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…

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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? 🤪

Sweet or snack: Tteok 떡

They are nutritious and originally vegan:
Korean rice cakes (tteok / ddeok 떡)

Traditionally, they were consumed as sweet treats on holidays or special occasions. But nowadays, they are quite abundant in Korea – throughout the year and basically anywhere – in innumerable variations! Although the basic ingredient is normally rice, they come in all kinds of shapes and colors, with fillings, toppings, varying textures, steamed, pounded, fermented etc…

Rice cakes of the “songpyeon” (송편) variety, filled with sesame and sugar.

Korean food is often colorful and so are these rice cakes! 🌈 Ideally, they are dyed naturally by adding flavorful ingredients, such as

❤️red = red rice (honggukmi 홍국미)
🧡yell0w = sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박)
💚green with speckles = mugwort (ssuk 쑥)
💜 light purple = purple sweet potato (jeok goguma 적고구마)
💜purple with speckles = black rice (heungmi 흑미)
💕pink = cactus fruit (baeknyeoncho 백년초)

Fresh yeongyang ddeok (영양떡) left to cool down before being cut and wrapped individually.

There exist rice cakes in cuisines of various Asian countries – each exhibiting local characteristics. Regarding Korea, here is a rough overview listing the most common criteria to demonstrate the diversity of tteok / ddeok:

  • Type of main starch: short grain rice (mepssal 멥쌀), glutinous short grain rice (chapssal 찹쌀)
  • Additions to dough: mugwort (ssuk 쑥), red / black whole grain rice (honggukmi 홍국미 / heungmi 흑미), pumpkin, sweet potato
  • Filling: sugar with sesame seeds, red bean paste (pat anggeum 팥앙금), bean paste (kong anggeum 콩앙금); occasionally nuts or dried fruit are added
  • Topping: sesame seeds, nuts, gingko seeds, dried fruit, chestnuts, whole beans
  • Coating: roasted soy bean powder (kong garu 콩가루), mashed beans (kong gomul 콩고물), [honeyed] syrup with sesame seeds, jujube (daechu 대추), coconut or spongecake crumbs (kastera 카스테라)
  • Shape: hand-shaped, ball-shaped, cut into blocks, pressed into molds
  • Method of preparation: pounding steamed rice (➡️dense, chewy texture), sifting rice powder and then steaming it (➡️fluffy, powdery texture), fermenting rice batter and then steaming it (➡️slightly tart flavor, bubbles in dough)
Mugwort tteok filled with red bean paste and covered in roasted soy bean powder
콩고물쑥떡

In general, rice cakes will not taste as sweet as our contemporary Western desserts. Modern versions and especially the ones with (red) bean filling, however, can turn them into rather filling, rich and nutritious sugar bombs. 😋 If the filling or topping of the rice cake contains nuts beside beans, this adds further sources of energy! Curiously enough, there exists a modern kind of tteok that is coated in crumbs of sponge cake – this is an exception to the otherwise vegan food item. Also, there are varieties, which are not sweetened at all. You will find these plain rice cakes in Korean dishes such as tteok-bokki (떡볶이) or in the soup tteokguk (떡국). But more on this later, in a future post.

Where to find:
Normally, rice cakes can be found as a to-go snack packaged into plastic foil basically everywhere – in convenience stores, supermarkets, on traditional markets, on the street, in the subway and of course at “rice cake houses” (tteok jip 떡집/ tteok bang 떡방), where they are produced on location. What’s better than enjoying fresh rice cakes, as long as they are still warm, soft and chewy? 😋

In Seoul, prices for the dessert/snack types of tteok lie between 2000 and 3000 KRW per package, but this varies by regional location, brand and quality of ingredients.

Plain white ddeok which has been roasted and garnished with honey, bean powder and almonds.

Other than this, you may find rice cakes served for dessert in traditional Korean restaurants (the fancier type of restaurant!), in traditional tea houses (jeontong chatjip 전통 찻집) or at tteok cafes, which are nowadays increasing in Seoul. At such locations, rice cakes are occasionally served roasted and garnished with a drizzle of honey, condensed milk or a kind of syrup along with other toppings. You may also see them as the topping in other desserts such as bingsu (빙수), which is a shaved ice dessert.

Apart from this, please note that rice cakes taste best the day they are produced! In case you happen to buy fresh rice cakes in bulk (which is often cheaper, especially at traditional markets), be aware of the following facts:

  • If you leave them at room temperature, they might spoil until the next day.
  • If you put them into the fridge, they will harden and require heat to soften again.
  • If you decide to store them, it’s best to freeze them. Let them thaw slowly at room temperature, when you want to eat them. Just decide when you want to eat them and take them out of the freezer a few hours in advance.
  • If you want to soften hardened rice cakes quickly, you could do so using a microwave (❗️softens unevenly, so tteok needs to be turned frequently) or roasting them on a dry pan (❗️burns and melts suddenly!). Steaming them is another option. [Otherwise, I recommend letting them thaw naturally.]

Snack all over the place: Kimbap / Gimbap 김밥

Kimbap with vegetarian filling: omelette, cream cheese, candied nuts, cucumber, carrot, thistle root (u-eong 우엉), pickled radish.

Everyone knows Japanese 🍣sushi, right?

But did you know about the Korean equivalent Kimbap (also spelled Gimbap 김밥)? It’s basically rice (bap 밥) rolled up in a sheet of seaweed (gim 김), quite similar to the Japanese maki sushi. Only it has WAY MORE fillings!!!🤩 💕
Another difference is, that you don’t need to dip the pieces into a sauce, because the fillings are already seasoned. 

In Korea, Kimbap is consumed as a snack, small meal or as a starter. It can be found sold on the streets or in small restaurants (bunsikjeom 분식점). In those restaurants, you can normally choose among various types of fillings – ranging from kimchi to fried pork cutlet or 🥩beef plus the standard vegetables!

The basic filling usually includes 🥕carrot, 🥬spinach, pickled radish, 🥒cucumber, 🥚egg, 🥓ham (haem 햄), 🐟fishcake (odeng 오뎅) and 🦀crab meat (gematsal 게맛살).
It is easy to customize your Kimbap order, when it is made on location. According to your preferences, you can ask for specific ingredients to be put into your roll of Kimbap. Here are some ideas to for doing so:

🥕 “김밥에 야채만 넣어주세요.” Please put only vegetables into my Kimbap. 🥒
🥚 “김밥에 야채하고 계란만 넣어주세요.” Please put only vegetables and egg into my Kimbap.🍳
🥓 “햄 빼고 김밥 만들어주세요.” Please make my Kimbap without ham. 🐷
🐟 “오뎅이나 게맛살 빼고 김밥 만들어주세요.” Please make my Kimbap without fishcake or crab meat. 🦀

Whether you get it on the street or in a restaurant, Kimbap is easily available to-go, when it is simply wrapped into aluminum foil. It is an abundant, nutritious, basic food just like the sandwich in the Western world. An ideal meal when in a 🚴‍♂rush, 🧗‍♂outdoors or on a ⛱pick-nick! You can eat it with your fingers, in case 🥢chopsticks are not available. There’s no need to carry an extra sauce container. In other words, it is the number one 🥡take-away meal!
In this regard, it has a completely different standing if you think about the fancy way Japanese sushi is served in the Western world!

Vegan Kimbap with tofu, beetroot, radish, perilla leaf (deulggaetnip 들깻잎), thistle root (u-eong 우엉) and brown rice.

Vegetarian option no. 1: Bibimbap 비빔밥

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

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


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

Bap” 밥 meaning rice is one of the staple foods of Korean cuisine, so many dishes contain rice and also carry the word “bap” 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 Bibimbap! I will soon introduce common versions with classical combinations of vegetables as well as post innovative creations from modern restaurants here.

Bibimbap 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 omit 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 Bibimbap served with complimentary side dishes and soup.
Sauce is added to personal preference.

Another key ingredient of Bibimbap 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 Bibimbap 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 Bibimbap can be found in even the smallest, most basic restaurants of Korea, the so-called bunsikjeom 분식점. There are restaurants, which specialize in Bibimbap and thus offer a range of different versions. In general, there exists at least one Bibimbap option in most restaurants serving Korean food.