Most people, when they think of shabu-shabu, a Japanese dish that's popular throughout East Asia, normally imagine paper-thin cuts of beef going into an aromatic broth with a pile of fresh, leafy vegetables and mushrooms. And most people would be right: that's a pretty standard shabu-shabu. But this dish doesn't have to be made with beef, as Lig told me: you can use seafood as well. Lig had proudly claimed that she knew how to make shabu-shabu, but I had my doubts. She's cooked before: years ago, as part of an English class I'd been teaching at Sookmyung Women's University, she made takoyaki, a.k.a. fried "octopus balls," a popular street food consisting of fried batter with chopped-up bits of octopus (the tako in question) in it. She did a good job, I recall, although she was a painstakingly slow and cautious cook. Remembering her hesitancy and lack of confidence, I wasn't sure whether to take her shabu-shabu claim at face value.
We met Sunday at Garak Market, a vast commercial area that, despite my nearly ten years in Seoul, I had never visited before. The nearest subway exit, Garak Market Station Exit #1, is located at the market's south entrance; Lig asked me to meet her at the north entrance, which meant I had to walk all the way across the entire market, through biting cold, to reach our meeting spot, Danong Mart.*
Garak Market was as huge as I imagined it to be. Its sprawl reminded me of nothing so much as the air-cargo section of an airport (I used to visit such places when my father was a Northwest Airlines employee) with massive storage areas, truck-offload zones, stacks of pallets, and forklifts cruising around. Today, at least two-thirds of the stores and stalls were closed, but enough were open so that Lig and I were able to find all the ingredients we needed: vegetables, dipping-sauce components, and seafood. Our goal was to try to buy everything we needed for under W25,000. This turned out to be impossible, for reasons that every Costco shopper is familiar with: when you go to Costco, you don't go expecting to buy a small bottle of ketchup: you're there to buy a 55-gallon drum of ketchup, and that's not going to be cheap because Costco doesn't do anything small. By the same token, when you're buying seafood at Garak Market, you're not going to get away with buying three tiger prawns: you buy a larger clutch for at least W10,000, or you buy nothing.
We bought a veggie pack at Danong Mart (which Lig called "the original Korean Costco"—a fitting description given the huge packs, bottles, and boxes of everything on sale, including the largest bag of panko crumbs I've ever seen—2 kilos' worth), then we went over to one of the many sectors of the market where people were selling seafood, and we ended up buying huge shrimp and a variety-pack of bivalves. Each bag—one of shrimp, one of shellfish—was W10,000. We had gone over our W25,000 budget, alas, but we had to forge ahead.
Here are some shots from Garak Market.
In the first image, below, Lig and I have finished shopping at Danong Mart and have gone into the fish market to look for shabu seafood. Station after station, we saw every kind of seafood under the sun. Everything was alive, of course—stealthily crawling, desperately writhing, angrily pulsating, or just quietly sitting in meditation, awaiting death.
Another shot of the market:
Lig had a crisis of confidence while we were shopping; her urge was to defer decisions to me. This is called gyeoljeong-jangae in Korean—what we would call a "decision-making disorder." I ended up negotiating the purchase of the shrimp, but Lig did manage to secure the bivalves, as you'll see below. In the next photo, our shellfish are being weighed before being bagged:
We took a cab back to my place. I had already set my apartment up to make it easy for Lig to start cooking right away. She asked me to make rice so we could have the juk (porridge) that is normally Round 2 after the main shabu meal. Lig had brought a package of katsuobushi, redolent Japanese fish flakes, which she used to make the shabu broth. We put the pot of broth on my portable gas range, which I had placed on the dinner table. We had also laid out the seafood, greens, and shrooms. Lig said we should start with the shellfish first. I asked her whether we should stick the vegetables in as well; she said no: dinner was to be eaten in steps, a bit like the way the French go course by course through a meal. I shrugged; we dumped most of the shellfish into the boiling broth, and I loudly apologized to the bivalves as they plunked into the searing liquid. I had seen—and so had Lig—one or two of the clams extruding parts of their bodies before we dumped them in; this made me feel a bit guilty.
It didn't take long to boil the little creatures to succulent perfection. Lig had made a basic dipping sauce out of wasabi and soy; I helped her shuck the shellfish. She removed the shells and left the meat inside the pot; we then grabbed the bits of mollusk with our chopsticks, dipped, and ate. Here's a pic of the shellfish at their shelliest:
Next was the veggie phase. We dumped all the vegetables in; Lig said they'd need to be eaten quickly because they could easily overcook and turn bad. Here's a picture of a pile of vegetables and shellfish in my bowl:
Here's a clearer shot of the vegetables boiling away:
I next took a shot of all the empty shells:
Next up was the shrimp phase. I had to replace the fuel can in my portable gas range, after which we got the broth to boil furiously. In went our large shrimp; they reddened almost instantly and were done soon after that. Lig had dumped the shrimp in with their heads still on, but when she took them out of the pot, she twisted off the heads, placed the bodies on a plate, and tossed the heads back into the pot to keep flavoring the broth. I grabbed a head or two and did something I'd only heard about but had never tried: I sucked the shrimps' brains out. Damn, that was unexpectedly tasty! Ingesting the contents of a shrimp's head is not unlike eating the more savory parts of a crab—the roe, in particular. There's a ton of umami hidden inside a shrimp's head; I joked with Lig that I now understood why zombies were always after people's brains.**
Shrimp in my bowl:
Lig insisted on overloading me with food. Whenever we go out to dinner and end up sharing anything, she always gives me the majority of her own food. This reminds me of what my mother used to do so unselfishly. Lig and I had a race, at one point, to see who could peel a shrimp faster. She won handily, which was a bit of a surprise: months earlier, I had been peeling raw shrimp to make Chinese food, and Lig had seemed not to know what to do. She had either improved by leaps and bounds since then, or she had already known how to peel shrimp but had had one of her crises of confidence since I had been the one calling the shots in the kitchen that day. Whatever the case, she kicked my ass this Sunday evening.
Another shot of some Lig-peeled shrimp plus shabu soup:
Round 2 was the juk, or porridge. The way it works with Korean shabu-shabu, in case you don't know, is that there's normally a lot of broth left over after the soup portion of the meal is done. Into the broth goes a pile of cooked rice, some eggs, and maybe some other components like mushrooms, minced carrots, green onions, etc., plus a dash of salt and a glug of sesame oil. This gets mixed until it turns into the porridge that everyone knows and loves, and it's ladled into all the diners' bowls. Lig's porridge was great—simple and unadorned, but hearty and rib-sticking all the same. She had reserved some shrimp, which she chopped up and mixed into the porridge. I enjoyed every spoonful.
Dinner was a rousing success, and I felt bad for thinking that Lig might not be able to pull it off. We washed and dried the titanic piles of dishes, pots, and utensils together; I gave Lig her Valentine's Day*** chocolates, and just like that, she was gone. Until next time.
*There's no subway-station exit close to the north gate, which means that you have no choice but to cross the entire market if you've come from Garak Market Station Exit #1 and are trying to reach a destination at a northern part of the market.
**Years and years back, I'd had cold, jellied pig brains while at my mother's Vietnamese friend's house for a lunar new-year's dinner. They were absolutely disgusting, both in terms of taste and in terms of texture. I want nothing to do with land-animal brains ever again.
***In Korea, Cupid's festival day is split into two, so the festivities happen on two separate dates: Valentine's Day, February 14, is the day when the ladies do something for their men. White Day, March 14, is the day the guys do something for their women. There's a third day: Black Day, which has nothing to do with race, but which is reserved for those sad sacks who find themselves with no significant other. On Black Day, you're supposed to eat jjajang-myeon, the chewy, Korean-style Chinese noodles that are normally covered in black-bean sauce (hence the association with Black Day). Of course, if you're just alone but not feeling lonely, then you have nothing to worry about. In theory, anyway.