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.


  1. The angle of your last picture kinda makes it look like an empanada. I like those. I've had sweet red bean paste things, candies, I suppose (the paste is encased in a translucent gelatin), in Taiwan, and I'm afraid I'm not their biggest fan. It's the texture mostly. There's a slight grittiness that I can't get over, like how a water chestnut feels before you bite into a piece. Still, I'll try anything, and I like the fish shape a lot!!

  2. So it's like a large, fish-shaped abelskivver. Only you wouldn't want to cover it in maple syrup and eat it for breakfast. (Fun fact: neither of those sentences are questions. My word is law.)

  3. Not to discredit Draper as being a food connoisseur but he did eat salagubang in the Philippines. I would also like to add that i wanted to try some too but he eat them all.