Yonsei International Food Festival

I wasn’t in the mood for cooking much at home last week, after having spent two evenings baking up Mother’s Day cookies to ship out and then a whole day at the Yonsei International Food Festival (as part of the annual Akaraka School Spirit/Cheer Festival). I signed up for the event thinking I could make something French Canadian, but it turned out that every year, they only represent a handful of countries, so instead I joined the Saudi Arabian team. Our job was to cook and sell a Saudi dish outdoors during the festival, a fairly simple task I thought. But when most of your teammates are Korean guys who’ve never chopped onions or boiled rice, cooking can become quite a disheartening exercise of patience.

Thankfully, after two trial runs of making kabsa, the national rice dish, and a few frustrated barks on my end, I was pretty confident that we would be able to execute the day of. And we did. In fact, I think we had one of the better tables, despite not the teams to serve more popular cuisines (French, Mexican, Japanese, etc…) simple because we were organized and neat. We pre-cut all the essential ingredients, like onions, tomatoes and chicken, the day before and I made sure that the table was always wiped clean. Seems pretty obvious, but somehow it eluded people that having split crepe batter on your table can be a turn off. We also made the effort of contacting the not-so-busy Saudi Arabian embassy in Seoul, who generously lent us with decorations and traditional clothing, and supplied free Korans, and dates for us to give out. They even sent us a Saudi student to come help us out, and had one of the only Saudi restaurants in the city to deliver several servings of real kabsa.

All in all, it was really fun and festive day, and one that taught me a lot of about teamwork. Here are a few pictures of the event!

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Baking Extravaganza (Take Two)

After last weekends mishap, I was determined to make it out to the Foreigner’s Flea Market today. Hosted by the Seoul Global Center, it was held this time in front of the Museum of History for Children’s Day.

Again, I spent Friday night baking up a storm. I remade the carrot cake and red velvet cupcakes. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that I missed the event last weekend, because I was able to tweak the recipes to get them right this time around.

And then I did something really brilliant. After Raphael cut out all his hearts, I was left with a pan of leftover brownie parts that I didn’t particularly want to eat, after having had way too many sweets during the week. So I came up with the idea of making them into lollipops. I figured, if you can make cake pops, there isn’t any reason why you couldn’t make brownies pops. In fact, its fudgyness actually makes them quite perfect to shape.

I was nervous about going to the event, afraid that nobody would buy my things. I comforted myself with the thought that most people there would probably be foreigners like me, and I could handle such shame. But it turned out that it was mostly Korean families spending the holiday outside! For the first time since I got here, I had people asking me: “얼마예요?” or “how much?”, and I had to answer in Korean. Imagine that……

And much to my surprise, my items were so well received that I pretty much sold out within an hour. I had three brownies pops that looked a little pathetic left towards the end so I gave them to the volunteers. The whole experience was rather exciting and S was particularly impressed by Koreans’ interest in baked goods.

Lessons learned from this ad hoc entrepreneurial adventure:

1) Image Matters: I think we all know this already, but it really helps to put every effort in making things pretty. I brought my own tablecloth, and a cooler packed with ice (to S’ dismay) in which I kept the brownies and cupcakes so they wouldn’t be damaged by the heat.

I think the image of the seller matters too. We realized early on that S’ presence (with his buzz cut and sunglasses) put people off, so he retired backstage.

2) Write out the Prices: Otherwise, younger people will be too shy to ask and older ladies will try to bargain, which, needless to say, is extremely awkward. Everybody just seems a lot more comfortable when the price is set, and it ends the haggling.

(I admit I could have done a better job with the signs, but by that time I was really in a hurry.)

3) Learn Korean… maybe: It certainly helps to know the basics to be able answer simple questions. At lot of people wanted to know if it was really handmade by me. At first, it was very overwhelming, but it seemed like they were charmed by the fact that I wasn’t Korean. Perhaps because it projected authenticity onto the foreign-looking things I was selling.

It was so much fun to see people getting excited over cake and brownies. What a great feeling to be able to share such things with people here. And the best part? Hearing them rave about the goodies afterwards!

Man-Made Brownies

I met Raphael, a Swiss exchange student, in my Chinese Politics Class during the first week of class. This was back in March, and over lunch, we quickly bonded over the simple fact that we were both foreigners with Korean significant others. He spoke about the personal sacrifices he was making to be with her and his struggle to learn Korean, and I commiserated. I could sense that it was going to be an easy friendship. But then I almost fell off my chair when he admitted that they had only been together some 40 days. 47, to be exact, and my sympathies momentarily evaporated.

Fortunately for them, everything is unfolding quite blissfully. And tomorrow, they will celebrate their first big milestone: their 백일 or 100th “day”nniversary. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Couples in Korea meticulously keep track of the number of days they’ve been in a relationship, and the 100th day is quite significant. Serious enthusiasts of this tradition will celebrate every 100th day after that. It seems quite daunting just to remember, but luckily there are apps for that. So if you ever happen to ask a Korean how long they’ve been in a relationship, it’s not uncommon for them to respond with the exact number of days. Romantic, right?

Well for their 백일, Raphael has quite the weekend planned. Details include 100 roses, dinner reservations and a trip out of town. Evidently, that wasn’t quite enough, which is why he approached me with a special request: to help him bake his girl something yummy for her tummy. With the thought of my oven being used for (even) greater good and the prospect of a protégé, I agreed on the condition I can blog about it.

The rule was that I could give him instructions, but he had to execute. We chose a brownie recipe that was both simple and included chocolate from his motherland. And despite all his lack of experience and dexterity, I think he did a fine job making these stunning heart-studded brownies.  

3 bars of Swiss chocolate, a pound of butter, 2 cups of sugar and immeasurable amounts of love… could there be a sweeter brownie recipe?

Baking Extravaganza

Mid-terms here were more challenging than I expected, and I hobbled through the week in a half-awake daze. I managed to stay away from making anything too crazy but I did sneak in these pumpkin muffins, as I didn’t want the other half to go bad in my fridge.

I always use this recipe, and it has always been amazing, but this time, I didn’t have quite enough pumpkin. Then I came up with the silly idea to cut down on oil/sugar. Well, it wasn’t good idea, because the best part about this bread is its denseness, and these turned out to be way too fluffy. I wasn’t happy, but they came in handy for early morning and long nights at the library.

I was so excited for the week to be over, because for a month now, I have been looking forward to taking part in a foreigner’s flea market where I hope to sell some baked goodies for charity and pocket change. I had been planning on what to make, and after deciding on a “menu” of three simple items, I went to the baking market to stock up on butter, cream cheese and some cute packaging materials.

I spent Friday night baking brownies and carrot cake, and Saturday making red velvet cupcakes. And then on Sunday morning (today), I got up early to prepare the frosting.

I struggled with everything; I over-baked the brownies and then under-baked the carrot cake. Then too much batter in the muffin liners caused some of my cupcakes to overflow. With careful damage control, I managed to fix everything and with S’ help, we created a little assembly line and put it all together quite nicely for sale.

But just as I was getting ready to go, I looked up the directions to the flea market one more time and realized in a classic case of clumsiness, that I had mixed up the dates and it was actually yesterday. I looked at the pile of goodies we lovingly prepared, then I flushed as red as my red velvet when I told S the embarrassing news, who didn’t seem all surprised. Together, we lamented our wasted effort and thought about ways to deal with the excess in the house.

Luckily, S recently changed work teams, and had been wanting to do something nice for his former co-workers. We decided that cupcakes will go to them, while his new co-workers will get a slice of carrot cake each. Still, it was a sad realization. They are holding another flea market next week, and hopefully, I’ll get the time right and be able to participate in that one.

And since I no longer had any plans for the day, I made some baked potatoes to go with all that sugar.

The Art of Procrastination

Lately I’ve been distracted by everything. Well, it’s mid-term season, and pretty much anything is more exciting than going to the library to study or write essays. In Montreal, I was always pretty good at turning my eyes away from a good time, and into my books, but here I am having trouble maintaining that same level of discipline. I find myself making excuses to cook, brainstorming for a blog post, getting lost in daydreams or going outside to enjoy the cherry blossoms. I even cleaned the shower. Right now, I’m writing one sentence here for every one sentence I write for an essay on Northeast Asia Politics class. And yesterday, I made pasta and baked pumpkin for dinner. In Montreal, I would have just starved.

I don’t quite know what compelled me to buy a pumpkin in a first place. I never liked pumpkin, except when it is camouflaged in cake. But when I saw this one at the market a while back, it looked so wholesome that I had to have it. I brought it home, put it on top of the fridge and forgot about it. I let it sit there, and it was only while cleaning yesterday that I felt forced to confront it before it had to be made into budae-jjigae. So I cut it up, brushed the slices with oil and baked them with some salt and spices. It tasted just like sweet potato, and I actually liked it.

As for the pasta, I always make this simple tomato sauce. The only trouble I ran into here was that my can opener broke, and I had to resort to savagely tearing the tin open with a knife and a rolling pin.

But after that, I just stewed the plum tomatoes with garlic, olive oil, some honey and herbs, and ate it over spaghetti with some parmesan cheese. Yum!

Food is definitely the best kind of distraction there is, and really, who can blame me for wanting to feed myself well.

Blog Envy

After 3 days, I’ve finally gotten over whatever was causing my stomach to churn. I didn’t have much of an appetite, and found solace only in bread. At first, I made do with the white fluffy sliced stuff that is available en masse in Korea, but on a walk near Ehwa Women’s University, I stumbled across Brown Bread bakery. It is a wonderful little shop, where you can see bakers working in the background, turning out all sorts of loaves. For the first time since I got here, I had a very decent demi-campagne and a pain au chocolat, which even my upset stomach was strangely receptive to.

During this time of non-eating, I renewed my love of reading other people’s food blogs, and became terribly envious of the normal size kitchens and variety of tools that these bloggers work with. I coveted the pretty pictures they took with their fancy lenses, and the whimsical accessories that adored the meal they made. I looked at my pitiful single burner and the Corelle plates that make up my “kitchen”, and tried to blame them for my lack of enthusiasm to regularly make food as exciting as what is featured on other blogs. We don’t even have a proper table to eat on. Rather, we make do with some leftover curtain and an ironing board, and sit on the floor.

But I couldn’t wallow in self-pity forever, and since I finally had my appetite back, I came home from class today to prove myself wrong. I made this chicken-ginger noodle soup and sesame tofu salad. Simple for sure, but healthy, and good.

I also became so mesmerized by this picture and story of chocolate mousse cake that I had to have it…. immediately. And so I made it. But it was only after all the ingredients were mixed that I realized that it was one of those mousse cakes that you don’t bake, but rather let set for 2 days. Well, given that I couldn’t possibly wait that long, I took a chance, poured the batter into my loaf tins and baked them in a bain marie. I’m so glad because it turned out to be a divinely dense mousse cake after it cooled.

I know it doesn’t look like much (nothing I make ever does), but everything from its colour, texture to taste was like an oasis of pleasure to my dessert-deprived tastebuds. Korean cakes tend to be overly light in every dimension and just don’t do it for me so I rarely bother ordering any. The mousse was a perfect ending to a very happy dinner, and one that reminded me of the infinite possibilities of my little kitchen.

And to keep to mood merry, here are some more pictures of the sakura near Sinchon area.

(I know it says Casse Croute, but believe me when I say it is not.)

Seoul in Bloom

This post has nothing to do with cooking, but I just had to mention how beautiful the Yonsei campus has become since the flowers have started blooming. I’m just about the furthest thing from a gardening enthusiast, and I can’t even name most of the flowers I am admiring, but you would have to be pretty heartless not to feel something at the sight of this stunning scene. I find myself wandering off the path home just to get a closer look at the blossoms, and I get excited when people tell me that the day of full bloom isn’t even here yet! I brought my camera to class one day to try to capture the dreaminess of it all, but the pictures (and my lack of photography skills) simply don’t do it any justice.

I mean, look at these magnolia trees! How can you not be excited?

They really make going to school so much more pleasant. I know they won’t be here forever, so the only thing to do is enjoy them while they last.  And enjoy them I most certainly will.