I was at the grocery store the other day, feeling a little uninspired about what I can make, when it dawned on me that I’ve been overlooking an entire food group. I often complain about how expensive some items are here, so how silly it was of me to forget about what is actually cheap and in abundance in Korea: seafood! Where else can you buy fresh, clean, and cut calamari for less than 2 dollars?

Calamari is sort of unfamiliar territory for me, but I thought about how wonderful it might taste with spinach and cherry tomato pasta in a garlicky white wine sauce. So I also bought a bottle Korean chardonnay, the cheapest I could find, and some greens that people here call spinach. (I found it to be a bit more bitter and rubbery than what I am used to.)

Everything was coming along quite nicely, until I realized that I didn’t have a bottle opener. No problem, I thought, there must be other ways to open a bottle of wine. But without a hammer or screwdriver, I had to resort to some of the more barbaric solutions I found through the internet. One involved banging the bottom of the bottle against the wall to increase the pressure inside, in hopes of forcing the cork to come out. I also tried holding it upside down between my knees and hitting it with the soles of my boots. Needless to say, both efforts failed. Instead, we got a warning from our landlord about excessive noise coming from our apartment. So I used the last of my lemons and it still turned out to be quite a fresh-tasting pasta salad.

I think I’ll just go buy a bottle opener because I want to make mussels in a white wine garlic butter sauce next. I also want to try some of the fish, which are often sold by ladies on busy street corners. Until now, I haven’t quite mustered up the courage to buy one, given that the only thing separating what could be my next meal from the pavement is but a thin sheet of cardboard. But I suppose I could overlook their unsanitary conditions, as well as their questionable origins, in the name of culinary adventure.

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Thanksgiving

Last weekend, I decided that I was going to get a perm. There’s a girl in my language class who has wonderfully long straight hair that are curled inwards at the bottom; a very simple hairstyle that I shamelessly coveted. I went to a place near Ehwa Women’s University, and figured that they would know how to handle this request. S sat and waited for me for the whole 3 1/2 hours, acting as my translator, when necessary, and otherwise professional hand-holder.  He even brought me snacks at half-time.

I’m not sure why, but the hairdresser decided to give me locks instead, which I secretly liked but screamed of trying too hard. So I was thankful that my hair is delinquent enough that even with a perm, it didn’t take too long before it could almost pass as unkept. Anyways, after the do, we went to get me a new pair of glasses, which I’ve been wanting for a while. Again, S waited another half hour with resigned patience.

His company was certainly the highlight of the day, without which I might have ended up with far more outrageous hair. So instead of dishing out another one-pot wonder, I put together a meal with some of his favourites: proper miso soup, grilled mushrooms and salmon, sesame broccoli stir-fry and steamed white rice. Nothing super fancy but I swear it tasted better than it looks.

Markets and Muffins

Two weekends ago, I bought a baking pan at the Bangsan Baker’s Market. I’ll write more about this place in a future post, but for now, it’s suffice to know that this is easily one of my favourite places in Seoul, where I’ve spent most of my money, and pretty much what I imagine heaven to look like.

I brought the pan home, eager to make something with it, only to find out that it didn’t fit in my oven. Now, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been taking intensive language classes for a few weeks now. In the comfort of my classroom, I actually feel quite confident about my Korean. However, outside of it, everything I hear is still mostly a blur. But on that particular Friday afternoon, I decided it was time to put my skills to the test, by going back to the market to ask for an exchange.

I felt rather nervous about this endeavour. Market ladies here are notoriously feisty, and so I prepared for all sorts of unfriendly scenarios. I walked into the stall, spotted the owner and confidently spat out the lines that I had memorized. Fortunately, she was very sympathetic to my situation, and amused by my limited vocabulary and awkward pronunciation. She gladly exchanged my pan for a smaller one, and even refunded the difference! I thought her kindness justified me spending a few more dollars there, so I bought a couple more items, including a muffin pan. I really shouldn’t have though, as I’m starting to accumulate far more than I can handle.

I came home feeling a little guilty, and thought that the only thing that could make me feel better would be to use it. So I made these oatmeal apple muffins with a crunchy streusel topping.

One bite was all it took to cure my pangs of conscience.

Saturday morning, we ate them with a peas and potato frittata, which had quite a story of its own. The night before, S decided to bring home a ricotta salad for me, a thoughtful gesture that acknowledged my desire to eat more vegetables without having to be involved in it. But I don’t particularly care for this kind of cheese, and especially not when it has been dumped on a bed of greens. Now in Canada, I wouldn’t have thought twice about simply not eating it, but here, any kind of cheese seems too precious to just throw away. So I did what I thought was a heroic act of recycling. I picked it out the ricotta, cleaned it of its cranberry bits, and reused it the next day in our italian omelette pancake.

Yes, it’s far more delicious when it’s melted on eggs and potatoes, and now I really think I’ve outdone myself.

Home Economics

Well, it’s been 3 days and I am still not done eating my veggie bean soup. I should have known better than to use nearly 2 pounds of black beans. I also once made the mistake of telling one of S’ coworkers about eating leftovers for lunch. He looked horrified and wondered why S wasn’t feeding me better. I tried to explain that I make extra intentionally, but I think that only worsened the confusion.

Speaking of not wasting food, I’ve been trying to instil in my housemate the virtues of thrift. It’s the little things, like remembering to unplug the cell phone charger, not letting the tap run while doing the dishes, eating less meat and not drinking bottled water. It hasn’t been easy for this Evian junkie to switch to the boiled stuff, but we’re taking this step by step. (At present, he is still sneaking them into the house.) Seoul also has a surprisingly well-developed recycling and composting system which I have been trying to abide by. Normally, I’m not a fan of keeping rotting vegetable peels at home, but when it’s government-mandated, it becomes a lot easier to manage and feels more like civic duty.

These lessons on the fundamentals of home economics seep into the enforced habit of eating at home, and our trips to the grocery store. I find fruits in Korea very inflated. A whole watermelon, even in the summer, can cost upwards 30,000 won (around 30 dollars) and the bag of 5 apples I just bought were around 6,000 won. And it seems almost undemocratic that there are also different grades of clementines and strawberries available. They are often from the same source, but seperated by quality, and of course, the more expensive, the sweeter, juicier and more flawless they are. I made the fatal mistake of becoming addicted to Korean strawberries, which are irresistibly fragrant and perfectly ripe.

They start at about 6,000 won for a box, and can go to up to 20,000 won for the better ones of the same quantity. Even S acknowledged that these ruby jewels can potentially ruin us, so I’ve been trying to regulate our consumption. Still, he can’t help but pick some of the middle-of-the-road grade kind up on the way home from work. I try to be upset and lecture him on how the costs can add up, but he always gets the last laugh here. These darling gems make me helplessly giddy and I’m always the one weeping for the last bite.

Cooking at a hakgwan

The Korean language classes I signed up for includes two mandatory cultural outings. The first was to a taekwondo-inspired dance performance that was unfortunately lessened by seriously underdeveloped humour. Today, we went to a cooking hakgwan, which are learning centres where one can take classes on anything from computer programming to English. There we learned out to “make” bulgogi and bibimpap. I say make, but it was more like assemble, as most ingredients were already prepared for us in advance so there wasn’t much for us to do. I did learn though, that the secret to making bulgogi lies in the addition of grated Asian pear, and that bibimpap requires a special kind of sweet soy sauce and grape seed oil. Then again, the hakgwan that hosted us was owned by a food conglomerate so they may have just been product pushing…

Also, I learned that cooking hakgwans are popular among engaged women here, who typically sign up for classes prior to getting married to learn how to be prepare traditional dishes for their soon-to-be family.

Here are some pictures of our outing. It was fun to get to work in their kitchen, and oh how I coveted their full size convection ovens!

Veggies and valentines

So I am living with someone who has a very different palate than my own. S unfailingly prefers Asian dishes (of any kind) and even more so ones that have meat. But I constantly crave different kinds of flavours, and have been missing my greens. I’ve been trying to be accommodating, for sake of convenience and domestic harmony, but yesterday I took a decidedly rebellious turn. I was in the mood for something different, with beans and veggies, and so I made this soup.

Loaded with celery, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, corn, and spiced with coriander and cumin, I hoped to convert S through both nutrition and taste. But it turned out to be his culinary nightmare. I watched in disappointment as he painfully swallowed each spoonful, while intently rummaging through his bowl for the odd piece of chicken. It was too comical to be truly offensive, but I’m not sure how often I will be making dishes of this sort again, as I was then left with a huge pot of leftovers and a boy aching for delivery. Too thoughtful to let him go hungry, I presented him with these for dessert.

I’ve never been a fan of decorating my baked goods and prefer to serve them with dollops of cream, handfuls of fresh fruits or even more simply, some dusted cocoa. But in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be fun to give piping a second chance. I had to go all the way to the baker’s market to get food colouring, and once there there was no way turning back. But after hours spent in the kitchen between cutting out all the hearts, making different shades of pink and coming up with unique designs, I remembered why I never got into this practice. And after witnessing all the time I poured into making these hearts, S himself didn’t have one to just eat them, preferring to nibble on the pile of rejects unworthy of being iced. Just all well, because I brought them to Korean class today and instantly won over all my Japanese classmates who were positively charmed by the aesthetics. Still, I couldn’t let go of my labor of love so easily and kept my favourites to enjoy for ourselves.

Bread/Pain/빵

I would have never guessed before coming to Seoul that I would be bread-making here. When I bought a 125g package of yeast, the smallest I could find, I thought I would never be able to use it all, and that most of it would be forgotten in the fridge. Au contraire, I’ve somehow gotten really into it and have already used quite a bit of the yeast making sweet breads, pizza dough and even a DIY version of naan. This weekend, I wanted to do something with leftover cheese (mozzarella and parmesan) and fresh rosemary from my grandparents’ garden in Taiwan. So I woke up early on Saturday to make rosemary cheese bread and baked these two babies.

I proudly showed them off to S when he woke up, because it really felt like these breads were offsprings. Starting off as a bowl of bubbling yeast, I then stood mesmerized over the dough as I watched it rise for hours before finally getting them into the oven. Taking them out felt victorious, like witnessing them graduate into the next stage of being. And boy were they ever good at being bread. I barely had the time to snap these pictures before they were ravaged. So yummy for the tummy!

I’m liking this new venture into the world of bread making/dough parenting and I’m looking forward to figuring out what else I can make!