Friday, November 02, 2018

a different kind of Chinese food

Although the menu in a Korean-style Chinese restaurant will normally include almost as many items as can be found on an American-Chinese menu, when people think of Korean-style Chinese food, they think of only a handful of items, ordered over and over ad nauseam: black-bean noodles (jjajang-myeon), sweet-and-sour pork (tangsuyuk), spicy seafood soup (jjam-bbong), fried rice (bokkeum-bap), and thick-skinned potstickers (mandu).

On Thursday night, I met my buddy Charles to hand him some small gifts I had bought in France for him and his wife to enjoy. Since we were in the restaurant-rich Nakseongdae neighborhood close to Seoul National University, we decided to walk down a popular street and pick a restaurant on the fly. The place we ended up at, Mara Hweogweo (pronounce that "hwaw-gwaw"), was a type of Chinese restaurant, apparently staffed by ethnic Koreans of Chinese nationality (ex-nationality?). Charles waxed rhapsodic about the ma (same Chinese character as in Ang-ma, the devil), a sort of peppercorn that imparts a special flavor—and an impressive kick—to whatever dish it's applied to. The dishes in this restaurant would feature the ma rather prominently; I let Charles do all the deciding since none of this was familiar to me. (NB: Charles will soon appear in the comments to explain these dishes in greater depth and detail. I asked him to do so because I knew I was going to forget all the names and terms he was throwing at me.)

We got a dish that, on the surface, had the trappings of a shabu-shabu: there was a divided bowl into which had been placed two types of broth—hot and mild. Off to the side were fresh vegetables, and as with shabu-shabu, the expectation was that we'd be adding the veggies into the boiling broth au fur et à mesure as we ate. There was a spicy, peanut-based dipping sauce with bits of raw garlic in it; there were frozen-solid rice cakes and little mandu waiting to be dumped into the soup; there were a few types of pasta and pasta-like ingredients that mystified me; and of course, there was the meat: paper-thin shavings of beef and lamb, for Charles had ordered—and I had agreed to this—a sort of combo meal. On the side, we got a dish that wasn't exactly pork tangsuyuk, but that tasted good and served as a way to punctuate the spicy meal with a bit of sweetness and crunch.

Charles loves the ma peppercorn enough to chew on it all day long; in the end, I didn't share his level of enthusiasm, but I did come to respect the flavor that the ma imparted to our dish. This is a bit like my appreciation for ginger: use it sparingly in a recipe, and it's just fine, but please don't ask me to gnaw on a whole, raw root. I can take only so much.

Overall, this was a novel experience for me, and I'm now curious to go back to that restaurant, or to one like it, to continue exploring the menu with its panoply of ma-infused offerings. This was also a welcome departure from the usual Korean-style Chinese fare. Ordering the same five things all the time can get pretty boring (even though I tend to do something like that when ordering pizza).

Apologies in advance for the blurry photos.

The sign outside:

The veggies:

Two little sides, one of which we both neglected during the meal:

The yin-yang bowl with mild (left) and spicy (right) broths:

Meat and carbs:

Peanut sauce, before I mixed it:

The crunchy sweet-and-sour pork (with glutinous rice flour in the batter):



I'll definitely be back this way. There's more on the menu to explore.


John from Daejeon said...

Jordan Peterson is in the alt-left news again. This time it is for his diet. It only took them how many months to jump on this story of how he lost 50 pounds.

Charles said...

I don't know if there is all that much to add, since you've got the shot of the sign in there which gives the name. I will say that I've always found it interesting that they Koreanize the "mala" (麻辣) part to "mara" but leave the "huoguo" (火鍋) part in its original Chinese pronunciation, rather than using the Korean pronunciation of "hwagwa." And when I say that I find it "interesting" I mean that it annoys me a bit, so I always just use the Chinese pronunciation (or as close as I can get to it).

The sweet-and-sour pork we had was guobaorou (鍋包肉), and the only thing it has in common with the huoguo is that they both share the "guo" character (鍋) for pot. Huoguo (at least the version we ate) is from the southwest of China, while guobaorou is from the northeast of China. So a very pan-Chinese meal overall.

Oh, and when I got home and took a closer look at your gifts (thank you again!), I noticed that one of the confit (I think it was the fig) actually has Szechuan peppercorn in it. What an interesting coincidence.

Kevin Kim said...

I meant to say something about the Szechuan peppercorns; I had read the ingredients list when I originally bought the little bottles.

Also: when I looked up "devil" in Sino-Korean, I saw a different "ma" character: 惡魔. Are the two "ma" characters orthographically or otherwise related? If anything, the more I thought about it, the more the "ma" for funky peppercorn reminded me of a simpler version of the "ma" in "Dalma Daesa" (達磨, 달마). Maybe there's a tie-in there.

"What an interesting coincidence."

In other words... what an annoying coincidence? Heh.

Charles said...

"Interesting" is an awesome word because it can mean so many different things.

And, yeah, you're right about the ma character--I was mistaken on that. I was making the connection from ma-yak (drugs), where the first character is indeed the "devil" character, but there is actually another ma-yak, which translates to anesthetic, and that's the ma that is being used here, because the Szechuan peppercorn has that anesthetic effect.

I actually did think about this last night after seeing the sign and realizing that it was a different character, but I then promptly forgot about it. Perhaps my brain had been anesthetized from munching on all those tasty, tasty peppercorns.

Charles said...

Actually, let me clarify that previous statement before I confuse people even more: ma-yak with the "devil" character is not actually the standard rendering of "drugs," but a literary term that is probably closer to... hmm. Something mystical, perhaps.

I think my brain is still addled.