14 (Sun) August 2011
Gailan in Oyster Sauce
at Cheung Kee Myeonga
-Seogyo, Mapo, Seoul, Republic of Korea-
with MtG (+GF), CBD
My favorite style of Chinese food is Cantonese and, within the Cantonese tradition, my 2nd favorite dish is gainlan in oyster sauce. (Number one is roast duck, but that’s another story.) Gailan – alternatively spelled “kailan” and usually translated into English as “Chinese broccoli” – is in the same family as and has a similar texture to standard broccoli but more bitter and intense in flavor. It’s often prepared simply by parboiling it in water and oil and served with generous dousing of oyster sauce. In this manner, it’s a staple side dish in every Cantonese restaurant that I’ve visited in my travels, from Hong Kong to London to San Francisco, especially in dim sum restaurants, some of which have featured a gailan trolley equipped with a pot of boiling water and oil. For me, a plate of gailan with dim sum (or any Cantonese meal) is like a plate of kimchi with mandu (or any Korean meal): indispensable.
Allow me to digress for a bit…
Any major Chinatown in the world tends to be predominantly Cantonese, except in Korea. Elsewhere, early immigrants from China, many hailing from Hong Kong and the southern regions — i.e., Canton, now Guangdong – first gathered in ethnic enclaves that would eventually become Chinatowns. Korea, however, is perhaps the only country in the world with a sizable Chinese population without such a Cantonese Chinatown. The geographical proximity and cultural similarities between the two countries allowed early Chinese immigrants here to assimilate very quickly and smoothly into the mainstream population, thus negating the need to develop a defensive isolation.
The closest alternatives that Korea does have to a Chinatown are: (a) the so-called Chinatown in Incheon, but, indicative of how un-Cantonese it is, the most popular restaurant there is the one reputed to have invented jjajang myeon; (b) the cluster of Taiwanese-style restaurants scattered about Yeonhee/Yeonnam-Dong in Seoul; and (c) the neighborhood of Guro-Dong in Seoul where ethnic Koreans from China, like our Nanny, make their homes.
With respect to food, Chinese cuisine in Korea also adapted to suit local tastes. This resulted in such fusion dishes as jjajang myeon and jjambbong, which have since come to completely dominate the scene to the stubborn exclusion of other authentic styles. Koreanized Chinese food is so definitive here that Koreans traveling abroad are often shocked how different Chinese food is outside of Korea. During a four-day academic conference in Beijing with members of my department, after a single meal at a well-reputed Beijing Duck establishment, a meal filled with incessant and vitriolic complaint (not from me), the group insisted (not me) on eating Korean for the remainder of our meals. A student of mine succinctly summed up the Korean perspective upon his return from a trip to Shanghai by commenting, “There’s no Chinese food in China.” The point is that authentic Chinese fare, including Cantonese, is virtually nonexistent in Korea, despite certain restaurants these days that claim to be “Cantonese” or have names like “Hong Kong” or purport to offer “Chinatown cuisine.”
Cheung Kee Myeonga (청키면가) is a Chinese restaurant. It’s a noodle shop across from the Hongik University campus. The menu offers a handful of dishes: lo mein with shrimp and/or pork wonton in soup or with spicy pork or braised beef, all of which feature Cantonese-style egg noodles. And gailan.
It was the first time that I’d ever seen gailan in any restaurant in Korea. The manager informed me that it was grown locally, which bodes well for the possibility that gailan may be available in other restaurants, unless this single farm has an exclusive contract with this single restaurant. Fortunately, this single restaurant parboiled it to perfection. 5,000 won for a small order – worth every won.
I also sampled the other dishes, and each one was nearly perfect in terms of taste and texture. On my inevitable and multiple return visits, I’ll review the noodle dishes in more detail. For now, suffice it say that nothing was dumbed down or otherwise adapted to accommodate the locals.
Out of our group of seven, with nobody else very familiar with Cantonese, I was the only one really digging in, which probably meant that the restaurant was doing something right.
As a final note, I’d like to give props to the blogger seoulfood for showing me the way. His review of this restaurant includes a photo of the wonton noodle soup, with gailain visible in a corner of the frame but not mentioned directly (see seoulfood’s entry on Cheongki Myeonga), so I’m glad that I was paying attention. Thanks!
(See also FOODS.)
(See also PLACES.)
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