Summer’s specialty: Kong-guksu 콩국수

🌡 Temperatures are rising, people are beginning to sweat in an instant. 💦 Strong indicators of summer having arrived. ☀️ Du-dung du-dung…. *dramatic music*

Run for your lives!!! As long as you can… 😱
Or enjoy the return of Korea’s summer delicacies (yeoreum byeolmi 여름 별미)! ☀️🤤🍧

One of these is Kong-guksu (콩국수) – long noodles in chilled soy milk! The dish is served cold and may be garnished with a few toppings – fine slices of cucumber🥒, sesame seeds or half a boiled egg🥚 are almost standard. Actually, very simple! But quite filling and perfect in the midst of summer! There may even be ice cubes floating in the soy milk for the ultimate cool-down! ❄️

This dish is traditionally vegetarian and it is easily veganized by removing the occasional egg. Best is to tell restaurant staff right upon ordering that any potential egg🥚 topping may be omitted in your serving.
Saying this short sentence should do the trick:

Kong-guksu gyeran eobsi juseyo. “콩국수 계란 없이 주세요.” –
“Please give me Kong-guksu without egg.”

What is Kong-guksu made of?

Besides the toppings, there are generally no large variations to this dish.
The basic formula is:

cold soy milk + long noodles + garnish = Kong-guksu

Kong-guksu with hand-cut noodles
(kalguksu 칼국수)

Normally, plain wheat noodles, which are rather thin and referred to as somyeon (소면) or slightly thicker jungmyeon (중면), are used. But some locations prepare the dish with more “special noodles”, e.g. hand-cut kalguksu (칼국수) or differently colored noodles, to distinguish themselves from competing restaurants.

The quality of the soy milk, however, is key. In general, the soy milk in Kong-guksu is much thicker than regular soy milk (duyu 두유). Hence it is actually referred to as kong-guk (콩국 – “bean soup”), kong-mul (콩물 – “bean water”) or kong-gukmul (콩국물 – “bean broth”) in Korean. Certain restaurants prize themselves for producing it on location, or for adding ground nuts, peanuts or sesame to make it extra creamy and nutty, or for using black soy beans (seoritae 서리태 or geomeun kong 검은콩). Occasionally, the liquid is still frothy from blending the ingredients prior to serving. Correspondingly, there will be slight variations in color and texture instead of being creamy-white and watery like plain soy milk.

What does Kong-guksu taste like?

Overall, the taste of this cold dish featuring noodles in soy soup is rather subtle. It has a pure taste, as mild (담백하다) as plain (soy) milk, and may smell a little bit nutty (고소하다), if roasted nuts or sesame seeds have been added to enhance the aroma. [If the beans have not been properly prepared, there will be a hint of a fishy smell (birinnae 비린내) as well.] Since the basic broth normally contains hardly any salt at all, kong-guksu is served with salt and sugar, and people can season it individually. Common Korean spices such as garlic, onion or chili are not used at all. In this regard, Kong-guksu is quite different from most dishes, which typically exhibit stronger and more exciting flavors. Yet, since many Koreans tend to lose their appetite during the intense heat, this dish is the ideal summer meal!

Black Kong-guksu (검은콩국수) served with brown sugar and sea salt.

But, how do you eat Kong-guksu after all? First of, the dish is served inside a large bowl, in which you will find the freshly cooked noodles. Soy broth has been poured over the noodles and garnish has been neatly arranged on top of it. Before eating, you mix the noodles and toppings with the soy soup, while using chopsticks. As mentioned before, the dish is barely seasoned, so one adds salt or sugar according to one’s personal liking. Since the noodles are rather long, it might be difficult to transfer large portions into the mouth. The soup is eaten using a spoon and not by lifting the bowl and drinking it.

Where can you find Kong-guksu?
Kong-guksu is frequently offered in Korean restaurants, including those specializing in soups or noodle dishes as well as small restaurants of the bunsikjeom type. However, restaurants serve this dish only during the warmer months of the year (max. April until November). It is then labeled as “seasonal menu” or “summer special” (계절 메뉴 / 여름 별미 / 여름 별식) and advertised separately, i.e. sometimes it’s not listed on the regular menu but visible on extra posters inside or outside the restaurant. Owing to production costs, the price of Kong-guksu is higher when the soy milk is “home-made”. The lowest price I’ve seen in Seoul was 7000 KRW, but the average is 9000-10.000 KRW for one serving.

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Triple P: Gamja-jeon 감자전

Korean potato pancakes served with dipping sauce.

Three syllables:

gam 감.
ja 자.
jeon 전.

Three ingredients:

– potatoes
– salt
– vegetable oil.

What does this result in?

Three words:

Pure
Potato
Pancakes.

In other words, gamja-jeon is a type of Korean pancake, which mainly consists of potatoes. The pancake batter does not contain eggs 🚫🥚 nor cereals 🚫🌾, making this dish originally vegan and gluten free. In short, finely ground potatoes are fried on a hot pan or iron plate in plenty of oil, until they turn slightly brown. The final pancakes are either cut into small pieces or served whole, after which they may be individually torn into bite-sized portions using chopsticks. Since the batter itself is hardly seasoned, these pancakes come with a corresponding dip, which is based on soy sauce, and are thus a savory dish.

Gamja-jeon roughly resemble hash browns🇺🇸, German Kartoffelpuffer🇩🇪 or Swiss Rösti🇨🇭, but upon looking closely, the ingredients, way of serving, taste and texture of each are different. Even inside Korea, there will be variations regarding the size, toppings, thickness and texture of this type of potato pancake. 🥞🥔 Only rarely are there other vegetables added to the basic potato batter. Hence, an alternative name for this dish could be “plain potato pancake”.

Where to find:
In Korean culture, gamja-jeon is a dish typically (but not necessarily) consumed in combination with alcohol, thus it belongs to the food category anju (안주). 🍶 Correspondingly, these potato pancakes are mostly found in Korean pubs, which offer traditional liquors such as makgeolli (막걸리 – rice wine) or soju (소주). But it is absolutely not obligatory to drink alcohol to enjoy these! In Korean pubs, the food is expensive and the drinks are cheap, so it’s okay to order only pancakes, which cost between 10.000 and 15.000 KRW per serving. Just be aware of the fact that Korean pancakes are customarily shared and snacked on while drinking in company 👥 – this is also why their price is higher than non-anju dishes in regular restaurants. In either way, make sure to enjoy the pancakes while they are hot (and crispy)! 🤤 They taste slightly different at each location and peoples’ preferences vary. Personally, I like gamja-jeon best, when the outside is crispy and the potato dough is chewy inside! It’s one of my comfort foods – greasy, savory and crispy – something I crave especially after a hangover… 🍻🤪💥🤢

Thick, medium-sized potato pancakes decorated with chili

After all, gamja-jeon combines also these three concepts in one:
🥞 Pancakes
🥂 Drinking
🥔 Plant-power (👉 vegan🌱).

Maybe I should add a few more “p“s to its title…

Taste of green: Nokcha 녹차 and Ssuk 쑥

Matcha icecream on matcha frappucino next to matcha cake. Photographed in Gyeongju 2018.

                 🥦🥒🍏🥝🥗
💚 Greeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen! 💚
Isn’t green food fascinating?

Who does not know about green tea powder alias matcha* and its current use as an eye-catching addition to foods? It frequently appears in East Asian products and by now, it is advancing globally into the spheres of innovative as well as health-conscious food production. At first, the vibrant green may appear alarming to some 🤢, but the fascinating color and intricate bitter taste eventually manages to bewitch matcha enthusiasts all over the world. 🍵🧙‍♂️

But who knows the source of ⬇️this beautiful deep-green color? 👽

“Ssuk tarte” by patisserie Arari Ovene in Seoul 2017.

This, may I introduce, is thanks to mugwort (Artemisia princeps), whose Korean name is ssuk (쑥). 🌲🧚‍♀️ Isn’t the color enchanting?

Ssuk is a native herb, which is rather important in Korean culture** – most particularly in its cuisine featuring the characteristic ingredient in savory main dishes, desserts as well as beverages.🌿 In Korea, the plant, which grows like weed in nature, is consumed when its leaves are still young and soft. 🌱 Early spring is the only season it is harvested, so you will see foods featuring (fresh) mugwort on the seasonal menu of many cafes and restaurants during this period! The young seedlings grow quickly into a tall plant with leaves too stringy and hard to be chewed. Nevertheless, you can encounter many food items flavored and colored with mugwort throughout the year: Rice cakes, bakery products, latte etc. Yet, in such cases, mugwort is used in dried form, most likely as a powder made from the young plants, which were harvested in spring, dried and then finely ground.

In cooking, baking and beverages, ssuk contributes its turquoise-green color (when used as powder) and additionally stringy texture (when used fresh) to the respective food item. Typical for ssuk is its distinct herbal scent, for which it is being cherished by Koreans. When ssuk is eaten raw or in large amounts, however, its bitter taste may be perceived most prominently.

Dried mugwort leaves brewed into tea.

Furthermore, ssuk is ascribed positive effects on the health – especially beneficial to women. To provide an example, in Korea, tea from dried mugwort leaves is supposed to strengthen and warm the body from the inside. (But since I am no expert in traditional herbal medicine, I do not feel qualified to explain this phenomenon.) In correspondence with its medicinal properties, mugwort is generally quite significant in Traditional Chinese Medicine – moxibustion is a common application of mugwort, which even people outside the East Asian culture sphere may have heard of already.

Mature mugwort growing on the side of the road in Germany.

In fact, mugwort also exists in Europe. In Germany, the herb is referred to as “Beifuß” and has traditionally been used as a spice – but here, the dried flowers of the adult plant are used! A famous German dish featuring dried mugwort flowers is the roasted goose prepared on Christmas (“Gänsebraten mit Beifuß” or “Weihnachtsgans”). Perhaps, you happen to have grown up in a family that customarily uses this herb? Or are you familiar with this plant for some other reason? After all, it is possible that the two of you have already been acquainted! You just weren’t aware of it. 🙂

Notes by the author:

*) Matcha is the Japanese reading of ‘抹茶’ (ground tea), which is pronounced “mǒchá” in mandarin Chinese. The Korean reading of the same characters is malda (말다), but it is often referred to as malcha (말차) or simply called nokcha (녹차), which means green tea.

**) In terms of culture, let me just briefly mention the “Tale of Danggun” (당군신화), one of Korea’s creation myths, in which the consumption of mugwort as well as garlic play a decisive role on how the narrative evolves.

Nourish body and soul: Bindaeddeok 빈대떡

The weather is rainy. 🌧
It is simply cold outside.🍃
Or maybe you have a hangover from drinking too much…💥

Whatever be the case – if you have a craving for something warm, greasy, nourishing and hearty, then how about bindaeddeok (빈대떡)? 😉

Stacks of bindaeddeok at Gwangjang Market (광장시장)

This traditional Korean food is a pancake almost entirely made from mung beans, of which the most basic variant is originallyvegan! Basically, skinned mung beans are ground into a smooth batter, which is then fried in oil to create thick, savory pancakes. The batter normally does not need additional flour or eggs for stabilizing, so this dish is not only vegan but also gluten free. Nevertheless, the final pancakes are very filling, contain a mass of protein and are quite the indulgence! 🤤

In general, one can distinguish between two varieties: Plain pancakes vs. pancakes with chunky “fillings”. In the first version, the plain batter is used to make smooth, golden-colored pancakes. The latter contains chunks of additional ingredients, such as pieces of vegetables (e.g. bean sprouts, scallops, carrots) but occasionally also 🐟kimchi, 🦐seafood or 🥩meat. Since seafood and meat fillings normally cost extra, it is rather easy to confirm that your serving is ordered the way you prefer it! Needless to say, the flavor of the final dish changes along with the additional ingredients, and so does the texture shift from smooth and slightly grainy towards chunky and moist!

Similar to other Korean savory pancakes, bindaeddeok are served together with a complimentary sauce. When eating bindaeddeok, pieces of the pancake are dipped into the sauce (typically soy sauce with extra spices) and thus seasoned according to one’s personal preference.

Plain bindaeddeok at North Korean restaurant “Neungra Babsang” (능라밥상)

Besides the taste, there exist slight variations also in terms of name and appearance. For instance, an alternative name for bindaeddeok is nokdu jeon (녹두전 绿豆煎 – literally green bean pancake). In North Korea, on the other hand, these pancakes are called nokdu jijim (녹두지짐).

Also, sizes range from as big as plate-filling to smaller, bite-sized pancakes. The North Korean version, in particular, is prepared with a plain batter, which is occasionally topped with 🌶vegetables or a piece of 🐷pork for garnish.

After all, I warmly recommend clarifying prior to ordering what kind of topping or ‘filling’ will be used! You can easily eliminate meat, fish and seafood by asking something like this: “Hoksi gogi, saengseon ina haemul neo-eu-seoyo? 혹시 고기, 생선이나 해물 넣으세요? Are you putting meat, fish or seafood in this?” If the answer is no (“aniyo! 아니요!”), there should be no shocking surprise when food is served. 😉 However, in case you are allergic or follow strict rules, be aware that your food may nevertheless be cooked on the same grill as food that is not vegan, vegetarian, halal or kosher.

Where to find:
There are restaurants which specialize in such pancakes – these are normally identical with pubs serving traditional Korean alcohol (hanguk suljip 한국술집). 🍶🥞 In fact, bindaeddeok is commonly enjoyed in combination with alcohol, especially Korean rice wine (makgeolli 막걸리) and pancakes make a classic couple in Korean food culture.

Besides that, bindaeddeok are also sold outdoors at food stalls (preferably near subway stations or busy streets) or on traditional markets. At such locations, you can either eat one on the spot like typical Korean street food, or you can buy it for take-away. 🥡 In my opinion, however, they taste best, when they are still hot and crispy outside, while the inside is soft and juicy! 🤤

Overall, these pancakes are a rich and indulgent food item that is (at least in Korean minds) emotionally linked with social gatherings. In addition to that, they provide fuel to help you regain your strength, when you feel weak physically. Hence, I list bindaeddeok as one of my personal comfort foods in Korean cuisine. 💚🍴

What is your favorite comfort food? ☕️🌧 Anything other than chocolate?! 🍫
Or do you have a specific craving, when you have a hangover? 🤪

Vegetarian option no. 1: Bibimbab 비빔밥

The dish that is perhaps the most easily found option for vegans, vegetarians or people following a halal or kosher diet is….

🍚🍄🥕🍳🥒🍆
Bibimbab 비빔밥 – literally “mixed rice”


Hot Stone Bowl Bibimbab (dolsot Bibimbab 돌솥비빔밥) with mushrooms, rice on the side, soy sauce and side dishes.

Bab” 밥 meaning rice is one of the staple foods of Korean cuisine, so many dishes contain rice and also carry the word “bab” in their name. 
Beside 🍚rice, the dish consists of a number of varying toppings (mostly seasoned 🥕vegetables, 🍄mushrooms and 🍳egg) plus a sauce. There are innumerable versions of Bibimbab! I will soon introduce common versions with classical combinations of vegetables as well as post innovative creations from modern restaurants here.

Bibimbab with fresh vegetables (saengyachae Bibimbab 생야채비빔밥) including avocado.

Normally, the cheaper versions do not contain meat or fish produce at all. Otherwise, you can ask the waiter or cook to skip the respective topping when preparing your serving. You can do so by saying something like this:
🥩 “Gogi bbae juseyo.” “고기 빼 주세요” – Without meat please. 🍖
🐟 “Saengseon ina haemul bbae juseyo.” “생선이나 해물 빼 주세요” – Without fish or seafood please. 🦐
🥚 “Gyeran bbae juseyo.” 계란 빼 주세요” – Without the egg please. 🍳

Two types of Bibimbab served with complimentary side dishes and soup.
Sauce is added to personal preference.

Another key ingredient of Bibimbab is the sauce. The classical sauce is Korean fermented Chili sauce (gochujang 고추장), which in some cases has been upgraded with pieces of beef (this is mostly the case in more expensive restaurants). At other times, you have a selection of different sauces to choose from. Beside chili sauce, I’ve encountered versions of Bibimbab which have been served alongside seasoned soy sauce (양념 간장), a mustard sauce (겨자소스) or even a sauce made from sesame seeds.

How to eat:
In the large serving bowl, evenly mix the rice, toppings and sauce, which you add according to your personal taste. Ideally, chopsticks are used to stir everything, so that the rice grains are not mushed into a paste – but this takes more effort than simply using a spoon! 😆 The mixed rice is then eaten with a spoon.

Where to find:
Simple versions of Bibimbab can be found in even the smallest, most basic restaurants of Korea, the so-called bunsikjeom 분식점. There are restaurants, such as the brands Bon Bibimbab (본 비빔밥) or bibigo (비비고), which specialize in Bibimbab and thus offer a range of different versions. In general, there exists at least one Bibimbab option in any restaurant serving Korean food.