Of all the comfort foods I have grown to love here in Korea, Joomeok Bap, or Fist-Rice has become one of my favourites. This snack is healthy, tasty, easy and satisfying to make. It is perfect to bring on a picnic or as a pick-me-up when outdoors.
Fist-Rice is traditionally made by hand-mixing various vegetables, as well as ground beef or dried anchovies with rice. The mixture is then tightly packed into individual, fist shaped balls. The best of the bunch uses crumbled seaweed (kim ga-ru). This is because Korean seaweed is deep-fried, salted and flavoured with sesame seeds, perilla oil and a pinch of sugar. The stuff is salty, greasy and delicious, so it’s easy to devour an entire bag in one go.
The combination of flavours in this dish are so glorious, it brings tears to my eyes. Land and sea take hand and make beautiful fist shaped babies.
Korean Fist-Rice with Fried Seaweed, Prosciutto and White Truffle Oil
2 cups of uncooked sticky or glutinous rice
4 cups water
70 grams (about 1 ½ cups) Korean crumbled seaweed
100 grams thinly sliced prosciutto torn into small pieces
White truffle oil
Rinse rice two or three times and drain. Pour the measured water on the rice in a pot and cover. Bring to a rolling boil on high heat for 10 to 15 minutes.
Lower heat to the minimum temperature and allow the rice to cook for another 30 minutes. Never stir the rice. To check if it has absorbed all the water, simply tip the pot on it’s side. If the rice slides, it needs to continue cooking. If it doesn’t slide, it is ready to be removed from heat.
Allow the rice to cool enough that it doesn’t burn to touch with your hand.
Combine the seaweed and prosciutto with the rice. Grab small handfuls of the mixture and squeeze to form tightly packed spheres.
Drizzle white truffle oil over the fist rice and devour.
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If you move far from the things that are familiar to you, learning to adapt is essential for your survival. When I moved to Seoul 4 years ago, I found myself drowning in a sea of unfamiliarity. The language, culture, courtesies, smells, sounds and sense of personal space all amounted to a major sensory overload. Communication was difficult and mistakes were made often with hilarious results. I remember once feeling overwhelmed by a chatty taxi driver who assumed that I was able to speak Korean because I said “hello” properly. I tried to say “I don’t know” (mo-lie-yo) in response to his words, but ended up saying “How much does it cost?” (ol-my-yo) which of course confused him and prompted him to ask more questions. Another time, I’m pretty sure I told a nice ajumma on the subway who tried to be polite and talk to me that I hate Korea, when I meant to say I don’t know Korean well. I wondered why our conversation fizzled after that.
Food was another interesting matter. Cooking and eating traditions are revered and followed with little deviation. These traditions have worked for a millennium or two, so they must be good. Too good to change. As an outsider, I was completely unaware of what these rules were and ruined many a meal in the eyes of the ladies who served me. Having been accustomed to sushi, I wanted to dip my kimbap in soy sauce. This caused a serious stir in the kitchen as no one could imagine why I would ever want to do such a thing. Did I know that the whole point to eating bibimbop was that it must be mixed thoroughly before eating? Apparently not. Once I’d turned some mushrooms over on the barbeque during a galbi meal, thus spilling all of the water they had collected. All of the Koreans at my table gasped in disappointed embarrassment. It seemed I’d rendered them useless.
When I first arrived, I’d had very limited exposure to kimchi. I found it overwhelming and somewhat offensive to the senses. But, as it is one of the main sources of great pride in Korea, I plugged my nose and tossed it down. I now can’t imagine going more than a few days without eating some.
Mukeungi is kimchi’s lesser-known elderly cousin. Where kimchi is usually fermented for 1 to 4 months, mukeungi has gone through an extra long fermentation process, usually about a year (!). It is ripe with flavour and smell. It is excellent for using in stews, soups and mixes gloriously with eggs.
Mukeunji Kimchi Frittata with Lemongrass and Sour Cream
I always struggle to answer when asked where I’m from. Do I answer the place I was born? The place I’ve been most recently? Where I grew up? The place I’ve spent most of my life? The place my family lives? Where I’m most comfortable? Any of these could be the actual question behind the posed inquiry and my head swims with possible responses. For me, each would get a different reply.
The past decade or so of my life has been spent in a relatively nomadic state. I’ve lived and worked overseas, studied abroad and traveled like a maniac. The idea of ‘home’ has been stretched and expanded to mean more than I’ve ever thought possible. Home is where the heart is, yes, but home is so much more, too. I felt at home when I finally stepped on Icelandic soil after having dreams about the place for many years. Montreal is the home of my mum’s side of the family, as well as many of my closest friends, and though I only lived there for my university years, it feels like home. I lived in Seoul (and have now just returned) for 3 ½ years, and it too has a place in my heart and feels like home. I can’t tell my life story to every person who asks me where I’m from, so I usually come up with one short answer or another.
After a few rushed weeks of fevered packing, random fits of tears and goodbye kisses, I left my home by my mother’s side at The Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, New York to return to Korea. The Abode is the place I was born, rebelled against and returned to. It is the place I lost my father and found a new meaning to the importance of family. It is the place I found love, lost it, and found it again. Eight peaceful months were spent cooking, eating, writing, photographing, running, loving, breathing, blissing out on nature, watching out for bears, catching up with old loved ones and meeting new loved ones.
As I was staying with my mother for the first time in 10 years, there were a few challenges to overcome. Mainly involving myself not acting like an entitled 12 year old. This is a tough challenge for anyone reorganizing their lives to be closer to their mum. I took it as an opportunity to better my relationship with her. I didn’t always succeed… with the whole not being a grumpy, misunderstood teenager thing, but I tried.
When it came down to saying goodbye, even though I’ve done it countless times before (both to The Abode and to my mum), I found I was only able to remember the good things, the best things. Our connection fills me so much that my eyes start to leak. Home.
So, let the reign of debauchery and hilarity in Korea begin.
By the way, this cauliflower cashew soup with curry yogurt sauce is perfectly balanced and really pretty. Also, preparing a sauce for a soup makes you feel like you’re on top of things and you know what you’re doing.
Besides, it’s so easy.
Cauliflower Cashew Soup with Curry Yogurt Sauce
For the soup:
1 large head of cauliflower (about 7-10 cups chopped roughly)
2 ½ cups cashew pieces
1 cup chopped potato
1 leek, washed and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tbsp fenugreek
¼ tsp clove powder
1 ½ tbsp salt
2 tsp black pepper
a pinch of paprika
For the sauce:
1 cup plain yogurt
1 ½ tsp Indian curry powder
¼ tsp salt
Add some cooking oil, the onions and garlic to a large pot on medium high heat. Let brown for 4-5 minutes. Stir intermittently.
Add cauliflower, leek and potato. Cook for 10 minutes.
Pour water in until all vegetables are just covered. Do not put in too much or the soup will be watery. Add cashews and spices.
Let the soup boil for 20-25 minutes.
Take the soup off the heat. Using an emersion blender, blend the soup until smooth.
In a separate bowl, mix yogurt, salt and curry powder until well incorporated.
Place a dollop of yogurt on top of the soup when ready to serve.