Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Korean New Jersey: The Kimchi Belt.

Recently a friend of our quit Budapest and moved to the sunny coast of Dalmatia in Croatia. She sends us sms messages every few hours revealing what she has found in the local markets of Korcula, Split, or Rovinj... tuna, octopus, fresh sardines. This kind of news is harmful to those of us who still live in Budapest, where the only "seafood" is carp or frozen fillet of hake. So, Princess Oooh-La-La, consider this post a gentle version of revenge... welcome to New Jersey, an outlying province of the Republic of Korea! My family is lucky (although they don't seem to recognize it) to be living in a part of New Jersey which hosts the largest Korean community in the New York area - neighboring Palisades Park and Leonia are nearly 40% Korean, complete with an idiotic whitebread Mayor trying to enforce English language sign laws that would make a smallminded nationalist Transylvanian mayor (I'm talking 'bout you, Gheorghe Funar) seem insane. But the Koreans don't care. They have revitalized a series of dumpy old towns into vibrant kimchi suburbs.Don't like Korean food? Then go away right now. In this part of Jersey, you eventually come to like Korean food. We started our journey into the depths of garlicy cabbage pickles at the Fort Lee institution we discovered last trip: So Kong Dong Soft Tofu Restaurant. As Anthony Bourdain said before pigging out here "Soft and Tofu are two words that usually mean I don't want to eat it." Put away your preconceptions: this place rates almost as high as Katz's Deli in my list of must eat in New York Foods. Almost everything on the menu is $9.00. The kalbi ribs are $15, but you must have them, so no complaining, they are said to be the best in the NY area -and there is a lot of competition in this area for tender marinated grilled kalbi ribs.
The plan is to order your soft tofu soup and wait while the staff cover your table in kimchi and banchan - little dishes of hot pickled delights to accompany the rice. The rice is spooned into metal bowls: Koreans do not pick up their rice bowls like Chinese and Japanese. Tea is then poured into the hot stoneware rice serving bowl to make a special soupy tea-rice for those who like a bit of the burned rice as a hot beverage.
Kimchi is an acquired taste for non-Koreans, and I highly advise you to acquire it. We have actually tried to make this at home in Budapest with varying success. And now the star of the show arrives: a cast iron bowl of bubbling hot tofu soup - I chose seafood and beef - into which you break an egg and then wait while the egg cooks.
I looked around the packed house and a lot of the tables were filled with local Chinese people, not Koreans. So... this is what Chinese folk eat when they want to go out for something exotic and Asian. A classic aha! moment! Stuffed and satiated, we went out into the foot deep snow that had been dumped on New York the night before. Problem was, we no longer had kimchi in front of us. That was easily fixed by hopping into one of the many Han Ah Rheum supermarlets serving the local Korean community. These are huge Kimchi retailers, and you wonder how could anybody eat that much spicy fermented radish? But they can and do. A lot of non-Koreans help out - once you are hooked on fermented spicy cabbage and squid pickles, there is no turning back. The seafood at these markets is mind-boggling: fresh (as in alive) and cheap as you can find.
These sea squirts were floating around waiting to be bought and consumed by adventurous eaters: this is about as out there as human seafood consumption can get. Described as "tasting slightly of urine" even the Japanese consider eating sea squirts something of a frat-boy challenge, definately not for everyone.Outside in the parking lot there was a wood fired iron stove cooking up yellow fleshed Asian sweet potatoes, a winter delicacy in Korea and Japan. Speaking of Japan, we also hit the Mitsuwa Japanese Shopping Mall on the way into New York city for a quick fix of fresh Santoka Ramen noodle soup.
This was Aron's first experience of real, fresh ramen soup, not the instant packaged soup that has taken over the world. He like. He like very much. He also liked the accompanying bowl of rice topped with salmon roe. It is great to have a teen aged kid who says "fish eggs on rice? Yeah, Papa, I'll have some!" Last night we downed a dozen raw clams on the half shell from the Korean market. Maybe I will get him started on sea squirt sashimi before he heads back to Budapest. All this with a soy sauce hardboiled egg for $10.Like I said... we were not the first to discover that some of New York's best eating is across the Hudson river in New Jersey. Anthony Bourdain is from Leonia... just down the street from where I am typing this. He trod these same pathways in an episode of No Reservations a few years ago.

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