Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Korean-Chinese Food, Part 1: 짜장면

One specific type of cuisine that I crave frequently is Korean-Chinese. There many ethnically Chinese people that have been born and/or raised in Korea. In Korean, they are called 화교 (pronounced hwa-gyo). Since I don't live in Korea, I couldn't tell you who serves Korean-Chinese cuisine there and how it really tastes (although from what I recall, it's very similar to the food served here).

I guess more accurately, I crave American-Korean-Chinese food.

The restaurants I most often go to (where the owners know my family and we all chat before the food arrives) are all owned by hwa-gyo (I guess now they're American). They're unique in that they speak both Chinese (I think it's Mandarin?) and Korean fluently, and usually speak English quite well, with a smattering of Spanish (their busboys tend to speak Spanish more readily than English). I was always intrigued at how quickly they could switch languages, and how Korean they sounded. No strange accent!

Anyways, back to the food.

The two dishes I absolutely love are 짜장면 (jja-jang-myeon) and 탕수육 (tang-soo-yeok). My real favorite, which I crave (usually while I'm at my apartment, where I have no easy access to it), is jjajangmyeon. (Also spelled jjajangmyun, jajangmyun, jajangmyeon, etc.)

As with naengmyeon, the "myeon" in jjajangmyeon means "noodles." I always thought that "jja" meant "salty" because that's what it means when you use the word in a sentence. It turns out that "jja" means "fried," because the sauce is stir-fried. "Jang" means "sauce," and it a word frequently used (ganjang is soy sauce, kochujang is chili paste sauce, etc.)

Jjajangmyeon is a deceptively simple-looking dish. It consists of white noodles and a black sauce over the noodles, much like alfredo sauce over fettuccine noodles. I've been told by many of my non-Asian friends that jjajangmyeon looks disgusting, because the sauce is ... well, black. Like tar. (Personally, I think it's more of a dark brown, like good dark chocolate).

I've never had any aversion to jjajangmyeon, probably because my parents were feeding it to me since I was a very small child. There are a lot of embarrassing pictures of me with sauce all over my face when I was a baby. Most children start with jjajangmyeon and work their way up to the spicier noodle dishes (my sister graduated to jjambbong, a spicy seafood noodle dish, which I never understood the appeal of). I stayed stuck on jjajangmyeon, and every time I eat it, even now, it reminds of me of happier days (your youth always seems like it was happier, doesn't it?).

I made jjajangmyeon by myself for the first time this year. It seemed intimidating, for some reason, and I never felt the need to try it. After living in the Marina del Rey area for ... eight years now (with one year in KoreaTown in the middle), I couldn't stand not having easy and fast and delicious Asian food places around me. So I decided to brave it and make jjajangmyeon myself.

I'm not completely crazy, though, so I bought the noodles. I'm not a pasta-maker. I prefer dried semolina pasta to fresh pasta, so I applied the same logic to myeon: I would like packaged myeon better than something that would take me forever to do by myself (and I don't appreciate being coated in flour from head to toe, either).

I bought a jar of jjajang (it's called chunjang at this point, which means "spring sauce." It must be fried in order to be called jjajang). Chunjang is made mainly from roasted soybeans, and before fried, it looks a little gritty and smells tangy. My mother was with me when I bought the chunjang- I forced her to come along and tell me which brand is best. She laughed at me and told me they're all the same, the difference comes in what I put in the sauce and how well I cook it. (Thanks a lot, Mom).

I drove back to my house determined to make jjajangmyeon and make it how I liked it.

Looking back on it, I was really frightened for nothing. Even the first time I made it, it only took about half an hour to make the jjajang, and that included a few frantic phone calls to my mother.

I like my jjajang with beef, carrots, onions, and zucchini (or squash, but I prefer zucchini). Everything gets chopped into the same size (very small- it's a sauce, not ratatouille) and then sauteed. I sautee the beef first, add the onions, add the carrots, and leave the zucchini for the very end. I'll also add anything else I have that needs to be used up (bell peppers, chili peppers, potatoes, garlic, anything) and throw them in the pan in the order in which they need to cook.

Once everything's somewhat sauteed, I add a little bit of water. While the pan is simmering, the chunjang needs to be fried into jjajang. A nonstick pan is essential, as chunjang is insanely sticky. The pan needs to be really hot. Add a splash of oil (and don't even bother being stingy, it won't help a bit) and then add the chunjang and stir fry until the oil and chunjang are combined and smooth. The color and texture changes a little- the grittiness is smoothed out and the color mellows from a pitchy black to a softer dark brown.

The jjajang then gets added to the larger pan full of meat and vegetables. Everything gets stirred together. At this point, it sort of resembles a beef stew- somewhere between water and gravy. To get it to the right thickness and viscosity, I use cornstarch. I know there are substitutions that are supposed to be healthier, but it's only a spoonful, and I don't really care. I've just used a large splash of oil, what's a little cornstarch going to hurt??

The cornstarch gets mixed in with a bit of water and dissolved before adding to the jjajang. While stirring the jjajang, add the cornstarch mixture in. The sauce magically thickens up and sets.

Boiling the noodles is standard stuff- boil, boil, boil and then drain well.

Serve the jjajang on top of noodles for jjajangmyeon, or over sticky white rice for jjajangbap (자장밥), a very Koreanized dish using jjajang (I eat jjajangbap once the noodles are gone and I have leftover jjajang that needs to be consumed).

Jjajangmyeon is usually served with kimchi and pickled daikon (called 단무지 (dan-moo-jee) in Korea, takuan in Japanese).

I always find it funny that jjajangmyeon is one of the most popular delivery foods in Korea. I mean, Americans would never think that spaghetti would make a good delivery food- can you imagine all those teenage delivery kids with spaghetti sauce in their cars?? In Korea, it's very common to get jjajangmyeon delivered, and it's really cheap.

I know it's not really Korean food, but it reminds me of Korean people, people that I've known since I was a kid. (Strangely, as a child, I hated (HATED) mixing the noodles and sauce together. Like in the picture, the sauce is served on top of the noodles, and you're supposed to take your chopsticks and combine. I hated doing it, passionately, because it made my chopsticks "dirty." Up until probably high school, I always made one of my parents do it for me. I was a weird kid.)

I'm writing my next post about 탕수육 (tang-soo-yeok), the other Korean-Chinese dish I love. Hopefully I'll be done tomorrow. You know, if pesky things like my job don't get in my way!


Miluska October 15, 2008 at 2:00 PM  

Hi ^^ i was dropping and i found your blog...i like much korea, and someday i wanna go .
i lvoe some korean singers^^.
i knew about suicide Jin Sil Choi , was so sad to me because she was the frist korean actress that i knew...anyway i like much your blog...we can exchange links maybe? ^^