Cycle 5 – Item 25
30 (Thu) January 2014
-Geumgok, Bundang, Seongnam, Gyeonggi, Republic of Korea-
with the Family, Mom + Dad
1st Home Visit (Day 1)
In Seoul to spend Lunar New Year with the family, the first time home since leaving for Manila earlier this month. Flying back Sunday evening, giving me 3, maybe 4, dinners in town (I calculate time in units of dinner).
J&J is a Korean-Chinese restaurant. Located in Bundang, on the first floor of my parents’ apartment building. Mid- to upper-range, in terms of both price and quality.
Having eaten at J&J dozens of times over the years, including while living with my parents before getting married, I can vouch for the restaurant’s consistent quality.
Tangsu Yuk (탕수육) is a Chinese dish. Strips of meat, pork by default, but sometimes beef, or chicken, or fish, battered and deep-fried, tossed in a tangy glaze, along with some veg/fruit, such as carrot and onion at a minimum, pineapple perhaps. Essentially, it’s the Korean version of sweet & sour. The term means “taffy water (tangsu) + meat (yuk),” though variations of sweet & sour dishes in China are sometimes referred to by other names.
What really sets tangsu yuk apart from sweet & sour anywhere in the world is the vapid yet rabid popularity of the dish in Chinese restaurants throughout Korea. The dish is god – unquestionably, undoubtedly, undeniably, unmistakably, unequivocally, unambiguously, incontrovertibly, irrefutably, incontestably, conclusively, categorically, plainly, patently, definitively, decisively, explicitly, implicitly, it’s the undisputed, unrivaled, unassailable, unconquerable, indomitable, inviolable, invincible king, emperor, pharaoh, raja, sheik, shah, chief, sachem, liege, lord, potentate, padrone, allah, jehovah, master of the universe, ruler of all things. Without exaggeration, I’d estimate that tangsu yuk accounts for 80% of all dishes sold here, the remaining 20% only when tangsu yuk is already on the table; in other words, the first dish is always tangsu yuk, then maybe additional items, or maybe some more tangsu yuk.
To be clear, I’m referring to special dishes, served on platters and shared by everyone, not individual noodle or rice dishes, like jjajang myeon or jjambbong, which is another story, though actually the same story, only on a different level.
Tangsu yuk epitomizes what I hate about Korean food culture: prescriptive predictability. Lack of imagination, fear of the unknown, laziness, ignorance, whatever, it’s why Chinese cuisine, the most diverse in the world, has been reduced in Korea to less than 10 dishes in all, led by tangsu yuk. In protest, it’s the only dish that I refuse to order on principle, disallowing it if I have any say in menu choice. I wield no such authority over my father, and he wanted tangsu yuk.
The tangsu yuk at J&J was actually one of the best that I’ve ever had. Juicy on the inside, crispy outside, perfectly sweet and sour balance in the sauce, wide variety of veg/fruit, including lotus root. If the dish were always like this, I wouldn’t complain so much.
(See also GLOBAL FOOD GLOSSARY)
(See also RESTAURANTS IN KOREA)