE! But it’s also hella good!

Kickin’ back with my hot cabbage pickles, my spicy shrimp chips and an ice cold beer, I still have no idea what I was supposed to do this weekend. Fuck it, I got me some kim chee.