Monday, November 28, 2011

Recipe: Korean fish tacos

The modern fish taco was born in Baja California, although different kinds of fish tacos have been part of that Mexican state's cuisine for centuries. I made a Korean fish taco with 된장 doenjang-glazed cod, Korean pear salsa and coleslaw (shredded cabbage or lettuce would work).

Savory Doenjang and sweet, crunchy Korean pears add texture to these fish tacos. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Is American soju 'watered down'?

Twitter makes it so much easier to "eavesdrop" on conversations of random strangers, which I do via a list of search terms related to Korean cuisine. For every person who asks a question, many others have the same one bouncing around their minds. Even random comments that don't ask a question, but should ask a question, sometimes catch my eye. 

SylviaKoss tweeted to Steven Chappell, aka thegrammarnazi:
#Soju can be sold in Calif. and New York, but it can only contain 25% alcohol or less. In #Japan and #Korea it contains 45%.
Mr. Chappell replied,
@SylviaKoss Then it's not Soju. It's watered-down Soju. #Soju #Japan #Korea
Is that shared soju experience the same in Seoul as it is in LA or NYC? (Leana photo, creative commons license, flickr)

Yet neither asked, "Why is the alcohol content of soju imported into the United States lower?" It's another one of those answers that doesn't fit well into a 140-character tweet. It has to do with whether you consider soju and Japanese sake as a rice wine or as distilled alcohol. (Some soju is made from sweet potatoes, tapioca and grains in place of or in addition to rice.)

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau considers soju a distilled alcoholic beverage. In August, a 42-year-old Virginia soju importer pleaded guilty to smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion for claiming soju was "rice wine," avoiding nearly $102,000 in excise taxes on $2 million worth of shipments. Under U.S. law, distilled spirits are taxed at $13.50 per proof gallon, while wine is taxed at $1.07, $1.57 or $3.15 a gallon, depending on alcohol content.

But in 1998, the California Legislature gave soju the same status as beer and wine. The state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Act Section 23398.5 limits what can be sold as "soju" under the more permissive on-premise beer and wine liquor license. It can't have more than 24 percent of alcohol by volume. That's the basis of Koss' tweet to Chappell.

Additionally, soju "wine" must be made in Korea, so there's no such thing as an American soju. Even Ku soju, one of the most marketing-savvy soju brands, is imported from Korean liquor chaebol (conglomerate) Doosan.

New York state adopted similar provisions in 2002.

Korean food culture is closely tied with consumption of alcoholic beverages, largely soju, 복분자주 bokbunjaju (blackberry alcohol) and beer. Sharing a meal with friends without alcohol is virtually anathema, absent religious abstention.

California and New York both have large Korean-American communities and lobbied hard for the relaxed legal definition of soju. That allows Korean restaurants to sell soju without the bureaucratic burden of procuring a hard-liquor license first.

But there was a catch. Producers had to reduce the alcohol content in U.S.-bound bottles from 45 percent to 24 percent, just a little more than the kick of sweet, fortified wines such as Port.

After these laws passed, non-Korean restauranteurs discovered they could also take advantage of the loophole. In California, a hard-liquor permit can cost $6,000 to $12,000. To avoid those high costs, restauranteurs set their sights on soju as a less expensive alternative to jumping through all the hoop necessary to obtain a spirits license. They could sell cocktails made with soju instead of tequila or vodka.

Rather than "watered down," U.S. soju's lower alcohol content and lower caloric content of soju cocktails — about half the alcohol of vodka — is a marketable selling point for many bars and restaurants.

Keep in mind when you travel between the two countries. Several bottles of "American soju" don't pack the same punch as the equivalent volume of Korean soju. Those two or three bottles of soju that leave you blissfully buzzed in L.A. might leave you puking your guts up on the sidewalks of Seoul.

Recipe: Chinese Five Spice Cream Cheese dip

My obsession with Chinese five-spice powder rages again. I found this recipe for Spiced Cream Cheese Dip. I swapped the cinnamon with the five-spice combo, which is much bolder by comparison.

The brownie is just the carrier for the dip or spread. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

Spiced Cream Cheese Dip

adapted from original recipe by Monet at Anecdotes and Apple Cores

1 package cream cheese, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

Cream the sugar, five-spice powder and cream cheese until light and fluffy (about three minutes).

I tried this "dip" with some cinnamon- and raisin-flavored pretzel sticks. But I couldn't help thinking this recipe worked better as frosting. Spread over brownies, the dip-frosting certainly brought some life to otherwise staid sweets.

On reflection, I'd replace the granulated sugar with confectioner's sugar for a smoother, more frosting-like consistency.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Recipe: Rosemary garlic walnuts with smoked olive oil

This recipe took quite a journey along the way from one blog to another, each food blogger added and deleting ingredients as the recipe meandered its way to me.

It reminds me of the old game of Grapevine, also called Telephone, Broken Telephone or Chinese whispers. One person whispers a word or phrase into a neighbor's ear, and that person repeats the word to the next, continuing until the message returns, often hilariously garbled, to the original sender.

Hungarian paprika, Korean garlic salt and walnuts were the Koreafornian spin on this savory snack. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

I traced this recipe from Amy of Adventures in Marriage making Roasted Rosemary Almonds by in March 2010 to Averie of Love Veggies and Yoga. Averie renamed it Rosemary Chipotle Roasted Almonds, tweaking it with smoked almonds and a spicy chipotle kick.

Adapting Averie's variation was the perfect excuse to use remaining rosemary on hand after making Spicy Mushroom Soup a few days ago. Inspired by the smoked almonds in her recipe, I added fireside flavor via smoke-infused olive oil from The Smoked Olive. I also replaced chipotle seasoning with hot Hungarian paprika, kosher salt with Korean garlic salt and almonds with walnuts, which I had available.

Rosemary Garlic Walnuts With Smoked Olive Oil

1 cup walnuts
1 tablespoon Sonoma smoked olive oil (This is the company's bold-smoke version.)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
pinch hot Hungarian paprika
pinch garlic salt, to taste
pinch black pepper, to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (163 degrees Celsius.
  2. Combine all ingredients except for the almonds in a bowl and mix.
  3. Add the walnuts to the oil and spice mixture, and stir until the walnuts are completely coated.
  4. Spread walnuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment, foil or a silicone baking mat. (I used a Silpat mat.)
  5. Bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly toasted. I played it safe by keeping the baking time low.
  6. Allow to cool slightly and serve.

Will keep in an airtight container or jar for week(s) only if you hide them from your grateful husband and his hungry co-workers.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Secret Recipe Club: Spicy Mushroom Soup

Mushroom soup brings back recollections of getting my wisdom teeth pulled in Korea. But for some reason, that memory is not as dismal as one might expect.

Drawing by Taryn (tarale), Flickr (Creative Commons license)

I had been living in the country for about six months when one of my wisdom teeth really started bothering me. I was teething, all over again. But this time around, the dull, occasionally aching pain reached an annoying and nearly unbearable crescendo.

An ESL teacher is paid, even if poorly, to speak intelligible English in public and can't be grumpily slurring words. Just before a long institute vacation, I went to a dental clinic within walking distance of my hagwon in Chuncheon.

"All of your wisdom teeth need to be pulled," the dentist told me, "not just the one that hurts. All of them."

So out they came, all except one without significant cutting. No horror stories. No melodrama. (Except, I learned that practice does make perfect for dentists injecting local anesthesia.)

The dentist commanded me to consume just juices, yogurt and ice cream the first day then graduate to soft foods over the next couple of days after that. My jaw started to swell a bit within an hour after I left the dentist's office and the swelling took some time to subside.

Once I was able to eat warm food, one of my main sources of nourishment was Ottogi powdered mushroom soup. Just pour some water in a sauce pan, bring to a boil, add powder and whisk like mad for several minutes to keep it from getting lumpy. It's instant "nourishment" for someone functioning under a fog of pain medication, antibiotics and aching pain. Walking to the stove and warming that soup gave me a sense of accomplishment.

So, despite the unpleasantness of getting my wisdom teeth pulled, I bear no hard feelings against mushroom soup and still eat it from time to time (even the Ottogi version) with pleasure.

This month, the Secret Recipe Club directed me towards Foodiva's Kitchen to find a recipe to re-create for you.  Her recipe for Spicy Creamed Mushroom Soup with Toasted Almond Brittle inspired my wave of nostalgia. I decided not to make the almond brittle because the mushroom soup recipe was inspiring enough.

I did make a couple of adaptations to the original recipe. I only had a quart of chicken broth in my pantry. Since the recipe calls for 11/2 quarts of chicken broth, I adapted by replacing the other 1/2 quart of broth with 2 cups of water and 2 tablespoons soy sauce.

Spicy Mushroom Soup

by Foodiva's Kitchen (deviations italicized, except conversion to imperial units)
Serves: 4
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced into chunks
1 quart chicken broth
2 cups water 
2 tablespoons guk ganjang (Korean soy sauce made for soups)
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper (or you could do 1/2 tbsp of black, 1/2 tbsp white)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
6 tablespoons butter
5 cloves garlic, sliced
2 shallots, diced
1 tablespoon fresh chives
4 tablespoon plain flour
1 cup heavy cream
  1. Bring broth with 2 cups of water and 2 tablespoons soy sauce to a boil and add the mushrooms, ground pepper, rosemary and thyme. Stir occasionally for about 10 minutes. Lower the heat and simmer while you prepare the next step.
  2. In another pan, melt the butter and fry the garlic, shallots and chives for two minutes or so before adding the flour. Cook for at least two minutes, then pour five cups of the hot soup into the roux slowly. Whisk with each addition to avoid lumps, then pour this mixture back into the soup pot. Stir further under medium heat for about two minutes.
  3. Remove pan from heat and blend using a handheld mixer directly in the pot. Blend until you achieve your desired smoothness. I encourage you to leave a little evidence of the mushroom texture.
  4. Whisk in the heavy cream. Keep soup warm, but do not boil, until time to serve.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Restaurant review: Seoul Garden, St. Louis

I haven't visited St. Louis in 18 years, and I certainly don't remember the city for its Asian food. So it was a treat to eat at a Korean restaurant there during a recent 20th high school reunion trip to rural southern Illinois.

St. Louis is the nearest major metropolitan area with a sizable airport to my little hometown, located more than an hour east. After a long flight, my husband and I were hungry. On my asking about nearby Korean restaurants, the hotel clerk directed us to one about a mile away in the suburb of St. Ann.

The first thing we noticed at Seoul Garden was the full parking lot on a Friday night. This was the first good omen; the second, a dining room full of Korean-speakers. Many were feasting on the $20 all-you-can-eat beef, chicken or pork Korean barbecue.

More tired than hungry, we chose lighter meals. I ordered chicken fried rice (닭복음밥 dak bokeumbap) made with peppery grilled chicken, Chinese restaurant–style peas and diced vegetables (carrots, corn, green and red bell pepper). I was a little disappointed they didn't sneak any kimchi into the fried rice. The dish came with a small salad.

Kimchi Jjigae at Seoul Garden (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

My husband ordered a hanshik (Korean food) standard, kimchi stew (김치찌개 kimchi jjigae). This one contained enoki mushrooms, a couple of slices of fish cake as garnish and hidden slices of rice cake (가래떡 garae tteok). It had the expected spiciness and sourness as well as welcome warmth for that cool fall evening.

Thanks to the mealtime custom of multiple side dishes (반착 banchan), diners at many of the more traditional restaurants can sample the multiple personalities of Korean cuisine. Every time I visit a restaurant for the first time, I get more excited to discover the banchan than my main course.

Among the banchan at Seoul Garden was a bowl of Gyeran Jjim (계란찜), which is a Korean egg custard. This was the first time on either side of the Pacific I've had it served as banchan. It was as comforting a dish as it was simple — two scrambled eggs and one cup of a simple broth (such as anchovy or dashida), baked or steamed until set.

Yongeun Jorim as banchan (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

Another side dish surprise was marinated sliced lotus root, called Yongeun Jorim (연근 조림). It was pleasantly crunchy, sweet and salty.

It's a pity we had to leave the next morning for my reunion. It's even more of a pity the early time of our return flight precluded our stopping there for one more meal.

Seoul Garden
10678 St. Charles Rock Road
St. Ann, MO 63074
(314) 429-4255
Hours: Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Considering the crock of kimchi

Onggi photo by Adam Field

It's crazy to try to answer important, thoughtful questions in Twitter's 140-character limit. The microblogging service handles Korean groups of two to four characters as one, so 140 characters could be a short novel. I refuse to butcher English spelling and grammar for the sake of texting: "I need 2 go 2 the store B4 U go home. Can I C U F2F tonight?"

Cat Morrow of NeoHomesteading early one morning tweeted a question to me and a couple of others on where she could find a kimchi fermentation crock, called onggi.

I referred her to Adam Field, an American onggi maker I wrote about for Yonhap News Service in August, and wrote to her:

Right now I'm using a Polish sauerkraut crock with a water seal but I plan to get an onggi too. I might even compare them.

Cat turned the conversation an hour later to fine points of fermentation:

Can something actually ferment if its covered in snow? I thought ferment thrived at 60-90. That's the homebrewing theory at least.
I replied:
When you're fermenting kimchi for the long haul (1 yr +) you need to regulate it as much as possible.
Her follow-up questions made me really despise the character limit:

like with an air lock? And temperature?

My thumbs rapped rapidly across the touchpad:
Korean onggi pots have a lid that overflows the opening of the jar to lock the air out.
Now for the rest of the story, sans text cuffs.

Kimchi, like most fermented products, need to start brewing at room temperature, which is about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. After a few days at that temperature, most kimchi experts recommend continuing the fermentation process in a cooler place, like a refrigerator.

Traditionally, some Koreans would take the clay onggi pots and bury them up to the lid. The lids are very heavy. Once the lid is in place, a hay blanket teepee might be placed on top of that to moderate the temperature even further. The goal is not kimchi popsicles.

In Korea's often harsh winters, when temperatures plunge below freezing for a good part of the season, burying the kimchi jar underground actually kept the kimchi warmer than the outside air temperature. The kimchi inside the buried onggi is percolating at a slow moderate pace. Some kimchis are aged for one to three years. Before refrigeration, burying the crocks mostly underground was an ingenious method of preservation.

Korean onggi don't need lid water seals to regulate airflow. Onggi aren't made of ceramic and heavily glazed like most European sauerkraut crocks. They are made from clay and are somewhat porous, with analogous breathability of oak barrels for wine, whiskey and beer. 

My little Polish sauerkraut crock has a heavy lid, but the lid doesn't cover the whole top as an onggi lid does. Polish and German crocks have a trough around the opening. When filled with water and the lid immersed in the trough, the crock allows fermentation gasses to escape without oxygen and contaminants getting in. Since sauerkraut crocks are stored indoors, the temperatures are much warmer than the Korean onggi pots stored outside. The only maintenance is to periodically check the water level in the lid trough.

This kind of fermentation does resemble beer brewing, which uses a small water lock which is a little glass tube that holds a small amount of water. It's attached to a hole at the top of the tank. It serves the same purpose as the water reservoir in most Polish and German sauerkraut crocks. It allows gases to escape without allowing air to sneak in. Since beer is usually brewed in large, stainless steel tanks, having an outlet for gas to escape in an orderly fashion is imperative. 

Now, how do I effectively dribble out that explanation 140 characters at a time?

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