Thursday, November 05, 2009

Korean Curry (카레)

The first time I had Indian curry, I was appalled. So brightly cumin-colored, so thin, so watery, so not what I was used to! And that Basmati rice- what?? Why in the world was it called curry, when curry is obviously supposed to be viscous stuff, with enough heft to attach itself tenaciously to bits of sticky short-grain rice? The madness!

Throughout my childhood and even now, Korean curry is my version of beef stew. I don't have a very deep appreciation of beef stew, but I know how people describe it. Those descriptions are generally in line with how I feel the moment I smell the distinctive scent of curry. (Not that I have anything against beef stew, quite the contrary- I just never had it until I was in high school.)

One funny thing that Koreans do is calling the dish "curry rice (카레라이스)." Literally. Instead of saying "curry bap (카레 밥)," we say "curry rice," with rice in three syllables- rah-ee-ssuh. My family no longer does that (thank goodness); we just call it 카레.

Koreans and Japanese love this dish so much that we stick them in omelets for omurice, fill onigiri with them, and manufacture ramen in curry flavors. Heck, there's even a quasi-holiday whose sole reason for existence is for people to pig out on curry!

As you probably already know, it's not really Korean curry. It's Japanese curry, which is just a bastardization of Indian curry. And for the most part, the way Koreans and Japanese prepare curry is the same. In fact, I usually buy Japanese-brand curry roux, just because it's cheaper (ironically, this is in a Korean grocery store). I think the Japanese tend to put less stuff in their curries, for more of the sauce and less of the heft. Koreans are all about overflowing pots, so we throw the contents of an entire refrigerator shelf into our curries.

I never think of the store-bought preparation stuff as roux, but that's what it's called. To me, a roux is a paste of butter and flour. Very French, very buttery, has no place at all in curry... but there you have it.

La roux comes in blocks, two blocks per package (the usual-sized package, which is 4.4 ounces). Each package is conveniently made to snap into two individually-wrapped blocks so you don't have to use the whole thing at once, which would make an enormous amount of curry. No one needs a bushel of curry, after all, unless there is a small army to feed.

Each block is subdivided into six sections that look suspiciously like Hershey's Nuggets but smell like a gigantic pot of fragrant curry condensed into an itty-bitty chunk of innocent roux.

I made this curry last weekend, and it was all gone in the course of two meals, totaling seven servings (I'm going to go ahead and blame my father for being a pig- it should have been at least eight servings, I think).

First of all, I used 3/4 packages of curry roux. Why such a ridiculous amount? Because of my mother, who had 1/4 of a package (three of those little Hershey's Nugget-sized pieces) just sitting sadly in her fridge. The beauty of Korean curry is that anything can be put into it, in any amount that you please. A very easy way to use up the odds and ends inside the fridge and freezer.

I took three slices of tonkatsu pork (pork sliced about 1/4" thick and sold specifically to make tonkatsu (돈까스)) and my mother (kindly) chopped them into pieces for me while I browned one coarsely chopped medium yellow onion in a large pot. The pork was added and also browned, but not completely cooked through. I sprinkled a bit of garlic salt over the pork and onions- not too much, since curry is inherently salty (trust me- I am a salt fiend and I refrain).

Add in vegetables that have long cooking times. I threw in six or seven small-ish potatoes and two carrots, chopped into bite-sized pieces. These don't need to be browned, really, so in goes a little bit of water- barely enough water to be visible amongst the vegetables. Then clamp on the lid and let the veg cook for a bit- they're steaming, really.

Once the vegetables are almost tender, add in the roux (depends on how small the vegetables are chopped- start checking around 5 minutes). Most people wait until they add all the water into the pot, but I deviate. The roux bricks are very hard and need coaxing in order to melt into a stew-like consistency. I hold the roux against the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon and stir, so the roux is rubbing against the pot and disintegrating. Once all the water's been poured into the pot, it's impossible to find the chunks of roux, which means it's impossible to know if they've completely dissolved into the water.

After the roux is incorporated, pour in water. I don't measure this- I just add enough to cover the vegetables and then some. I know what the end product should look like, so I just eyeball it. It's always better to add too little water than too much water, since this curry is very easy to thin out- just add more water (be warned that if you add cold water, you will need to heat the whole batch through again, which may result in overcooked veg. Add warm or hot water instead). This is also when I add vegetables that cook quickly, like zucchini.

Bring to a boil, stir, taste. I add a little Sriracha sauce because my family's all about spicy. If I'm feeling like I want something a bit sweeter, I add tonkatsu sauce instead. Adding something extra gives the pre-packaged curry a nice kick. Especially with the tonkatsu sauce, it's very hard to taste what the addition is, which is good. It's meant to be more of a depth and warmth that the sauces can add, not a severe blow to the tastebuds.

My mother has not made plain white rice in her house for years, and generally only does so when a lot of people are coming over, since many Koreans are strange about what they do and do not like in their rice. She mixes short grain (sticky) rice with jasmine rice and wild rice (the small black speckles) and adds dried peas. I love this version of rice, as it's not too sticky or heavy, but filling and has flavor. (I really love wild rice- I'll stand over the rice cooker and pick out the wild rice with a pair of long chopsticks, one peg at a time.)

Dollop of rice, scoop of curry, and the dish is done. What do I eat with this? Kimchi, of course. We also eat spicy curry with sweet pickled Daikon, called dan-moo-ji (단무지) in Korean or dak-kwang in Japanese. It comes in a natural, off-white color and also a terrifyingly unnatural yellow color. We buy it at the Korean market whole, then chop into half-moons or matchsticks (I buy whichever feels firmest, regardless of color- I'm not racist). It is one of my must-have ingredients for kimbap, when I make it. And I must have danmooji when I have jjajangmyeon (all Chinese-Korean restaurants serve the neon variation). Here's what a package of two danmooji's look like, tinted that insane yellow color:

Especially as the weather gets colder, I tend to make a giant pot of curry and eat it for days on end, varying it up by switching out side dishes or eating it over spaghetti instead of rice. That might sound really odd, but don't call it spaghetti, think of it as "noodles," and it's less weird. Plus, it's really yummy. Another variation is to add a fried egg over the curry with rice. Mmm, curry and egg-yolk!

I've had many plates of Indian curry since my first disastrous experience, and I do love it. It just took me a while to appreciate what it was supposed to taste like- I was surprised by what I got that first time, that's all. I have grown to love Indian food, particular anything involving chickpeas (channa masala, how I love you!), and I do sometimes crave a good Indian curry. If you're used to Indian curry, just know that Korean curry will not taste like curry to you. Curry. Can I use the word any more times in this post? I would like some curry, please. I would like to learn to curry a horse, please. Curry? Curry.


Amanda November 7, 2009 at 4:33 AM  

I need to give in to Good Man on this. He asks for curry all the time and I make a more Indian style curry. He puts up with it, because he's Good Man, but I think he'd prefer Korean/Japanese curry.

jeanny November 7, 2009 at 8:58 AM  

I hope you make some for him- I'm sure he'll be happy!

william November 8, 2009 at 12:42 AM  

after i read this post yesterday, the boyfriend called and expressed his wish to make chicken curry. and i was like, coincidence!

now my apartment smells like curry. also, curry stains dishes (i should not have soaked all the dishes together overnight). evil!

have a big pot of it on my stove, waiting for me to eat it, little by little, this entire week.

i like both types of curry, the indian kind and the korean kind (i grew up eating the korean kind). did refer to your post a couple of times while he was cooking it. thanks!

jeanny November 10, 2009 at 1:44 PM  

You're welcome!

That's an omen. I just finished reading "The Alchemist," now I see omens EVERYWHERE.

I hope you try curry spaghetti- I love converting people to the spaghetti side!