Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Seoul, Through Four Red Bean Desserts


Simply wanting is, for us, reason enough for doing something. So given M & D's particular obsession with fondness for Korean red bean desserts, and danpatjuk in particular, it was mildly surprising that we ended up sampling only four different ones over a 48 hour period while in Seoul earlier this year. It most likely would have been a higher number if not for the fact that we were so often shuttled between destinations on the guided tour that we were on (The last successful trip organised by the ill-fated S Travel), but we did our level best with what opportunities we had. Tragically, we were unable to make good on our earlier vow to go back to The Second Best Red Bean Porridge in Seoul, which remains the standard that all red bean desserts we try are measured against. (I am about 85% certain that there is a Chinese idiom to the effect of "If I say I am number two, who dares claim to be number one?", and this is what I think about every time I consider their name) The places we visited this time served interesting variations of the danpatjuk theme. They may not have been able to steal the crown from The Second Best in Seoul, but most were still hearty and comforting, and they also gave us some very interesting glimpses of the city.

It feels very much like home when I'm in Seoul, although the change in scenery lends an extra hint of charm by making everyday things seem somewhat novel. On the trains, everyone you see is glued to their smartphones, just like we are. And amidst all the towering city blocks, you can find some beautifully preserved architecture. There's also a thriving culinary scene that's at once fiercely proud of its heritage, and unafraid to innovate. The less that's said of some experiments or fads the better, but some have been able to very thoughtfully meld the old and the new. Then there are things like patjuk, where it's really all about the ingredients you use, and your technique. 

Patjuk, or red bean porridge, is a kind of comfort food in Korea, taken not only for warmth in the colder months, but also in the belief that eating it prevents illnesses. On a slightly more mythical level, it is claimed that the regular consumption of patjuk helps to ward off evil spirits, and safeguards the health and happiness of the whole family. It seems like a lot to expect from what's essentially a bowl of boiled beans, but you can never discount the transformative effect good food can have on your person. Just look at us - we have sweet patjuk every opportunity we can, and we've never been bothered by evil spirits. Coincidence? I think not!

To me, it feels somehow disingenuous when writers describe cities as being "at the crossroads between heritage and modernity". As if there's really a choice between the two. We're always moving in the direction we think progress is supposed to lie, and it's just a question of how much of the past we take with us, and in what form. Our first bowl of patjuk on this trip was in Insadong (인사동), located in the heart of Seoul, north of the Han River. This is indeed where you'll find a large concentration of stores still dedicated to Korea's artistic heritage, but it's also a mish-mash of influences. Along the main street of Insadong-gil, you can find a whole array of modern art galleries and tea houses, as well as an astonishingly large number of snack shops, one of which is famous for selling piping hot red bean-filled cakes shaped like dollops of poo. Clothing wholesalers jostle for attention alongside new galleries displaying old embroidery techniques, and if you turn off the main street, you'll find a warren of alleyways that often lead somewhere surprising. 

You'll find a majority of the city's heritage building stock in Bukchon Hanok Village, but here and there are pockets that have also managed to withstand the vagaries of time. We had our first bowl of danpatjuk of the trip in this repurposed old house, sitting on mismatched low chairs that looked like they came out of a Pinterest fever dream. Their version was a simple one. Running a spoon through it didn't uncover any additional treasures aside from the smattering of pine nuts and chopped walnuts that had been sprinkled on top, but every bite held a hint of spice, which is what we've noticed sets the Korean version of red bean soup apart from the rest of the East Asian versions. It was a chilly day, so I also had a bowl of ginger tea, which turned out to be so strong it nearly put hairs on my chest.

Singapore has a particularly brutal food & beverage scene, with 75% of new restaurants winding up within a year. You're simultaneously thrilled by all these fresh offerings, and aggravated that you'll never be able to truly know the comfort of returning to something that's just as you left it. We've known love and loss on far too many counts (Oh, my beloved fried dumpling stall, I still cry sometimes when I think about you), but there's a particular appalled horror that we feel when places we like in other countries disappear off the map.

Bingo in Samcheong-dong was where M and D were first exposed to the delights of patjuk, and like ducklings who imprint on the first face they see, Bingo was what they thought of when patjuk came to mind. It was a charming hole in the wall sort of place, staffed by a gentleman they called "an artist", in the sort of reverential tones usually reserved for life-changing events (Though now that I think about it...) Each order of patjuk took forever to get to you, as the pot needed to be lovingly stirred to the right consistency, but they never minded the trek or the wait. The end result was, to them, entirely worth it. So, as always, we made the pilgrimage up, only to realize that Bingo was no more.

RIP Bingo, we hardly knew ye. 

Much like us, Seoul is a city in flux, chasing the latest innovations, and bound by the same inescapable laws of gentrification. Samcheong-dong is no longer the so-trendy-it-hurts locale it was a few years back. Like so many other ultra-cool neighbourhoods, it's experiencing the creep of of the mainstream. A chain coffee store here, another ubiquitous skincare store there. Progress, it seems, demands higher rents, and while some of the older inhabitants still stand, others are getting slowly pushed out by those with deeper pockets. 

Where Bingo once stood is now the flagship store of Cafe Bora (카페 보라), sleek and almost Nordic looking. It specializes in treats made with purple sweet potato from Boryeong, a city on the coast of the yellow sea that's best known for its summer mud festival. "Bora" means purple in Korean, but beyond the obvious connection, the cafe alludes to purple being a noble colour of the Joseon Dynasty. It was very interesting to see how else the cafe established its Koreanness in its promotional material as well, with two children wearing hanboks in shades of purple happily munching on their delicate looking bingsu. The emphasis on homegrown ingredients, harking back to cultural precedent and deliberately designing the desserts to connotate natural goodness - all the while looking as modern as can be. The deft balance of the concept is fantastic. 

Because we'd travelled all the way for danpatjuk, and it was there on the menu, that was what we ordered instead of Cafe Bora's purple sweet potato signatures. Alas, the only thing I have to say about it is this: Should you find yourself here, or at their sister outlet in Daechi around Gangnam, get the purple sweet potato desserts instead. That's what we're definitely doing the next time. If nothing else, the purple sweet potato soft serve and the purple sweet potato puree atop a bed of shaved ice are remarkably pretty, and would make for excellent #Foodstagram subjects. 

Our last bowl of danpatjuk was enjoyed just outside of Seoul, in the Heyri Art Valley (헤이리 예술마을). We first visited a few summers back, gamely taking a public bus based on instructions we found on a website. Driving past the DMZ and seeing the long expanse walled off with mean-looking coils of barbed wire fencing was an eye opening experience, to say the least, and for what is effectively an artist commune to be so close by is an interesting symbol of hopes for a future peace. Nestled amongst verdant mountains, the Art Village is a popular date spot on weekends, which means that during the week a lot of the museums and galleries either won't be open, or keep odd hours. Still, if you have a full day to walk around, you'll find quite a number of things to keep you occupied, like art workshops (I tried my hand at woodworking, but the resulting chicken was so ugly M threw it away once we got home), a massive bookstore (Most titles in Korean, but fun to see nevertheless), museums (If you want to see how South Koreans lived in the 50s and 60s, it's an excellent historical resource), public art (Sculptures everywhere!), and of course, cafes. 

Cafe culture in Seoul is a fascinating topic, which has led to not just some much-needed roundup lists of the best places to go, but also social commentary. It's really not just about the coffee, but the cafe as a social space, and the economic implications of paying through your nose for a daily cup of joe. Sometimes as a tourist though, you're just happy to find so many places to flee to, away from scorching heat or biting breezes. Café Blume, attached to the Blume Museum of Contemporary Art, was our refuge on our initial visit. I've never seen the museum, which was closed every time we went, but the cafe is all airy gorgeousness. 

The dishes here are a little dearer than what you might find elsewhere, but it's completely worth it. The menu of traditional Korean favourites can be summed up as healthful, classy and artistic, in the best possible way. And mostly importantly, everything is delicious. I still think fondly about their mushroom porridge, despite being the sort of person who avoid multigrain where possible. This time, we were with friends, and after prefacing with a warning on the prices, we managed by splitting two dishes between the five of us, so everyone could have a taste without hurting our wallets overmuch. Ordering their danpatjuk was an absolute necessity, but for a change of texture, my cries of "Let's have the mushroom porridge too!" went unheard, and we tried the lotus leaf wrapped rice instead, which turned out to be utterly marvellous. Taken with bites of seasoned seaweed, it's richly fragrant. 

The danpatjuk at Blume is my second favourite, for all that it's done in an wholly different style to The Second Best in Seoul. Unlike the latter where the beans have been cooked to a silky-smooth soup, Blume's is still studded through with largely solid beans, giving you something to chew on with every spoonful. There's a stronger hint of herbs and spices in this danpatjuk, like they've taken its role as a cure for ailments very seriously, but it's still holds just the right amount of sweetness to make for a very satisfying dessert. 

We're shamelessly self-indulgent people, but I think it's wonderful to be easily contented with good food and good cheer, so I've embraced it wholeheartedly. Like Nancy Mitford said, life is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake, and this is one of them. We tucked into our fourth red bean dessert in three days at the airport, scant moments before we were due to board the plane. It was a simple bowl of bingsu at the food court, but surprisingly well done, with the right ratio of milk to shaved ice to sweetened red beans to cinnamon, and a nice final note to end on, while we watched a group of actors enact a royal procession through the terminal. 

Maybe next time we'll try more cultural activities, or just visit the city for a girls-only spa and shopping weekend. So many different realities, so many facets to see. And that, I suppose, is the beauty of travel.