When I visited Seoul in May 2016, I think I’ve met some of the nicest people ever. I travelled alone. I needed a break after my planned photography project didn’t work out as planned. To be honest, I also needed a little personal space because when visiting family in the Philippines the concept of personal space simply does not seem to exist. I need peace and quiet to be able to do some productive work. More on that some day but back to Seoul, each time I walked into a restaurant it would naturally become glaringly obvious that I was alone. I received sad little sympathetic glances and some of the warmest most welcoming smiles I’ve ever received. Having spent the past ten days in Madrid where genuine warm welcome seems so hard to come by, I miss Seoul a lot.
I stayed in the business district near city hall. The major street where my hotel was located was bright and gleaming with large and modern skyscrapers. At the back of these glass towers were little restaurants run by the most hard-working mom and pop teams often selling a few set dishes or specializing in certain meals such as hangover soups. The hangover soups by the way were really freaking amazing, super spicy but amazing. During the cold winter months, I make them often even if I very rarely drink.
Some of the things I liked about Korean food are the little side dishes called banchan that come with every meal. They are like little snacks that just keep appearing each time you finish one of them. There will likely be 3 types of kimchi (preserved cabbage or other type of vegetables), an egg roll, vegetable pancakes, seasoned vegetables like bean sprouts or spinach called muchims, caramelized potatoes, pickles and many other dishes. Korean food to a large extent is composed of vegetables and the banchans or at least the ones I’ve had in Seoul were probably 90% vegetarian. The flavours of the banchan vary but they tend to compliment or balance each other. Even in the small restaurants in the back alleys of Seoul, banchans were served generously.
I probably looked like a lost puppy that’s why the ahjummas (aunties) at the restaurant would point out what goes with what, always smiling and bowing. Sometimes they would even go as far as assembling them for me and feeding me. They would take my spoon or a lettuce leaf, put rice, meat and a little bit of one or three different banchans or condiment that would match the main dish and hand-feed me. Yes, to my embarrassment I’ve been hand-fed at least four times. I didn’t know what to say or do so I just bowed and said thanks.
Local office workers frequent these little restaurants in the alleys. I didn’t encounter a lot of other lost souls like me so the kind ahjummas probably felt like they had to take care of me. Actually, it’s not just the ahjummas at the restaurants. There were lots of strangers who went out of their way to help me get to where I wanted to go. Some of them went as far as taking me there. Some taxi drivers refused to take my payment and gave me a free ride. The kindness and generosity that I received were very heart-warming.
The sigeumchi-namul or seasoned spinach is one of the simplest banchans in the Korean dining table. I had this often with my meals in Seoul. Of course, I have difficulty following what seemed like a simple recipe so I just had to tweak it just a touch. My recipe below uses different types of greens.
Korean Style Mixed-Greens
- 8 – 10 cups of water for blanching
- 2 cups of washed broccoli rabe
- 2 cups of watercress
- 2 cups of choy sum
- 2 cups of spinach
- 2 litres of cold or iced water for rinsing
- 2 cloves of chopped fresh garlic
- 2 teaspoons of light sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon of fish-sauce (optional)
- 1 ½ teaspoon of light soy sauce
- salt to taste
- Korean pepper flakes to taste
- Toasted sesame seeds
- Boil 8 – 10 cups of water in a large pot.
- Start with the broccoli rabe, blanch for 2 minutes, use a strainer to scoop out and drop them in the iced water. Watch the vegetables and do not over-cook. They should retain their vibrant colour.
- Repeat the same procedure for the choy sum, watercress and spinach but reduce the cooking time to 1 minute.
- Gently queeze out the water from the vegetables, you may have to do this several times to get rid of the excess water.
- When you squeeze the vegetables, they will form into fist-sized lumps, cut the lumps of vegetables in half.
- Place the vegetables in a mixing bowl and season with the chopped garlic, soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame seeds and pepper flakes. Mix them by hand and taste, add salt if you like or adjust the soy sauce and fish sauce.