Poulet au Pot Korean-style
Shopping in Seoul is the physical world version of shopping on the internet.
No, really. Say you want an on/off switch for the computer you are building from scratch, you would google “on/off switch” and a million places to buy such a switch would appear. Well, here in Korea one would go to the on/off switch district of Seoul where one would find a million little businesses within a stone’s throw of each other all selling or manufacturing switches. Instead of browsing the internet, one walks around in the real world and dickers about prices with each merchant. Surfing the net burns less calories maybe (well, definitely) but it just isn’t as much fun as being able to walk through whole maze of alleys for twenty minutes only seeing LED displays and toggle switches. Shopping in Seoul is like walking through that city Harrison Ford lives in in Bladerunner. There is a myriad of super high tech stuff shoved into tiny stores on seedy little streets with piles of trash everywhere and puddles of water to skirt. And every few steps there is a little hole in the wall or a table in the middle of the street offering a bowl of steaming stuff (more than likely steaming red-colored, garlicky stuff).
So last Wednesday, I went to do a little fabric shopping in Seoul. I took the train in with Justin and Chuck and met Jayeon at exit 8 of Dongdaemon Station. I was looking for what we call remnants and Koreans call jatturi–bits of left over fabric. The boys were looking for curtain fabric for their performance. The fabric district is building after building with story after story of little stalls each specializing in one particular niche of the fabric ecosystem. There must be a billion of these little fabric emporia all thriving because of the climate created by the other stores around them, like a colony of coral making a gigantic and fabulous fabric reef, complete with men darting about the narrow alleys with enormous bolts of fabric on their backs like coral fish. The four of us, two small Asian-looking women and two very conspicuous, big American men, wandered about touching and yelling at each other excitedly. Jayeon in her quiet way bargains the pants off the vendors until we get just the perfect swatches and the best promise of price, and I had bought some rather lovely scraps of silk brocade for pillows and enough “sateen” cotton sheeting fabric to make a rather luxurious mattress cover and duvet. Oh and um, I also bought a dozen half-meter squares of “supongee” for floor pillows.
And then Jayeon (god bless her) says we can be late for our 1 pm meeting in Seoksu; she knows this place to have chicken. So we go through a few alleys of fabric and cross a cobblestone street. We are nearly run over four times by fabric carts. Unexplained puddles of murky water accent the pavement as we turn into a smoky narrow passage. Fish are grilling in front of each tiny restaurant on this jam-packed little lane, but Jayeon ignores them. Imagine you have google searched “grilled fish.” A million entries show up on the page, but this is not a web page on google–it is the real world and we are rushing through the entires trying to keep up with Jayeon. We step into a rather large establishment by hole-in-the-wall standards.
This place is called “One Chicken.” They serve only one thing. Jayeon specifies how many. A big stock pot of water arrives with some kimchi and sauces and is put on a flame at the table. There are two whole, raw chickens in the water with a potato slice shoved in the opening of the rear cavity. Jayeon dumps in a small dish of garlic and some raw cabbage and red chili sauce. The pot boils. We are so excited.
Ten or fifteen minutes later we wiggle the legs and decide the chicken is ready. As is the fashion here, we grab one of the floating chickens by the leg with a pair of tongs and cut chunks off willy-nilly with a pair of kitchen scissors. Kitchen scissors are de rigueur at the Korean dinner table. Then we mix the magic sauce– chili sauce (ground fresh red peppers), yellow mustard and soy sauce– in individual bowls. Oh, it is so good. We have bits of chicken and kimchi and boiled cabbage and tteok (rice cakes). After a bit Jayeon waves down one of the ladies and a bowl of noodles appears and then disappears into the boiling pot. Friends, it doesn’t get better than this.
A few days later, I am walking through the market and I see small chickens for 2500 won (that’s about $2.25) and buy three with a small bag of jujubes and dried chestnuts. I buy some hwanggi (milk vetch) and a couple big potatoes. I fill a stockpot half full of water and boil the hwanggi, ginger, and garlic. About 15 minutes before we are ready to eat, I drop in the three chickens. I make nurungi (burnt rice) on the side. Justin shows everyone how to make the magic sauce. He has bought a bottle of honey mustard, which makes it extra delicious to two Spanish artists at the table. We come up with two names for the new sauce “Rancourt Sauce” and “Justard.”
When the chickens are gone, I drop in some “knife noodles.” We have them with the broth.