Nearly every culture has come to the same realization: Pancakes are warming in some inner way. On rainy mornings and winter evenings, they thaw our chilled spiritual recesses. Served at festivals, holiday gatherings and reunions, they are the symbolic wheel of family and cultural unity. Show me someone who shrugs at pancakes and I'll show you an extraterrestrial who imperfectly emulates our humanoid ways.
Korea is famous for its sizzling meats (gogi gui) and its parade of small side dishes (banchan), but its pancakes (known as jeon) are not to be overlooked. Chosunok ("House of Korea"), a small mother-and-daughter-run eatery in Durham, is an excellent place to sample the charms of the Korean pancake, whether dressed with house-made kimchi (kimchi jeon) or seafood morsels and scallion (hae mul pa jeon).
"In Korea, pancakes are usually a holiday food," explains Youlee Bae, who manages the front room while her mother, Eun Bae, capably helms the kitchen. "When families get together, they will have a drink and eat pancakes while they wait for the rest of the food to arrive. Pancakes feel warm and make people think of their hometowns."
The Korean pancake is a natural weeknight staple. It's cheap, easy, filling, healthy and quick. While kimchi and seafood are the classic versions, the Korean pancake is an ideal way to revive with style whatever random leftovers lurk in the back of your fridge.
"You can make a green onion pancake, a zucchini pancake, an eggplant pancake," says Youlee. "Anything in the refrigerator can go into a pancake."
Raiding my own refrigerator in a mood of experimentation, I improvised a delectable pancake featuring shrimp, calamari and Chinese bamboo shoots marinated in chili oil (available in both pouches and jars at your local Asian grocery). The bamboo's crunch and spice nicely complemented the seafood's springy bite and faint ocean funk, though I missed the cross-hatching of color provided by the scallion.
I envision an entire season of motley invention: pancakes with oyster and lettuce (on the Taiwanese model), pancakes with tofu string (aka "soy noodle"), pancakes with shredded carrot and bean sprout, pancakes with julienned daikon and dried seaweed, pancakes with ground pork and minced chili pepper. The Southern winter is dreary, if not exactly long and cold. A procession of pancakes is just the cure for the 5:30 sunset.
Chosunok's Korean Pancakes
Yields two plate-size pancakes dressed with either seafood or kimchi. The pancakes serve two as a hefty entrée or six as an appetizer or side dish.
FOR THE PANCAKE BATTER
120 grams (about 3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
40 grams (3 tbs.) potato starch
1 cup water
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. chicken bouillon powder (optional; see note)
A pinch of ground black pepper or Asian white pepper powder
Canola, vegetable or peanut oil for panfrying the pancake
FOR SEAFOOD PANCAKES
120 grams raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 3/4 cup)
100 grams raw calamari (about 1/2 cup)
75 grams scallion (8–9 medium stalks, about one bunch as sold in most supermarkets)
FOR KIMCHI PANCAKES
140 grams kimchi, i.e., pickled and fermented cabbage (about 3/4 cup, tightly packed)
1 tbs. soy sauce
1 tbs. rice vinegar
1 tbs. chicken stock
1/2 scallion, finely minced
Mix the dipping sauce ingredients and reserve. Mix batter ingredients in a medium-size bowl, whisking until thoroughly smooth. For seafood pancakes, roughly chop the shrimp and calamari (cut the shrimp into three or four pieces) and add to the batter. Amputate the whiskered ends of the spring onions and chop into 2-inch slivers. Cut the fibrous, whitish endpieces of scallion in half lengthwise. Add the scallion to the batter. For kimchi pancakes, roughly chop the kimchi and add to the batter.
Heat a cast-iron skillet or frying pan to high temperature. Spread a thin veneer of oil over the surface of the pan and ladle about half the batter mixture into the center of the oil sheen. With a spatula, spread the batter as thinly as possible and rearrange the filling so it's evenly distributed. Cook the underside of the pancake until blistered and crispy. Flip the pancake and cook the reverse side in the same fashion. Serve piping hot accompanied by the dipping sauce.
NOTES: Chosunok's pancakes are elevated by house-made kimchi, but jarred kimchi substitutes well enough. It's available in the refrigerated section of all Chinese and Korean grocery stores. Potato starch (dried potatoes ground to a white powder) is likewise available in all Chinese and Korean groceries.
The perfect cooking surface is seasoned cast-iron. I do not recommend stainless steel or nonstick pans. Stainless steel will not release the pancakes without a BP-magnitude oil slick, while Teflon and its descendents will not produce the blistering.
Most chicken bouillon powder is lightly camouflaged MSG. My prior guarded endorsement of MSG in the Indy ("Souped-up hot and sour," May 25) appalled some readers and generated a hail of rebuttals and reprimands. Let me take cover behind the intellectual and physical heft of Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine, which is to culinary science what Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity is to post-Newtonian physics. Myhrvold et al. review the chemistry of MSG and call the safety of the compound a "slam dunk" (Vol. 1, p. 213). Myhrvold notes that MSG is by no means exclusive to Asian cuisine; it appears also in ketchup and in "virtually all fast foods."
Let's face it: Calamari is a particularly inconvenient ingredient. In local supermarkets, it comes in a frozen block packed tightly into a flimsy plastic tray. As the calamari defrosts, the tray fills to the brim with calamari brine. Before you know it your counter requires hazmat treatment with handfuls of Clorox Wipes. For a quicker and easier hae mul pa jeon, strike the calamari altogether and prepare the pancake with 220 grams of shrimp.
Korean pancakes make a fine leftover. Simply refry yesterday's pancake in a lightly oiled skillet. I do not recommend reheating by microwave, nor having much else to do with the microwave. Fire is the ancestral way.