Sunday, August 1, 2010

Keeping my day job: Writing about mortality in café: a short though on excess

Many of us have day job. Some feel fortunate enough to have it, the others may say they do it because it pays.

My day job is research. I am nutritionist working on the issues around world hunger, particularly on the issues around child survival. Though the numbers are looking better everyday, I always feel that I am not doing very good job on saving them whenever I look into the figures and statistics on under five mortality.

Here is little venting I did while I was writing small report on diarrhea and zinc.

Writing about mortality in café: a short though on excess

It is mid June, one of the slow weekend. Though drizzled with rain, the air is in full of life. People talking, laughing, tending small children, good food, good coffee. Everything seems peaceful and happy.

And here I am, like a dark spot on the perfectly white wall, a blue corner in this cheerful café. Not because I am bitter and lousy person. Just because what I do for living is not so happy one: I write about mortality and morbidity of the immature ones. Children should be sparkling with life. They are never meant to be lifeless or dieing. But I do write about their death and dieing. I try to think about their survival and small victory along the battle of survival but never the war. But even with all of my optimism, it is quite difficult to stay positive.

Human body is resilient. It can endure unbelievable degree of insult. Fetus will survive and be born from the mother whose BMI (an index that measures how well nourished you are) is way below that anyone can imagine. And against all odds, AKA high infant and child mortality rate, many survive to see the days as adults. But with what cost?

When a child experience nutritional distress, it gears itself into survival mode: every luxury such as intelligence is placed in second. It does not seem to concern about the long term consequences, either. Being alive now is more important than what may happen in ten years later. And quite frankly, I do not see what is the point of being tall or witty or anything later if you don’t survive today. But don’t get me wrong here. The child pays a big price. There are empirical evidences show permanent physiologic changes their small and fragile body goes through. The damage appeared as having very small stature. However, that is telltale sign of many things that went wrong and keep going wrong. The stunted child has higher probability to develop obesity and many other chronic disease. And it does not end their. The curse of childhood undernutrition continues into the second generation and the next and the next. The stunted mother will produce smaller, low birth weight babies who is more likely to die or suffer from chronic disease. If the child is lucky enough to be born in the country with good health care. Most of them do recover and catch up the growth or at least they will not suffer from the chronic condition or permanent damage as many of the infants in developing country do. Imagine a child who will never know what would like to be fully grow. Though they survive, and I cheer their triumphant, still the lingering darkness shadow over them. They may wear it as banner of their victory. They beat the odds. They are still here. But with what cost? My emotions and feelings whenever I calculate excessive death caused by anemia or vitamin A deficiency, being just ‘sad’ seems to almost arrogant.

You may noticed the term ‘excessive’ I used. It is epidemiological term to describe how much risk of mortality one society suffer from the exposure to certain risk factors such as under nutrition. Well, the common sense in English works here. It is excess. It is unnecessary. It is all preventable.

The baby, across from my table, surrounded by her family and their friends, bursts into laughter. Her chicks are rosy and her eyes spark with curiosity and her smile is full of energy: she is everything how a baby should be. Is wanting that for every one outside of this land of excess too much to ask?

In my quite lonely corner, sitting among the papers with lots of gruesome numbers of mortality, I try to imagine hope. Hope for those, who deserve much more than my arrogant sympathy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Let's learn Korean, shall we?

This is one of favourite treat: dried persimmon. This one is little more special. It is half dried and friezed. During the fall and winter, the season of dried persimmon, my Grandmother set the best looking ones aside for the ancestral ceremony. The last of it is mine.

I have it with tea from its leaves. The fruit, the leaf, and even the flower is edible and much appreciated, though most commonly people would eat fruit.

The fruit, when it is fresh, is called gam. When it is dried, it is called gotgam

Few days ago I found persimmon labeled as 'kaki' in the market. The English word persimmon was not there. Was it special type of persimmon from Japan? NO. If so, it should be labeled as its type, not 'kaki' since the word just mean persimmon. It was ordinary looking and common type of persimmon I used to see every day. All of a sudden it is named as gaki. Not persimmon or Gam.

I often found it puzzling: why are all the names Korea and Japan share almost always known in Japanese?

One of the reason may be that it is much easier to say it in Japanese than in Korean. Korean language has coda (the end sound) in many cases and it is much harder to pronounce if you are not born in the language uses similar sound. For instance, Undaria pinnatifida, the common seaweed often used soup and salad in Japan and Korea is known as wakame, not 'miyeok' . Miyeok is not so hard to say it, I think, but harder than wakame.

But this is not always true. Nori, another seaweed that you found, is known as nori, not gim which equally easy to pronounce. Though Korea is quite famous with gim, and you will find a lot of Japanese tourist buying gim in Korea.

I have to confess it made me little jealous and anxious. Korea has much shorter interaction in modern history with western world compared to Japan. But it also meant that Korean food is not well known along with her culture, which made me sad. Even the Gourmat depicted Korean food with so much Chinese theme, made my blood boil with anger for this blunt ignorance and disrespect. My fear, I must say, is from realizing how small my country is. We have China and Japan, the two big neighbours become more and more bigger and stronger while my country struggles -in some sense- for its existance, which we have always done generations after generations.

So, here are few words. My contribution to my own culture which I cherish and proud of.

감 Gam -persimmon
김 Gim -Laver
김치 Kimchi (NEVER EVER kimuchi. that is an insult since the term kimuchi is the result of spelling Korean word kimchi. Due to the histroy, Koreans are a bit sensitive.)
미역 miyeok - Undaria pinnatifida
배 bea - Nashi, Asian pear
다시마 dasima - edible kelp
청콩 chungkong - edamame, green soybean

And to be continued with my other postings...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The inseparables - Boiled egg in Tteokbokki 떡볶이랑 삶은 달걀

There is pair of things that one does not fully exist without the other. They are so entwined with each other, the one doesn't make any sense without the other. There are food pairs just like that: one of which I may say tteokbokki and boiled egg.

The first form of tteokbokki was mild, high-end food using beef strips and soy sauce. During the modern times, it becomes favorite snack food using spicy chili paste and fish cake.
When I was young, I was not allowed to have this snack with other friends. I had such fragile stomach which produce too much acid whenever I was stressed out. Can you imagine a 10 year old with Gastritis!? It was me. So, any thing too spicy or too salty -which tteokbokki was both - was out of question. I was watching my friend eating it with envy.

I had this popular snack when I was 15 years. It was an adventure. For the first time, against all the better judgement, I went with my best friend to have this almost national dish of Korea. By then my mother's ban was off. But our principle didn't like the idea of having small benders in front of our school, so he had banned all student from dropping by. If caught, me and my friend would have been in little bit of trouble. But you know how the forbidden fruit taste: it was gooooooooood!

My best buddy knew I could not eat too spicy food. So, she asked for extra boiled egg for me. Mixed with spicy burning seasoning, the egg was so tasty! After that, boiled egg and tteokbokki were inseperable, at least as far as I concerned.

Ttokbokki with hard boiled egg

For two:

1/2 lb ttokbokki ttok, two boiled egg, 1 lb cabbage, 1 medium size onion, 2 sheets of flat omuk (about 10cm by 10 cm per sheet Korean fish cake, optional), 2 T Gochujang (고추장 Korean chili paste), 1/2 T soy sauce, 1 c water

1. Cut cabbage into thin strips and slice onion. Cut omuk into desired size.
2. wash ttokbokki ttok and drain them well.
3. Mix gochujang, soy sauce, and water in large deep skillet with lid. Add cabbage, onion, and omuk. Place skillet on the heat with lid on, cook till the cabbage is half cooked.
4. Add ttokbokki ttok, stir gently and cook till the ttok becomes desirable texture.
5. Serve it with boiled egg.
** I made it little bit fancier by rolling the omuk and skewed it with egg. For this, cut omuk into strip and cook along the side of ttok. Take it out when the ttok is fully cooked and skewer it with egg.
** Ttock doesn't do well with time. So make this dish right before serving.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Shameless Midnight Indulgence- Yaki Brown Shirataki

I often question: is it possible to indulge without guilt? Is it truly necessary always to feel remorseful after the midnight meal? Does this guilt increase pleasure or eat away it?

At least, I found one solution to tame the shameless midnight hunger without shame or remorse. The answer is called "shirataki". Shirataki is Japanese type noodle which has only about 12.5 kcal for 7 oz serving. The noodle is made from konjaku plant. Don't worry. This is not something a crazy scientist invented in a lab. The plant has high fiber, which forms jelly like curd. So unlike other noodles, this noodle is almost all fiber. It has great texture but not so much flavor. So I use brown version flavored with sea weed.

'Yaki' means stir-fried or grilled in Japanese. I found instead using other noodles, shirataki works great in yaki soba recipe. So, here it is. In the middle of night, wake up by the stomach screaming hunger, tame it with plateful of goodies with way less calorie (about 300kcal) and guilt.

Yaki Shirataki

7 oz shirataki, 7 oz bean sprouts (I used soy bean sprout, but any bean sprout would work), 2 slice of aburaage (deep fried tofu), 2Tb chopped green onion, 1/2 Tb sesame oil, 1 Tb soy sauce, pinch of pepper

1. Soak aburaage in hot water (watch out your fingers!) for a min, take out and squeeze them dry. Cut it into thin strips.

2. place shirataki and bean sprouts in the colander and wash them under the running water. Drain them well.

3. Heat sesame oil (be careful not to burn it) in the sautee pan and put shirataki and bean sprouts. Stir it well while cook gently.

4. Add aburaage, soy sauce, pepper and choped green onion. Stir well.

Serve hot. Adding sugar snap pea and strip shaped nori is also nice.

ps. You may wonder why I suddenly sound like a nutritionist. It is because I AM a nutritionist. You are hearing a confession of nutritionist. Yes, we do have midnight cravings, too. No, even though this dish was one without shame (therefore I can share), this is not always the case.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A story of comfort food: 비빔밥 Bibimbop

It is typical Korean soap opera scene: a girl in distress crying over the love which ended. She cries her eyes out, collapsing on the table, massing her hair up, as if the world has ended. Suddenly, she gets up and rushes into the kitchen (if she wasn't there already), opens rice cooker, takes out entire load of cooked rice into huge bowl. Then she runs to her refrigerator empties all Banchan (반찬, side-dishes) including kimchi into the bowl, puts generous spoonful of Korean chili paste and sesame oil, mixes with anger as if her looser boyfriend is in that bowl, and eats it like hungry wolf. No matter how dainty little lady she may look like, she is now she-wolf gulping down her enemy. After that she will go her favorite hair salon and get new hairdo.

This scene always puzzles me: how a single busy working women has so much banchan in her refrigerator!? What if she is like me, living alone in strange place, and found nothing (some times even no Kimchi) in the refrigerator!?!? It turned out, it wasn't only me who was baffled by it. I found one of famous blogger in Korea blogged about it and many agree that the full refrigerator is some sort of TV fantasy.

Bibmbop is quite handy food to make. Whenever I need to empty refrigerator or have nothing to cook (or have no intention of cooking), it is great food to make. As long as there is a bowl of steamed rice, an egg, Korean chili paste, and sesame oil I can make it.

Here is one example: Rice with dried Korean radish seasoned with say sauce and chili flake.

And just with steamed zucchini and egg plant.

And even simpler, with salad greens.

The possibilities, yes, are endless. However, I think these all shares miraculous power: give energy to go on.

Some time between the mixing and eating, I find new energy. As it fills my stomach I get stronger. Fiery chili paste burns but yet has sweet after taste to it, a gentle reminder of good world even though at first it seems hopeless and ruthless place. This 'tough love' gives enough 'guts' to face the hard world out there and comforts the troubled mind.

Spring has come!

It seems to late to say, but I truly feel it. Now I can finally say, spring has come.

During the Winter, everything freezes, including mind. When the Spring comes, everything relaxes, and this make people little bit nostalgic and lethargic. It sounds very counter intuitive, while the frogs are jumping out of their slumber and the sprouts are sprung, people rather look like the sleepy cat. But that is how we describe the sign of Spring in Korea. To wake up from the spring slumber, we use bitter spring greens. Dureup (Fatsia), Neangee, Chwi, Mindulea(Dandelion green), and countless other bitter greens will be in the market. People also go and gather wild greens. It is tradition born out of necessity since spring was lean season in Korea.

Now, I found myself hungry. Hungry for the spring greens in Korea. When I was back home this year, it was still too early for the greens I craved for. Well, I can not get them here in Boston, MA, U.S.A. I may get it with big money but it wouldn't be the same: the fresh and bright bitterness wouldn't be there. Yes, my head understand all of it, but my hunger went on for a while. So, when I found fresh chicory I have to grab it. Even though it is not the perfect thing.

I made my comfort food: kimchi bibimbop. First I made chicory kimchi and add it on the freshly made steamed rice, adorned with fried egg, sesame oil and Korean chili paste. The taste was as bright as the spring sun.

Chicory Kimchi

chicory 2 lb, soy sauce 1/4 cup, Korean chili flake 1/4 cup (or up to taste), garlic, grated 1 T,
1/2 small Asian pear grounded (or 1t sugar with 1/4 cup water)

1. wash chicory well and drain it well.
2. mix soy sauce, pear, chili flake, garlic well.
3. add seasonings to chicory, mix well (but be gentle!!!) and let it sit for a day in room temperature.

It can be eaten as it is, but adding sesame oil or toasted sesame seeds right before eating is good option. (Do NOT mix sesame oil when you make kimchi if you intent to store it. sesame oil goes rancid faster than you can say rancid. :) )

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hot, hotter, hottest! - Meaoontang 매운탕

Speaking of winter delight, (or delight of any season, that is) Meaoontang, Korean hot fish stew is one that I can not miss.
I said not all Korean dish is spicy but didn't say all Korean dish is not spicy.
Be aware! Clear the way! This is piping hot (both temperature and taste), burning your tongue hot dish.

One thing I noticed about many people around me in Boston, they are afraid of fish head. For me, fish head is the best part. It makes nice broth. If it is big fish, the chicks are delicious treat.

This particular Meaoontang has little story. I went down to the fish place run by Koreans. I asked Ajooma (The lady of the house) if she had anything for Meaoontang. She looked for any good fish for it, but she had none. She told me to wait for a min. Then, she went into the back room. Lucky me!!!!!!!! There was a customer (whom I deeply feel sorry for his/her misfortune for missing the best part of fish) who took Kwanguh 광어 (Flounder) only the flesh of it, left me good fish bone with all the good parts left! Ajooma was also happy to found it, and more than happy to clean it for me and packed it for free.

I rushed back and made soup, but thought it might not enough. As a host of dinner, I could not make food not enough (both quantity and quality)!! So, I rushed back to other fish place (since the one I got Flounder was closed), got little more fish.

...It turned out it was totally unnecessary. The bones and inners of Big flounder made more than enough dinner for two. So, this one left untouched for the next day.

The next day, I found my two left over Meaoontangs doing all well-made-fish-stews do.

All the gelatin from fish coagulates ensuring I treated my guest with dish made right. :)

Deagu Meaoontang (Pollock Meaoontang)

Small Pollock (2lb), Daikon radish 1 lb, 1/2 package of Soybean sprout, 1/2 package of Tofu , Korean watercress 1/2 lb, Ssukat (type of Korean Herb, if you can't get it, you can increase the amount of watercress) 1/4 lb, 1 Onion, 4C cold water

Seasoning: 1T dry white wine or rice wine, Korean chilli powder 2T (or up to taste), Soy sauce 1T, minced garlic 1/2 T, minced fresh ginger 1/3 T

1. Clean the fish (ask your fishmonger to do the honor. cut it into the four parts including the head!) and soak in cold water. Cut tofu into desired thickness.
2. Cut daikon radish into quarter circle shape, by first slicing it into 0.4 of inch thick disk shape and quartering it. Slice onion into same shape.
3. Pour 4 cups of cold water in the soup pot, add head of Pollock, radish, onion, and all the seasonings. Bring it to boil and cook it till the radish is half cooked.
4. Add Soybean sprout and the rest of fish. Bring it to boil and cook. skim off any foam that may form. When fish is almost cooked add tofu.
5. Take the pot off the heat, add Korean water cress and Ssukat. Close the rid, and wait for 5 min. Serve with hot steamed rice.

Winter serenity

I love poems. One of them is Chinese poet, Li Bai 李白. He loved two things: the moon and good rice wine. He chased those two thing till his death. The legend has it, he had one too many, and tried to hug the moon (actually the reflection of the moon), drowned in the most beautiful lake in China.
Before my trip to home, it snowed a lot, as we all know in the East coast of USA. The night was ripening, snow was falling till all the night was covered white. I could not see the moon. So I decide to drink it, as Li Bai did.

I had nice rice wine and good Oden soup I made for snowy night. And winder gave me good snow.

Snow chilled rice wine and steaming hot Oden.

I found this the best luxury only winder can provide. It is almost over (hopefully). Saying good bye to each passing season is always makes me think of things that only that season can give.