Sunday, March 04, 2007
Life Happens in the Cracks, One Bite at a Time
I could sing the praises of Allium sativum L. any day of the week, but I don’t. I like garlic so much that I don’t usually think about it. It’s ever presence is quietly necessary and invisible like air. Last year during my pickle period I jolted to the past, below the surface where memory and story reside. I brought back to life, to my kitchen counter- a bite, a snap of peppery cloves brined in liquid soy. I pressed hard into my ear drums sounding out the faded directions from my mother and waited as one-note Charlie transformed into the pearl of the Orient, a multilayered jewel. It is hard to believe that within the silent ink bath, the bite and snarl of floating ivory claws temper into semi translucent nibbles of piquancy, salty verve and licorice flavored mystery before ending in a final tryst with heat.
Manul Changatchi or pickled garlic is one of the many interesting side dishes (banchan) used by Koreans to accent their meals. Growing up I ate these patina stained stubs of growl with sticky clumps of rice and charred veneers of bulgogi, a parade of flavors contained within a lettuce leaf wrap. Ssam, the Korean style wrap is a fresh garden palette of taste, color and texture. It was exotic counterpart to the all-American sandwich I consumed on the day side. I tried my best to be like the other girls and eat my peanut butter sandwiches inconspicuously at lunch time. It didn’t help that occasionally I would find thrust into my lunch bag, a rogue slab of head cheese muffled between bread, weirdness oozing out of me. And though I lived in a mint green toothpaste colored house that looked identical to half a dozen others on my street, none of them hid jars of kimchi fermenting in the garage, the basement and the refrigerator or sprouted lanky perilla plants between the irises along its perimeter. I was distinctly and hopelessly bound on all sides and threaded throughout with a heritage that reeked of flamboyant vibrancy, flavor, and colorful individuality.
Perhaps if I had not been properly pickled by all of those spice spiked banchan, I wouldn’t have the adequate orienteering skills to make sense of that sardine sandwich. Wading through it further, between exhilarating crescendos of garlic it seemed obvious that this week’s follow up needed to be ssam, the antidote to the stuffy sandwich. The light freshness of this wrap softly rouses senses dulled from the heavy handed bludgeon of winter foods. Crisp tender greens and sweet neutral rice swaddle shreds of blanched vegetables, briny spiced condiments and tender hunks of meat. The multi-flavors contained within these fully disposable packages combine effortlessly together, yet still retain their own distinct integrity.
Now when I think of the efforts that my parents made to plant vestiges of an old life into their new one, embarrassed discomfort is replaced with reflective appreciation. Like a smoldering bite of garlic standing out upon a canvas of rice, these traditional morsels of food enhanced and anchored a culture not yet understood. This push of taste, desire and nostalgia rose through the substrate of their immigrant life giving way to something ardent, real and wholly unique- even perfectly suited to stand alongside a sandwich.
Manul Changatchi: I’ve pretty much loosely stuck cloves of garlic in soy sauce, water and vinegar and left it in the refrigerator to pickle. But felt that a more “precise” recipe was needed for my readers. This is the most precise looking one that I found.
1 quart garlic cloves, papers removed and the root end cut.
1 C vinegar
4 C soy sauce
2/3 C sugar
Directions: Place the garlic cloves in a glass jar container and cover with vinegar and enough water for the cloves to be covered. Close the jar and leave it uninterrupted for a week in the refrigerator and then drain the liquid. Bring the soy sauce and sugar to a boil for ten minutes and then when cooled, pour the liquid over the cloves. Cover the jar and leave in the refrigerator for at least a month. Pickled garlic lasts indefinitely.
Ingredients for Ssam:
Clean and dried fresh red lettuce leaf
sliced jalapeno rings
Cooked short grain rice
Scallion greens in 2” strips
Seedless cucumber slivers
Fresh perilla leaves
Slices of onion
Slices of Sashimi grade tuna
Thin sliced cooked pork
Kochujang, fermented soybean chili paste (I’ve made a substitution by mixing a bit of brown rice miso (1 Tablespoon) with Sriracha chili sauce (dime size)
Instructions: Have all your ingredients in front of you and mix and match. Be careful not to fill your leaf so full that you cannot close it without the contents spilling into your lap.