Friday, 22 January 2010

Korean or Chinese?


In China, there are two main branches of Jajangmyun. The southern Jajjangmyun which is common in Hong Kong consists of stripes of pork cooked in an orange sauce which is slightly spicy spreaded on top of egg noodle (thin, chewy, yellowish that is used for Wonton noodle soup). In the north, it's wheat noodle covered by black bean sauce. Usually, you see northern jajangmyun eaters having cucumber in one hand and chopstick in the other.

In Korea, you eat jajangmyun at Chinese restaurant. It's a variation from the Northern jajangmyun by immigrants and Chosun people (i.e.Koreans living in Northeast China, just North of the North Korea border). Jajangmyun is such a simple and yet fulfilling dish that it became one of the most popular dishes in Korea. When you see a delivery man carrying a rectangular metal box, chances are you will find jajangmyun, jjamppong and mandoo in plastic bowl with an industrial strength clingwrap mounted on top to avoid spilling.

The Korean jajangmyun is a tad sweeter than it's Chinese cousin. I like all kinds of Jajangmyun and over the years, I developed my version which I think is better than the ones you get at restaurants in Seoul. The big difference is I don't use potato or the water that cooked the noodle to thicken the sauce. I use sesame oil to keep the sauce not as thick and to add fragrance.

Generous amount of onion cut into small pieces.
Two to three gloves of garlic, minced
Zucchini, carrot, and a small quantity of potato - all diced
Diced pork should be marinated with light soy, dark soy, a little bit of sugar, sesame oil, white pepper and starch for at least 30 minutes before cooking

When the wok is red hot, add oil and onion. Stir fry the onion till it's soft and starting the caramerlize. Do not be cheap on time and cheat. It has to start caramelize! Add pork and stir fry till the sides are brown. Add the other vegetables and two tablespoons of jajang. Add some water and mix the sauce well. Cover the wok and let the sauce simmer. When done, add a generous dash of sesame oil (pure sesame oil, never use blended ones)

For the noodle, I like using sootamyun (hand made noodle). Take the noodle out of the boiling water when it's a little undercook. Rinse the noodle in another pot of hot water. The purpose is to wash out the extra starch.

Put the noodle in a bowl. Here's another thing. Don't just dump the noodle in as that will make mixing with the sauce difficult. Organize the noodle neatly. Add sauce on top and eat with raw onion and uncooked jajang sauce and yellow picked radish.

That's what I call a good dinner!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Bibimbap. Plain, not dolsot

Before we got married, we visited Hyuk's parents in LA. It was stressful. Marriage was on our agenda but it would not be possible without Halaboji and Halmoni's blessing. We behaved like grade school children that week. Hands on the lap, no public display of affection, no giggling.

In the Korean culture, at least the version I got, young people (even married) aren't supposed to be intimate in front of elderly. In fact, wives are supposed to keep a safe distance behind the husband when they are outside. I also got the lesson on wife of the eldest son should be head of housewives at home. All sound like evidence to support the impressions of Koreans that most people have. I found it strange and difficult to accept. My family was a lot easier on me. I was allowed to date and the guys I took home for dinner didn't have to be potential husband. The housewife part struck me hard. I was young and felt like I had a career in front of me (and these days, I'll tell you it's a way to pay the mortgage). It took me years to understand what housewife really means. A housewife has the responsibility to look after the well being of the entire family and also to manage the finance. It's a huge job. The comparison to the crporate world would be housewife is the CFO and COO.

Years later, I also found out the whole no PDA concept is very seventies. That brings to another observation, immigrants (Chinese and Korean alike) break the arms of the clock and are very good at living in a time capsule. Perhaps that's a way to have something that they are familiar with and know that they can rely on when they are away from the clan.

Anyway, I had to learn about Korean food that week and I don't mean learning the cut of beef. It's full blown how to prepare Korean food at home. My initiation was bibimbap. Some people said you will end up mixing the toppings with the rice with a big dollop of hot chili pepper paste anyway, what is there to cook?

- The colour of the toppings and the arrangement provides the aesthetic element of the dish
- If carefully chosen, the different vegetables gives complimentary taste and texture to the dish
- People these days are also talking about vegetables of different colours (at least 5 a day!) provide a good range of nutrients

There's no straight rules as to what you can use as toppings. The use of sesame oil and hot chili pepper paste (in some cases, a dash of soy sauce on top) is usually generous.

I like the version with mook (acorn jelly) and kim (seasoned seaweed). BTW, dolsot means in the stone pot. At home, we eat bibimbap in a bowl.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Arranged date that led to a marriage....

... in 1998

You didn't read it wrong, we met in 1998 and we were introduced by colleagues. It was a very Korean way of matchmaking but there was no Korean involved.

I was working at a European bank as a derivatives structurer. What is it? Well, it's a job at a bank and let's stop here as I don't know if I can ever explain it clearly anyway. Hyuk was a junior lawyer at an English law firm. I worked with Ali, an Irish lady from Belfast with a fantastic sense of humour and Hyuk worked with Glenn, an Englishman with a passion for football. These are the two people who changed the course of our lives completely.

Glenn took albums from his wedding in Belfast to the office to share with colleagues who couldn't make it. Hyuk spotted me (oh yes, I know what you are going to say but I wasn't that crappy looking at one point in my life) and showed interest. Anyway, didn't know what they talked about at the pantry and the next thing we knew, we were introduced at the farewell party of another colleague of mine. It was a junk trip out to Lamma Island and that means we were stuck with the same crowd of people for the whole evening.

I drank quite a bit and not sure if I threw up at all but Hyuk was a real gentleman and he sent me home that night. I woke up without a scratch or a black eye and we had coffee the next day and the day after and again and again.

My grandparents were introduced to each other too. However, by the time they met for the first time, it was already too late for either of them to run away. I think my grandmother saw the face of my grandfather for the first time ever in their bedroom. At the tender age of 14, my grandmother was a child bride.

My parents met on my father's first job and it was their choice to get married after dating for a while. My father was a pretty handsome man and my mother a stylish beauty. Halaboji and Halmoni also met each other at the swimming pool of their school (Halaboji went back to give talks when Halmoni was a student ), they dated for a while and decided to get married.

The marriages of my grandparents and my parents lasted all the way till the very last day of the life of the other half and there wasn't a new spouse at all. Halaboji and Halmoni's one is still going strong. The pressure that came with the change of circumstances, may it be war or moving to a totally foreign country, didn't do anything to hurt the relationship. In fact, the relationship got stronger.

So. all the debate about whether arranged marriage or marriage of choice works better? In my opinion, it's all about the couples. Didn't our family history showed it all?

Rice left in the bowl and you get a pocky-face spouse

My mother passed away when I was five and my grandmother moved in with us to look after me as my father had to work shifts. Whilst my sister and my brother were very good to me, no one could expect two teenages attending high school to act as part time parents for their youngest sibling.

I spent lots of time with my grandmother, a lovely and smart house maker, during the day. My grandma always had my lunch ready when I returned home from school. It was the best time of the day because I knew I could monopolise my grandma and her delicious food.

One thing that my grandma kept telling me was if I didn't finish all the rice in my bowl, I would marry someone with a pocky face. Marriage and a five year old don't naturally link up but my grandma's threat really got me going. I would shuffle every single grain of rice into my mouth and to make sure I didn't miss anything, I would ran my fingers around the bowl after my meal. I did so well that I could almost see the reflection of my face in the bowl!

I suppose the lesson that my grandma wanted to give me was not to waste any food. When she was a young mother during the Japanese war, she had to find wild vegetables and at times came up with creative way to prepare some edible dishes using bark of trees. Protein was difficult to come by.

And the person I eventually married? Not Mr Pocky but not Mr Perfect Skin either. I wonder if I can ever use the same line on Changunnie to make her finish all her food.


The tricks that I learned from my grandma to make the perfect steamed egg custard... the one that doesn't have a pocky face -

(1) the water/stock that we use should be boiled and when added to the egg, at room temperature. The boiling drives the oxygen out and the room temperature prevents cooking the egg before steaming
(2) could not lift the lid of the wok up till the steamed egg was done.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Who we are

In a way, our stories are similar to that of lots of Asians.

Halaboji (grandpa in Korean) was born during the Japanese occupation. The family moved around like millions of Korean did back then. At one point, the Son's lived in Liao Ning Province and Halaboji was fluent in Chinese. Eventually, the Son's went back to Korea when Halaboji was a school kid. Halaboji and Halmoni (grandma in Korean) moved to the US from Korea in the Seventies of the last century. Their qualifications weren't recognized and the jobs that Halaboji and Halmoni took were nothing like what they did back in the Land of Morning Calmness. In the pursue for better education for the children, they moved to an area in Pennsylvania where, back in those days, their black hair and yellow face stood out. If they wanted anything Korean, they either had to travel far to buy them or they need to make them with ingredients from the Western market.

The Li's have a typical Hong Kong story. My grandparents and their siblings ran business in China and Hong Kong. During the Japanese War, my grandparents took my father to Hong Kong in search of a safer home. My aunt was born in Hong Kong and in 1945, my aunt was sent back to China whilst my father stayed behind with his uncle and that was the beginning of a thirty years separation. My father had to work hard for everything whilst his cousin took it easy. It was an easy choice, my father started his own family in 1956. Life wasn't easy but my parents were happily married and they spent lots of time in the kitchen together. Then in the seventies, I came along.

The historical events between the thirties to the seventies shaped Halaboji, Halmoni and Gong Gong (my father) the way they are and that also predetermined the way on how we were brought up. Nothing should be wasted and everyone should be able to take care of him/herself.

So, that's who we are, a bunch of people with pretty strong characters.

What was I thinking?

"Are you sure you want to live with the in-laws under the SAME roof?"

Yep, that's the question I got a lot when I applied for dependent visa for my in-laws. It appeared to lots of people that my husband and I were making a mistake and that we were trying to lead a very "Chosun" lifestyle. The Chosun dynasty ended 100 years ago in August 1910 after ruling the Korean peninsula for over 500 years....

Well, the answer is not something that I can explain in one or two paragraphs but I am convinced that we did not make a mistake despite the few hiccups that we had. In the coming postings, we will talk about how we got to where we are (and along the way came a child). Cannot guarantee you anything exciting like a blockbuster but I hope to record some aspects of the Chinese and Korean culture (especially the culinary aspect) that I feel like is slowly disappearing.