Almost every cuisine around the world includes a pancake-like comfort food. The French have crepes. The Indians have uttapam. We Japanese have okonomiyaki. But my favorite type of savory pancake has to be the Korean jeon.
Crispy around the edges and layered with scallion slices, these savory egg-and-flour pancakes are a Korean staple that rounds out a drinking session with friends or shines as a simple side dish in a larger meal. As a street food, jeon entices passersby with the inviting aroma of fried dough and garlicky greens.
When the Korean supermarket H Mart opened in Cary last month, it brought with it an overwhelming but gratifying cafeteria. Bustling with eager Asian customers and a surprising number of white ones, the busy Korean food court looks like it's been dropped in the middle of suburban North Carolina out of a larger metropolis like New York. Watching families with kids, young couples, and college-age patrons fight for seats on a recent Monday afternoon, I was almost moved to tears.
Raised in the suburban South, it's been hard for me to find places that are unapologetically Asian, especially when it comes to eating the food your parents grew up with and passed down to you. In an instant, I knew this would become a regular refuge for me, well worth the thirty-minute trek from Chapel Hill.
At H Mart, Thai food stalls dish out plate after plate of noodles and bowls of aromatic green curry. They share friendly competition with more traditional Korean vendors, who dole out Korean fried chicken, boiled dumplings, and bibimbap varieties. Nearby sits an equally popular "don" stall focusing on Japanese-style rice bowls topped with meats and fish.
Among the most popular menu items is the seafood pajeon (haemul pajeon) served at So Gong Dong, the first stall you see as you walk into the food court—and the busiest. A ten-minute wait is standard, but the sought-after haemul pajeon I ordered took twice that long. A version of the broader category of pajeon, a type of jeon pancake that includes scallions, the seafood pajeon comes chockfull of bits of octopus, squid, shrimp, and, of course, scallions.
For me, the determining factor in whether a pajeon stands out is the ratio of its doughy base— usually composed of cake flour (which is lighter than all-purpose flour), eggs, and water—to the chewy morsels of protein and its crispy edges. At times, jeon risks becoming too thick and gummy in the middle, with tough, oversize pieces of protein thrown in, requiring too much chewing and not enough savoring of the medley of flavors.
The pajeon from So Gong Dong comes out hot and fresh, with char marks from the grill. About the size of a medium pizza—not bad for eleven bucks—it comes cut into eight slices and easily feeds two people.
The first bite checks all the boxes: the smokiness of the scorch marks mixes with the garlicky flavor of the green onion slices, rounded out by the elastic texture of the seafood, making it one of the best I've ever had. Perfectly cut pieces of shrimp, octopus, squid, and mussels complement the dish without overpowering it.
Don't forget about the tangy, sweet dipping sauce that comes with several items at So Gong Dong, a perfect marriage of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil, with bits of green onion and sesame seeds floating on top. Dunking the pajeon into the flavorful concoction is a must, like dunking fries into ketchup or sushi into soy sauce—a sacred food ritual. By the time we've eaten half of the seafood pancake, my boyfriend and I are both loosening the buttons on our jeans, so we opt to take the rest home. You probably will, too. Don't forget to ask for extra sauce.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Perfect Pancake."