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Monday, November 1, 2010
I know many envy me when they hear that I get to travel to Korea for business. My response is usually more lukewarm. I am not a star struck fan of Korean Dramas - I have probably only watched one Korean drama over the last 2 years. The smooth faced actors and actresses are all perfectly beautiful but I have trouble differentiating them. I also have to admit that I am not crazy over kimchi - apart from the spicy pickled cabbage, all other kimchi are either too cold, too sour or too bland for my liking. I do gush over the latest paper thin LED panels from LG and Samsung and while these are usually the reasons for my work-related visits to Korea, they have little relevance when I wander around Seoul for leisure.
What I do get out of every Korean trip are humbling experiences and a mega dose of appreciation for what we have here at home.
I am not sure how many of us out there still remember that under all that shiny veneer, South Korea is a country that has only recently just walked out of poverty. Through sheer determination and will, they have propelled the nation to become a formidable player in just about every market they participate in. When the Korean war ended in the 1950s and possibly until the early 1970's, South Korea was actually poorer than their North Korean counter parts.
My colleague who is of the same age as I am, remembers that when he was in elementary school in the early 1980s, fruits like bananas, pineapples and oranges were luxury items. My colleague had told me how he and his friends would look on with envy when a kid from a rich family bring a banana to school for snack. I had my first Mac Donalds in Singapore when I was about 8 or 9 years old. My Korean colleague could not afford to eat Mac Donalds until he was 20. Another colleague recalled how he would rummage through garbage bins at the American Naval base for discarded copies of Playboy magazines so that he could sell them off in the black market for pocket money. I am in awe because these stories were typically what we would hear from our parents' or grandparents' generation - when these experiences come from your own peers,they have a strangely sobering effect. When one couples these with the country's amazing rate of growth and stellar achievement in such a short time, one cannot help but be immensely humbled.
South Korea will continue to forge ahead to refine their craft but if you look under the veneer that is presented to the world now, you will immediately see elements of their more humble beginnings. They are every where. Food experience is one of the most obvious. I recalled how when I had my first Bibimpap (stone bowl rice) in Korea, I had felt grossly let down and unsatisfied. The Bibimpap I used to have outside Korea was always fulfilling with colourful vegetables and generous portion of beef. For that first Bibimpap in Korea,I recalled turning over the contents in my bowl to see if the beef was hidden any where under the vegetables... there was probably about a teaspoon of minced meat in that bowl... The famous Jajangmyon (soy paste noodle) , served with a thick soy paste sauce of onions,carrots and potatoes comes in strangely huge portion in Korea, with enough noodles to feed a hungry labourer. My colleague told me Koreans will generally finish eating these in 10 seconds and return back to work again. The famous Korean barbeque is still considered a luxury for most Koreans and most would only limit themselves to pork barbeque. The beef barbeque is reserved for the most important guests. I also recall how I had to get used to the fact that most normal restuarants only serve one specialty dish. Do not expect to see a menu with a selection of meat, seafood, dessert etc. If you have problem with any particular type of food, make sure you voice out otherwise, you will have nothing else to eat at that restaurant. I was once taken to a restuarant that only served beef tripe soup. I ended up nibbling on kimchi for that lunch.
During my trip there last week, my colleague took me to a very popular restuarant that sells Su Jae Bee - for all I can tell, this is just like our Mee Hoon Kueh - pinched flour dough cooked in a rich flavourful anchovy broth. A restaurant with a humble setting, this serves only Su Jae Bee and some starchy potato pancake. The handful of dishes offered were written on the wall,complete with price indication. On a cold chilly night, this was the perfect comfort food. I was inspired upon my first sip of the broth. I knew I could replicate this quite reasonably. The flour dough which was tender, thin and smooth was the thing that intimidated me. As I watched the cooks work effortlesly at stretching and pinching the dough behind the kitchen counter, I knew this is no easy feat. They have mastered the dough so well, this has to be the key differentiating factor that sets them apart. I had eaten similar Mee Hoon Kueh before in Singapore but I had never quite liked them because these were thicker and tougher than the Su Jae Bee I had at this restuarant. There is very little else in the bowl other than pieces of flour, a few forlorn pieces of dried shrimps, shredded cabbage and potatoes. Another humble, unpretentious high carb, energy giving dish, which my colleague told me became popular when the Korean war ended and the Americans came in bearing gifts in the form of sacks of wheat flour.
The experience had been so memorable that this became the first dish I wanted to cook when I touched down in Singapore. Forget about DaChangJin (大常今)... nobody eats like that in Korea. Everyday Korean food is conservative, humble, honest and comforting. I prepared the broth with the large anchovies and dried clams I bought in Korea. I knew I would never be able to replicate the texture of the flour dough on my own. With the aid of my pasta maker, I then tried to get this as thin as I could ( a little thicker than pasta noodles) before cutting them up into pieces. Suprisingly, it turned out really good. My Su Jae Bee is not as spectacular as the one I ate in Korea but is good enough for me to be proud of myself :)... I had another 5 minutes genius moment...:)
1 liter Water
50g Dried anchovies, washed.
30g Dried clams,washed.
20g Dried scallops.
2 Potates, peeled and diced
1 Stem of Kailan, sliced. (I had wanted to use Zucchini but could not find it at the supermarket)
1/2 Stem of leek, thinly sliced.
250g Plain flour
1tbsp Corn flour
1/2 - 1cup Water
1. Place flour and corn flour in a mixing bowl. Form a well in the center of the bowl and add rest of ingredients in the center of the bowl (do not add all water at one time. Adjust accordingly during kneading).
Mix to form a dough. Knead dough on the lightly floured board until smooth.
2. Place dough in a zip lock bag and refrigerate over night.
3. Lightly flour dough ( divide dough into 2-3 manageable portions) and roll out a few times using a pasta maker at setting (1). Finally, roll out dough at setting (5). Using a knife. cut dough sheets into small pieces lightly flour dough pieces on a tray to prevent them from sticking to each other. Cover tray with a wet towel to prevent them from drying out.
Note : step 3 should be done when soup is ready.
1. Boil Anchovies, dried clams and scallops in water over medium heat for about an hour.Season with a dash of pepper and salt.
2. Strain away solids and retain the clear broth.
3. Heat clear broth to boiling. Add more dried clams, potatoes, Kailan stem and cook until potatoes are slightly soft.
4. Continue to boil the broth, add in dough pieces and continue to cook until the dough pieces are cooked. Add sliced leek. Simmer for 3 minutes.
5. Dish out into bowl. Add a drizzle of sesame oil, a generous dash of black peper (important) , a little seaweed and eat while hot.