For years, Korean food and I were strangers. I had never heard of bulgogi or japchae. Even kimchi, the side dish of pickled vegetables that Koreans eat with every meal, was as unknown and distant as Korea itself.
It’s not that Asian food was foreign to me. I’m from Vancouver, Canada, which boasts a large Asian popuation. Sushi bars can be found on every corner of the city, as are noodle shops, and a variety of Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Dim Sum dumplings and sticky rice are available in the freezer section of regular grocery stores like Safeway. Growing up, I even ate Chinese food at home. My parents were adventurous travelers and eaters. Shortly after my mother bought a wok and took a Chinese cooking class, our family was feasting on lemon chicken and shrimp fried rice as a weekend treat. Only Korean food remained a mystery.
There were maybe two or three Korean students at my high school and for a long time, the number of immigrants moving to my city from South Korea was low. However, this is changing. More and more Koreans can be found living in the suburbs, particularly in Coquitlam, which has “Koreatown”, an area in which Korean restaurants and businesses have proliferated in the last decade.
Several years ago, I began teaching English to foreign students. Although most of my students were from all over the world, the bulk of them came from Japan and Korea. As much as my students learned from me, I learned from them. I learned about their culture and traditions. I learned that no matter how differently we sometimes see the world, we’re all very much the same. But most importantly, I learned about their food.
The first time my students took me to a Korean restaurant I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I might not like the food. I had heard it was spicy. I don’t mind a little heat, but generally spicy food doesn’t agree with me. I ordered hae-mul pajeon, a type of savoury pancake, filled with scallions (we call them green onions here in Canada) and a variety of seafood. About the size of a large dinner plate, it was served to me on a sizzling pan of cast iron. It was big enough to feed three people. I wish I could tell you that I shared my pajeon that day, but I ended up gobbling down every last scrumptious morsel. Unlike a lot of Western pancakes, it had an impossibly light yet crispy texture.
I have eaten this seafood pajeon several times since then and have tried to recreate the pancake at home. My first attempts from bad Western recipe books resulted in duds–heavy discs that ended up in the garbage. With some experimenting, I have come up with a version that is not quite as good as the crispy pancakes served to me in Korean restaurants, but comes close.
Korean Style Seafood Pancakes (hae-mul pajeon)
Serves 4 as an appetizer (about 16 small pancakes)
In Korean restaurants the pajeon comes as one large pancake, cut into 6 or 8 pieces, like a pie. I often just makes the pancakes small, flapjack style, so they can easily be picked up and eaten in a few bites.
2 large eggs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup rice flour
3/4 cup sliced scallions (green onion)
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup cooked shrimp
1/2 cup cooked squid
1 tablespoon or more cooking oil, for frying
Beat the eggs, salt, sesame oil, and water together in a bowl. Add flours and beat until smooth.
Stir in scallions, red pepper, and seafood. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Heat oil in a large non-stick frying pan. Add about 3 tablespoons batter for each pancake. Cook on medium heat for several minutes until the edges appear dry. Turn over once, cooking until golden. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more cooking oil if necessary.
For dipping sauce: add 1 tablespoon of vinegar (I prefer apple cider) to 1/2 cup of soy sauce. Add 1 minced garlic clove and 1/2 chopped scallion. Toasted sesame seeds may also be added.