Getting taste of Seoul food

Korean-born food writer Su Scott.
Korean-born food writer Su Scott.
What is offered in the streets of Seoul isn’t anything fancy, Su Scott says.

"But the plates nurse our hunger with comfort, and the flavours sooth our soul. People’s stories are layered thickly on to the sticky tabletops; the rich history of the city is etched deeply into the cook’s hands, which glow radiantly with kindness and generosity; our feelings grace the streets with tears and laughter."

The Korean-born food writer, who lives in London, says many of her food memories are shaped around the streets and markets she frequented over the years as a child living there and later as a visitor taking her own daughter to them for the first time.

"The pungent smell of fermented pickles takes me back to the small alleys of the local market where my mother shopped for her groceries."

Pojangmacha or pocha for short, is the Korean name for a small, tarpaulin-covered cart, selling modest snacks and street food but over the decades has grown to refer to part of Korean food culture and are the places people go to offload the weight of a laborious life from their shoulders, where people tell their stories and are listened to and comforted.

"With food as the medium to share experiences and to build a human connection that sustains and supports our daily existence."

Pocha boomed in the 1980s as more people had disposable income to eat out and people from all walks of life gathered at pocha for a casual evening out.

While many disappeared in the late 1980s due to stricter legislation in an effort to clean up the city and portray a positive image to foreign tourists, they returned during the economic downfall in 1997 but this time as indoor restaurants retaining a street-food vibe.

These days, only a few outdoor pocha spots remain across Seoul.

"If you are lucky, you might come across one of the bright red orange tarp-covered stalls selling nostalgic plates of my all-time favourite dishes, cooked simply and deliciously, peppered with a humour and grit that makes you feel good."

With her book Pocha, Scott aims to bring the nature of pocha home with simple, casual and relaxed food skilfully crafted such as corn dogs, fried chicken, kimchi pancakes and perilla oil noodles.

"Pocha food is homely and rustic but skilfully crafted with simple cooking and convenience in mind and almost always enjoyed with an alcoholic drink."

She has divided her book into chapters based on the time of day eating — the types of foods you would get at a pocha for all day dining and breakfast, a market lunch, pick me ups for the 4pm slump, feasting under the stars (bar snacks and hangover cure soups) and nightcaps.

The Book

This is an edited extract from Pocha, by Su Scott, published by Quadrille, RRP $49.90

Photography: Toby Scott

Salted Nutella pancake

Sweet fried pancakes are a popular street snack found in all corners of Korea all year round. They are especially sought after during the colder winter months for their delightfully crispy and chewy texture and molten-hot filling. Traditionally, wet and stretchy yeasted dough is skilfully filled with sweet cinnamon-spiced sugar and nuts, then fried in oil until the sugar turns deliciously syrupy. The dough used here is slightly drier than the traditional version, to make it easier to handle at home, though it is still high in moisture. Initially, you may find it tricky to shape the pancakes, as the dough can be quite sticky and unruly, but it does not need to be perfect so just go along with the process. A well-greased pair of hands are your best friend here. Be sure to seal the seams tightly by pressing and pinching the dough so the filling is securely encased. It does take a bit of practice but you will soon get the hang of it.

Makes eight 9cm (3½ inch) pancakes

Ingredients

For the dough

180ml (¾ cup) warm water

2 Tbsp golden caster (superfine) sugar

½ tsp fine sea salt

1 Tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing and frying

150g (scant 1¼ cups) strong white bread flour

100g (heaped ½ cup) glutinous rice flour

1 tsp fast active yeast (quick yeast)

For the filling

80g Nutella

40g (heaped ¼ cup) roasted peanuts, finely chopped

½ tsp sea salt flakes

Method

Whisk together the water, sugar and salt to dissolve. Stir in the tablespoon of vegetable oil: don’t worry if it doesn’t incorporate well.

Meanwhile, combine both flours and the yeast in a mixing bowl. Slowly pour in the warm water and sugar mixture. Stir to combine using a wooden spoon to form a rough dough. Tip it out on a work surface and continue to work the dough to build strong gluten bonds until it becomes smooth and supple it should take about 15 minutes; or less time if you use a stand mixer. The dough will feel quite tacky and that is perfectly okay. Wipe out, then oil the bowl. Shape the dough into a large ball and transfer to the bowl. Cover with cling film (plastic wrap) and rest it in a warm place for 11 and a-half hours until doubled in volume.

Meanwhile, combine the filling ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. Have a large baking tray ready, lightly greased with some vegetable oil.

Once the dough has risen, rub some vegetable oil on your hands so the dough doesn’t stick. Transfer the dough on to a lightly oiled surface and divide it into eight equal dough balls, then cover.

Working with one ball at a time, gently press the dough ball flat to form a roughly palm-sized round disc. Remember, the shape doesn’t need to be perfect. Put one heaped teaspoonful of the filling in the middle and gather the edges together to seal tightly at the centre, maintaining a more or less round shape. At this stage, the pancake will still resemble a dough ball. Place it seam-side down on to the oiled tray. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

Prepare a cooling rack set over a roasting tray. Place a frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat and fill generously with vegetable oil to about 1cm (½in) deep. Have a flat-based heatproof jug or spatula well-oiled and ready nearby.

Carefully transfer the shaped dough balls into the pan, a few at a time, seam-side down, and cook for 30 seconds. Flip the pancakes and press gently to flatten them with the base of the oiled jug or spatula you prepared earlier, then flip and press again to firmly seal the seam side. Fry gently for 2 minutes on each side until golden. If they brown too quickly, lower the heat slightly. Transfer to the cooling rack and continue until you have cooked all the pancakes.

The pancakes are best enjoyed warm, either on their own or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.

Lamb yuni jjajang sauce with rice

Jjajang over rice is a home-style dish. It’s nothing fancy but makes a tasty, comforting meal that keeps everyone happy. Yuni jjajang — which is a variation of a Korean black bean sauce dish made with chunjang paste and minced meat — goes particularly well over rice, thanks to ingredients that are all diced finely and uniformly. Whenever I make it, I can’t help but think of the similarities it shares with the rich Italian meat sauces such as Bolognese.

I cook this dish in a similar way to making ragu, in this case using lamb. The rich flavour of lamb mingles beautifully in the boldly salty-sweet sauce that is lightly spiced with a subtle hum of cinnamon and gochugaru. I like to keep my sauce a loose, fall-off-the-spoon consistency to bind the rice. Take time cooking the onions, as the dish relies on the rounded sweetness of the onion to support the bold flavour of salty and pungent black bean paste.

Serves 4 with plenty of leftovers

Ingredients

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

250g onions, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced

sea salt flakes, to taste

400g minced (ground) lamb

2 tsp grated root ginger

125g chunjang (Korean black bean paste)

1 Tbsp golden caster (superfine) sugar

2 Tbsp soy sauce

2 tsp gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

600ml (2½ cups) just-boiled water

1 Tbsp yondu (seasoning sauce)

1 Tbsp oyster sauce

For the slurry

2 Tbsp water

2 Tbsp potato starch

To finish

4 servings of cooked short-grain white rice

125g cooked frozen peas

4 fried eggs

¼ red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in cold water for 10 minutes, then drained

a pinch of fine chilli powder

toasted white sesame seeds

Method

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the onions, garlic and a good pinch of salt to the pan and saute for 15 minutes until the onions have completely collapsed and are smelling sweet and fragrant.

Increase the heat a little, add the lamb and ginger and continue cooking for 5 minutes, stirring frequently to break them up and colour evenly. You should notice the mince looking lightly brown and the fat from the lamb beautifully rendered. Turn down to a low heat, add the chunjang and stir vigorously to incorporate it into the onion and mince, then cook for about 3 minutes.

Add the sugar, soy sauce, gochugaru, cinnamon and black pepper and stir briefly to cook down the sugar. Stir in the water, yondu and oyster sauce. Bring just to the boil, then cover with a lid and simmer gently for 35 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the jjajang is glossily black with plenty of runny sauce.

Meanwhile, mix the water and potato starch to a slurry.

Maintaining the gentle heat, gradually stir in enough of the slurry to thicken the sauce slightly; you may not need it all. Cook for 3 minutes or so until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Check for seasoning and adjust it with a pinch more salt and sugar, if necessary.

To serve, divide the rice among four bowls and generously ladle the warm black bean sauce over the rice. Add the peas and top with the fried eggs, the red onion slices, a pinch of chilli powder and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Leftover sauce can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days in the fridge; it freezes well for up to 3 months.

Kimchi risotto

Serves 2 plus leftovers or 4 generously as one meal

Ingredients

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1½ onions, finely diced

Sea salt flakes, to taste

300g kimchi, chopped

60g unsalted butter

300g (1⅔ cups) risotto rice

180ml (¾ cup) dry white wine, optional

1 litre (4 cups) light chicken or vegetable stock, kept warm

1½ tbsp doenjang (Korean fermented bean paste)

100g parmesan, grated

Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

3 Tbsp snipped chives

30g gim jaban (crumbled toasted seasoned seaweed), optional

Method

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the onions and a good pinch of salt. Saute very gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until evenly softened. You will notice fragrant aromas of the onion as it cooks down to release its natural sweetness. Stir in the kimchi and continue sauteing for about 8 minutes to gently caramelise everything together; you may want to increase the heat a touch towards the end if the kimchi still appears too wet.

Keep the heat to low-medium and add 20g of the butter to the pan, along with the rice. Stir energetically to evenly coat the rice in the melted butter and saute for a couple of minutes until the grains of rice appear almost translucent in places. Add the wine, if using, and let it bubble rapidly for 12 minutes so that the alcohol evaporates and the liquid is absorbed into the rice.

Gradually add the warm stock a ladleful at a time, waiting for the rice to absorb the stock before adding any more, and stirring continuously. Stir in the doenjang. You may or may not need all the stock but gauge as you go along. Cook gently until the rice is cooked through but still with a little bite; it should take 15-20 minutes from the moment you stirred in the rice. You should notice the very gentle bubbles erupting through the grains of rice as you cook.

When the rice is cooked, remove from the heat and stir in the parmesan and the remaining butter. Beat vigorously together to incorporate the butter and cheese; the rice should be creamy and floppy enough to fall off the spoon easily. Add a touch more stock or water if it needs loosening a bit. Check the seasoning and adjust it with a pinch more salt and some black pepper to taste. Stir in the chives. Cover the pan and leave to rest for a couple of minutes to relax the grains.

Serve about two 350g portions of risotto in two bowls and finish with a touch more parmesan, if you like. Serve while warm.

Stir the gim jaban, if using, into the remaining 750g of risotto and transfer to a large flat tray or surface, spreading thinly to cool quickly.

Once cooled, transfer to a lidded container and keep refrigerated for up to two days.