Friday, April 02, 2010

Howard and the Jewish Mother Theory of Korean Cuisine

I was trying for anything but a Jewish mother culinary experience, actually. It was my intention, for my last meal in Seoul, to eat bossam--pork belly. A reader and fellow chowhound had commented on my mandoo post that he had a suggestion for pork belly restaurants. There are a bunch of these places in the Dongdaemun area that serve the fatty pork with sauces and leaves for rolling. He suggested I take the subway to the Dongdaemun Stadium station, get out at a particular exit and "follow your nose." Well, as far as following my nose, when it's 18 degrees outside, there ain't much for your nose to follow. I wandered around a bit, but no places seemed to be candidates. I stopped into one restaurant. "Bossam?" I asked the waitress. No luck, and when she asked some patrons if they knew of bossam places they drew blanks. I wandered in a few different directions, stopping into shops. "Bossam restaurant?" I'd ask. One guy pointed down a long street and implied there might be one down that way, if I turned the corner. Well, I couldn't find anything that looked like a likely suspect, and I was getting a lot further away from the area my correspondent had recommended. Besides, I was pressed for time, as I had to catch a bus to the airport for my flight to Phnom Penh. I decided to cut my losses and head back toward my hotel.

Near the hotel I found a little place in an alley that had pictures of their dishes outside. One of them was samgyetang, ginseng chicken soup, which I'd been meaning to try. I went in and ordered by pointing to the pictures on the wall. I ordered the samgyetang and a shake that was like a cross between a lassi and a Latin American batida. I don't know what the fruit was, or if the tartness was from the fruit or yogurt.

Samgyetang is a young chicken stuffed with rice and cooked in a broth with ginseng, herbs and some dried fruit (I found a cherry). I was thinking it was sort of like Jewish-style chicken in the pot, and probably equally good as a palliative for the common cold.

I was reminded of all the times my friend Howard has marveled at the similarities to of certain Korean dishes to traditional old-world Jewish cookery. Howard works in the West 30s, so we often meet for lunch in Manhattan's "Koreatown." Howard had a Jewish mother from the old country who could guilt you with the best of them, but she tempered the guilt with good chow. I think his first epiphany of the Korean-Jewish culinary connection was when eating dduk mandoo kuk, dumpling and rice cake soup. "These are kreplach!" he declared. Of the boiled beef in some Korean soups he said, "Flanken!" I think he has a point. There's something very haimish about many Korean dishes. Just don't try to sell your Jewish mother any pork bellies.


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