“When it rains, Korean think naturally of pa-jun and mak-keul-li.”
... Some things / you know all your life. They are so simple and / true / they must be said without elegance, meter and / rhyme, / they must be laid on the table beside the salt-shaker, / the glass of water, the absence of light gathering / in the shadows of picture frames, they must be / naked and alone,
/ they must stand for themselves.
“The Simple Truth” - Philip Levine-
Imagine five women, say, in their 50s, with their coral polka-dot polyester joggers (stay with me here) lounging on the linoleum floor of the patio of an old, bucolic countryside house somewhere in the outskirts of Seoul, cackling, giggling, mumbling, gossiping about none other than their stingy husbands. Newspaper sheets are sprawled out on the floor, reminding everyone in the room of the happenings of the day, of the news of yet another Korean politician gone corrupt. In front of each woman, you see portable gas burners, atop with three-dollar frying pans from the neighborhood flea market, heating away. The women’s ruddy and tender flour-covered, alabaster arms are tireless. They mix, spoon, flip, plate, and stack.
This is the typical scene during chuseok (what Koreans call Mid-Autumn Festival), Lunar New Year (myungjeol), a gathering of sorts (janchi). Historically, these pancakes were celebration food that began from the end of Japanese imperial rule in 1945. But even on a random, rainy afternoon with friends and makgeolli, these fritters are a treat, especially when zucchini is in season. Koreans like to snack on these easy-to-do, crispy morsels of flour whenever the mood strikes. The zucchini version is probably the most universal of pancakes with Koreans, but not necessarily the most well-known with K-food fans. Dover sole, beef, pepper, bindaedduck, potato pancakes, as well as the forever-famed Pa-Jun—the seafood pancake–all require a smidgen of something more than these simple fritters. Stay tuned.
In the second line in Levine’s poem above, when you insert the phrase ‘Korean pancakes’ for “they”, you have the most fitting ode to one of my favorite foods. These pancakes are unmistakable artifacts of my childhood. As a toddler, I ate them before I even tackled the bland, non-spicy, kiddie version of white kimchi. My mom used to say pancakes are kimchi to Koreans. It’s the next go-to side dish, banchan, that yes, “must be laid on the table beside the salt-shaker.” The gravity of the lines in Levine’s poem don’t quite match the levity that is this party-friendly dish, but these savory Korean fritter-cakes certainly deserve your attention. It's the simple truth.
This is a recipe with endless varieties. Gray area, welcome. Let this recipe be the provision for your own concoction, but please don’t add parsley, sugar, or (gasp) beaten cornmeal. Over the years, I’ve haphazardly run into recipes by well-known chefs in which frozen corn (shhhh) was required in the fritter-pancake mix. Huh? You don’t need any of that. No really. These stand for themselves.
L.A. Son’s Roy Choi and his pal are having some pancake fun in LA. These pancakes are bigger which are really called bucheemgae. Jun refers to smaller-sized fritters.
RECIPE // SAVORY, PAN-FRIED FRITTERS
prep time: 10 minutes depending on choice of contents // cook time: 5-7 minutes // serves: 2-3 (or 1 if you’re that hungry)
- unbleached all-purpose white flour (whole wheat pastry flour is delicious for its nuttier taste) // store-bought Korean pancake powder is not ideal if you want crispy cakes – ½ cup
- sesame oil – 1-2 Tbsp.
- water – ½ cup
- soy sauce or salt (soy sauce adds more depth) – a dash
- oil for frying
- a toothy grin – 1 serving
- optional: one egg white (if you want a little oomph to your fritters, this is an option, but they will not be as crisp) or a pinch of ground red chili pepper flakes for a little kick
INGREDIENT CHOICES (one per batter)
- kimchi (loosely chopped in bite-size chunks)
- shrimp (cut in small pieces)
- oysters (whole—another favorite)
- white button mushrooms (thinly sliced-this one is my favorite—these cakes end up tasting like potato chips)
- zucchini (julienned)
- napa cabbage (sliced-this one is unexpectedly good)
- green onions & chives (minced)
- heat oil (grapeseed, vegetable, or canola are best) in frying pan medium high heat (take advantage of your cast-iron skillet if you own one) // if you want get all scienc-y, the magic number for stove-top frying is 350°F)
- cut and prepare your choice of ingredients from list above
- toss ingredients in an empty, large bowl
- add the dry flour, sesame oil, and salt/soy sauce to contents of bowl
- coat the contents with the dry flour mixture
- pour enough water into the bowl to get a porridge-like substance (see picture above)
- dredge everything together
- spoon about 1-2 Tbsp of batter onto pan (the size of the fritters is your choice (you need to hear sizzling in pan), but keep them either bite-size or as large as the pan can hold for bucheemgae) and shape into a circle
- flip pancake when first side is golden brown, about 4 minutes, depending on the heat of pan as well as on the choice of ingredients // #timing is everything
- play with the heat on your range, turn it low if cakes are burning
- press the pancake with your spatula to remove excess moisture (→makes for crispier, un-billowy pancakes)
- plate, and serve immediately with dipping sauce and of course, a cool and creamy cup of rice ale. cheers.
*Note: although these do not taste the same when eaten a day later, if you have any leftovers, say from a get-together, these will last one day in the fridge as next-day lunch items. Also, gluten-free options: buckwheat, soy, and rice flour work quite well, but be mindful that the batter is not pasty.