Hello everyone to another installment of Mastication Monologues! Life continues in Korea, and I’m writing this since the weather is cold and wet outside. I don’t think the seasons really know what they’re doing around here. One day it’s sunny and warm and the next day it’s cold and wet. Oh well, at least one thing has remained constant: me trying new and crazy foods. This post will talk about different odds and ends of Korean snacks I have tried since touching down here. First, there are the items I have received from my teachers.
I’ll start with one food that my teachers have given to me in various forms, but I have yet to find one that really catches my fancy: rice cake or tteok in Korean. Obviously, rice holds a special place in Asian cuisine as a staple grain just like wheat and corn in the West, and therefore, there will be many different products made from it. However, I have never tried so many different types of rice cake in my life. It seems like there are as many varieties of rice cake as there are varieties of kimchi. The rice cake is made by pounding sticky rice into a dough, mixing in various ingredients, and then portioning them out into more manageable to eat pieces. One of the first types of rice cake I tried with my coteachers was coated in semi-dehydrated red beans. It was dry, gummi, and tasted like bland beans…yummy. On another day, I saw strange purple squares saran-wrapped on the table, and I found out that it was rice cake with cut almonds in it. I took one bite, and it had a strange floral flavor that clashed with the almonds.
The only two types of rice cake that I actually enjoy are the black sesame coated type or one infused with raisins. The black sesame powder one is quite expensive, but tastes like sweet sesame seeds. As for the raisin tteok, the absence of flavor in the actual rice dough allows for the sweet raisins to really shine. Overall, rice cakes have failed to grow on me as of right now.
Moving on to treats my teachers have given me that I actually enjoyed, I’ll start with the mystery 12 grain sticks. One of my teachers who occupies a cubicle kiddie corner from me gave me a small foil package and said “For you”. I looked at it, and it just said, “12 grains crispiroll.” So I was expecting some sort of granola bar to emerge from the wrapper, but what I encountered was something completely different. Instead of seeing a granular bar, I was greeted by a light yellow, crumbly tube. I took a bite, and it was an interesting experience. Not only was it crumbly, but the interior somehow seemed to be filled with some sort of cheese flavored substance I couldn’t see for the life of me. It must have been hidden under the interior layer, but it was like eating a healthy version of cheese puffs. Another great treat from my students was chalboribbang.
Although the name is somewhat long, these little sandwiches really hit the spot. Our 5th graders took a trip to Gyeongju, and they came back with boxes of chalboribbang. Apparently they are the region’s specialty and have been made since the Silla dynasty of Korea (57 BC to 935 AD). The perfect combination of freshness and delicious taste explains why they have been around for millennia. The small pancakes are made from barley and between the cakes is a sweet paste made from azuki beans. They’re moist, chewy, and have a very slight maple syrup taste. Perhaps that last part comes down to my love for pancakes, but chalboribbang pack a lot of quality flavor into a small package. Finally, there are two small snacks I tried this weekend that I would like to comment on.
First there are the Doritos. World recognized food brands adopt their flavors to suit the local population in order to boost sales and be respectful to their potential consumers if they have religious qualms with the ingredients. Naturally, the Korean Doritos I picked out for our guys night seemed to be flavored like barbecue ribs since Koreans love to barbecue any type of meat.
However, they were a gigantic letdown in terms of flavor. The chips were like back in the states in terms of size and texture, but the bold, savory barbecue flavor that is synonymous with a rack of ribs was severely lacking. On the other hand, my friends took me to a shish-kabob place in Bupyeong in Incheon right outside of the club Shelter that brought both the flavor and the heat.
We had just finished our guys night at my friend Nate’s place, so we headed to Bupyeong to check out some new bars. Instead, I ended up in front of this food truck that had a chef inside who was diligently pressing chicken skewers on the red hot griddle and slathering the piping hot meat in different sauces.
I was goaded into trying the “So Spicy” option, and I took it down no problem. I’d liken the spiciness to probably a couple jalapenos consumed at once. The chef saw that I finished it so quickly, so he decided to make a special sauce just for me. He was laughing while putting chili powder and vinegar into a cup. As he mixed it he said, “Ok I kill you”. Culinary challenge accepted. Eventually my skewer of death was finished, and I went to town on it.
The pieces of chicken were succulent and the green onions had a nice crunch to even out the chewy, grilled chicken. As for the spiciness, it was more in the Habanero/scotch bonnet range. As I was taking it down, other Koreans waiting for their skewers were staring at me like I was a supernatural being and wanted to know where I was from. I finished my complimentary death skewer in no time, and the guy asked me if it was too much. I said nope, and he smiled, nodded, and said, “You very strong”. Got to love being able to consume spicy foods and make friends along the way. Not too bad for only a $1.50.