Mississippi Chinese Lady goes home to Korea

She loves kimchi as much as chowchow, but our Southern-born and -raised food editor, Ann Taylor Pittman, had never been to the birth country of her mother.
By: Ann Taylor Pittman

Beautiful egg-shaped face

Dumplings are one of my great joys, comfort food as much as biscuits and field peas. My first bite in Seoul of steamed mandu filled with pork and tofu took me back to my childhood. At a food stall, I enjoyed another version of mandu—huge fried dumplings stuffed with pork and glass noodles, light and crisp, skins puffed with thousands of wonderful little blisters. When I was 11, in Greenville, Mississippi, I recall my mother making a version of these one time—Mom called them yaki mandu—half-moons of crispy dough filled with ground beef and vegetables. Not unlike many of the Southern meat pies I'd had at family reunions.

I had bulgogi, of course, the classic Korean barbecue meal of marinated beef cooked on a searing-hot grill. And here and there I did uncover little slivers of modest innovation: At a loud, bustling restaurant called Mapo Jeong Daepo in the Mapo district in Seoul, the tabletop grills have a channel around the outer edge, a trough into which we placed bits of kimchi, after which our server poured on beaten eggs. As we seared meat and morseled it up in perilla leaves with grilled garlic and spicy gochujang sauce, a fluffy kimchi omelet cooked on the perimeter. Translator and guide Veronica Kang, a Seoul native, had never seen that before.

There is a variety of chewy little cakes made of rice flour that Koreans adore—wonderfully rubbery "pasta," shaped in disks or tubes, that holds a sauce or glaze. In Seoul, almost every street food stand sells tteokbokki, thumb-shaped rice cakes that are often swimming in a crazy-delicious sweet-spicy red sauce. I spent most of a day seeking every rice cake incarnation I could find. In the Shindang-dong area, I found a carb-lover's delight of rice cakes with ramen noodles, rice noodles, and fish cakes. At Tongin Market, I had "oil" tteokbokki; it is the only place, Jennifer explained, to find these: marinated in a bit of soy and a lot of Korean ground chile, then stir-fried so that they're irresistibly crisp on the outside, chewy within, and fantastically simple.

As much as Koreans love to eat, they have a powerful thirst that would impress the Wall Street frat boys of downtown Manhattan. It's not uncommon—on a Tuesday as much as a Friday—to watch business-suited men in Seoul staggering, slumped over, or violently hugging after a night of boozing. The agent of their inebriation is often soju, a rice-based spirit with the alcohol content of strong sake and the flavor of a sweetish vodka. It comes to restaurant tables quickly, in small bottles, and is usually drunk neat. I had plenty, but I was more enchanted by makgeolli, a drink I fell in love with at the Blue Star Pub in Seoul's artsy Insadong district. Makgeolli is a milky-cloudy rice beer, a bit sweet, a bit tangy, a bit tingly on the tip of the tongue. At the Blue Star, it arrived, flavored with mugwort, in a ceramic tureen with a wooden scoop and little bowls to drink it from. Makgeolli proved a lovely, sociable drink, with its communal pour and its refreshing, gentle effect.

The owner of the bar, Mr. Choi, a stage actor, looked like a Korean version of Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse. He knew Jennifer and welcomed us warmly. They proceeded to have an animated conversation in Korean. It was one of the first times I had heard such lively talk at close quarters. (Although I had often heard my mother speaking Korean when I was a child, it was always over the phone, so I heard only one side of the conversation, interrupted by long pauses.) Unlike the sing-songy cadence of, say, Japanese, Korean is full of low, guttural sounds and hard fricative stops—what sounded to my ear a bit angry turned out to be a friendly conversation about which bar snacks we ought to eat. Although we had already had dinner, we couldn't resist the crisp mung bean pancakes or the little knobby root vegetable pickles. We drank, we ate, we ordered another vat of the brew, this time flavored with persimmon leaf. At Mr. Choi's table, not far away, was a cheery, clean-cut Korean gentleman whose rosy cheeks indicated that he had been enjoying a few bowls of makgeolli himself. In English, he professed his love of Jennifer's "beautiful egg-shaped face" over and over, holding out his hands in the shape of parentheses. There was much laughter and more makgeolli. I felt as at home here, in this dingy, comfortable Seoul bar, as I do in the great dingy dives of the South.