Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bungeoppang (붕어빵)

The first time I had Bungeoppang (pronounced boong-uh-pahng) was also the first time I ever visited the underground market in Bupyeong, which is just one of many underground markets in Korea. When I first heard the term underground market, I could imagine it being one of two things: a series of shops that are literally underground, or an above-ground group of shady stalls where guys in hoodies sell pirated copies of Avatar and kidneys that they keep on ice in used aquariums. It turns out the actual underground market is more like the former description than the latter, although I wouldn't entirely rule out any clandestine activity. The underground market is located just to the side of the Bupyeong subway stop, and it is a labyrinth. There are rows and rows of shops arranged along walkways that are crowded with Korean teenagers and intersect haphazardly. As a young man who admits he does not have great navigational skills, I found that trying to make sense of the market was pointless and frustrating. The hodgepodge of shops, walkways, and meandering youngsters is especially disorienting because most of the shops are clothing shops. And most of the clothing shops sell roughly the same clothes. And are laid out in roughly the same way. Every new walkway had me feeling déjà vu multiple times--so many glitches in the Matrix, you guys.

So, my point is that the underground market is simultaneously a great place to find a light, spring cardigan (seriously, there are cardigans everywhere; the Korean flag might as well just be an enormous cardigan) and a place where you almost can't find anything. Luckily, I had my friend Eric with me and he found a stairway that led us back to the slightly fresher air and not-quite-so-crowded sidewalks above ground.

Now this trip took place several weeks ago. I think it was toward the end of my first month here, before I had done anything with this blog. Nevertheless, I had already started talking about snacks with some of my students, and one class recommended I try bungeoppang when I get the chance. They described it as the food that looks like a fish, and that's the best description you could give it. Here's proof:

(This picture, with its background of books and papers thumb-tacked to walls, was obviously not taken on the streets of Bupyeong. It was taken a couple days ago at my desk in the teachers' room at school.)

So when Eric and I surfaced from the underground market and started wandering the streets of Bupyeong, I searched for some bungeoppang. Finding bungeoppang turned out to be much easier than finding our way out of the market.

As you can probably tell from the above picture, the outer layer of bungeoppang is batter that has been cooked in a fish-shaped iron. The outer layer has a consistency and taste much like a pancake, although I would argue that it's moister than most pancakes. What you probably can't tell just by looking at the picture is that bungeoppang is filled with a sweet red bean paste. I use the word paste because I can't think of a better one, but the filling doesn't have the overall smoothness I think of when I hear paste--there are actually whole beans in the filling that you have to chew. In my opinion, anything you have to chew can't be called paste without some reservation. I'm also hesitant to fully endorse the word sweet, because the paste isn't, like, frosting sweet. Don't get me wrong, sweet comes closer to describing the paste than bitter or savory do, but it's not the sweet most of us are used to when we get a sweet snack; it's not cupcake sweet. Although I'm sure there's plenty of sugar, the flavor of the paste matches the mellowness of its deep red color. It's the type of sweet that won't give you a stomach ache.

(Not a great picture, I know. The filling isn't even visible, because of the poor lighting and the angle at which I'm holding the bungeoppang. But I never said I was a promising young photographer. There are plenty of other blogs for budding photographers with some great shots of icicles and raindrops if that's what you want.)

Although I might sound like I'm gushing about bungeoppang in that last paragraph, here's the truth: I like bungeoppang, but I'm not completely obsessed with it. Yet. To draw a comparison to music, I think the fish-shaped snack is like Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica. Like the album, there are aspects of the snack that I enjoyed immediately, but there are also parts that are too strange to be instantly satisfying (like, you know, when my head is thinking dessert, but my mouth is chewing beans. Last I checked, beans were a health food). The pancake-like outer layer is "Gravity Rides Everything", the sweet(ish) center is "Paper Thin Walls", and the beans are Isaac Brock's sudden fits of howling in "Dark Center of the Universe". So I can't write the beans off entirely, because I don't hate them. They're a strange addition to a snack (at least to my Western tastes), sure, but I see their value. Furthermore, I think I'll develop a taste for them that, who knows, might someday match or eclipse my current preference for the other parts of the snack. In my opinion, the beans are ultimately what makes bungeoppang great, even though other aspects of the snack are more instantly appealing. Because of the beans, bungeoppang is an ambitious snack that doesn't just come at you with hit after hit of tastiness and likability. It is subtle and it is a grower. There's some quirkiness to it that is as unsettling as it is interesting, but that strangeness is what makes bungeoppang such a promising snack. There's room for my taste to develop; bungeoppang challenges me to grow as a snacker.

I have only eaten bungeoppang twice so far. Both vendors sold three for 1000 won (about 88 cents), which means I have eaten six pieces total. That's not a lot compared to my total intake of snacks. Similarly, I only listened to The Moon and Antarctica a handful of times in the year after I first listened to it with my friend Spencer (aka Spenny), which is a very small percentage of the total time I spent listening to music that year. But now The Moon and Antarctica is one of my favorite albums.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hoddoek (호떡)

My work schedule is erratic. Somedays I get off work at a normal time like around 5. Other days I get off work between 8 and 920pm. Because I'm usually a complainer, I do complain about getting off so late. The walk home is always cold, and my last class of the day is mostly just me saying, "Put your cell phone away, or it's mine." (I'm a very clever disciplinarian, I know. They definitely will never catch on to the fact that I have no intention of actually taking their phones.) As an occasional optimist, however, I can't be all frowns on a Friday night when I shuffle out--head achy and annoyed with adolescents--at 920, because that time of night with that type of temperament is the perfect time for hoddoek, or 호떡 in Korean.

On the way home, just a few blocks from my place, among several other street vendors, there is a food cart that sells hoddoek. The cart looks like this:

From down the street, I can see the cart glowing softly. It's the type of beacon you want to see when you're exhausted--you can find it without having to search too hard, but it won't aggravate your headache. There's usually a small crowd around it waiting for their snack, which is comforting because a flow of business means the cart will probably stick around for a while.

Then there's the vendor herself, and she's as warm and welcoming up close as her cart's glow is from a distance. The first time I went there, I asked if I could take a picture of her and her establishment, which became the photo seen above. It's a shame the photo didn't turn out better. Initially, she was smiling and shooting a peace sign, but my camera was having trouble focusing. By the time I actually took the photo, she thought it was already over, which is why the shot is a bit awkward. Because she's a busy woman, I didn't want to bother her to "pose" again. So what we get is a strange transition shot between flashing a peace sign and going back to work.

Okay, so I know this is a snack blog, and I have written several paragraphs now without really getting to the snack part in any detail. I'm a horrible snack blogger. I'll probably lose my audience to all of the other snack blogs out there, and I deserve it for grossly ignoring the actual snack up until this point.

So let's talk about the snack. Here's maybe the simplest way to describe hoddoek: it's an unhealthy, small pancake with brown sugar and some other sweet stuff in the middle. It starts as a little dough ball, and then the vendor flattens it on the griddle with a round, metal plate until it is the desired thickness. The hoddoek fries for a minute or so, and then it's ready to eat. I'm not sure if most people get theirs in a cup, but that's how she always gives them to me.


Now I don't usually believe in love at first bite, but...ugh. That pun is not good. Hoddoek, on the other hand, is very good, and I should show it respect by cutting that pun short. I know I compared hoddoek to a pancake before, but calling it a pancake is not very accurate (even though the English translation really is "Chinese Pancake" I guess? At least that's what I've heard). I mean, it's shaped like a pancake, and it's cooked on a griddle like a pancake, but it only vaguely tastes like a pancake. Hoddoek's consistency is a nice middle ground between chewy and moist. The outside has a bit of crispiness from the griddle, which contrasts nicely with the almost-gooey brown sugar filling. I'm careful to say almost-gooey rather than just gooey, because a truly gooey filling wouldn't be nearly as appealing as the "near gooeyness" that's actually present. When I think of something gooey, I picture something like Nickelodeon Gak (for an unappetizing example) or maybe something that would stick to the roof of my mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter (for a more appetizing example). The filling of the hoddoek does kind of sink into your mouth like something truly gooey might, but it's a bit too solid--and lacks any real stickiness--to cling like a gooey snack would.


The flavor of the filling is decidedly sweet, but not in a kid's-candy-stomach-ache way. I feel weird saying this about street food, but it almost has a refined taste to it. I'm not saying the sweetness is subtle, or like something you'd find in an organic cookie at Whole Foods. Maybe what I mean is that there's something complex about it. There's some sort of almost savory undertone that makes hoddoek more than just junk food. Part of the street sophistication must be due to the few sesame seeds that are mixed in. The sesame brings the sweetness down a notch, and adds another layer to the snack--it's not like you just shoved a spoonful of brown sugar in your mouth before your mom catches you when you were supposed to be "saving your appetite" for dinner. (Did anyone else ever eat plain brown sugar just to get their sugar fix as a kid? Please tell me I'm not alone in this.) But beyond the sesame seeds, there's still something I can't put my finger on. Oh well.

Anyway, hoddoek is the perfect snack for a late, cold night. It's especially good after working all day, because there's nothing healthy about it, so I feel like I'm treating myself after a long day of putting up with kids. For anyone who visits me in Korea, I promise some free hoddoek anytime after sunset (I realize I should have mentioned this earlier, because it contributes to the point I was making about how hoddoek is the perfect after-work snack, but the hoddoek cart doesn't come out until it's getting dark).