Friday, November 15, 2013

Egg salad with a pop

L.A.'s Koreatown is exciting not just because it's a vibrant immigrant community with a fascinating ethnic culture to explore - it's exciting because it's an amalgam of multiple immigrant communities, and from this it has created its own fascinating culture.

The best-known example of how cultures are embraced and adapted into a new dimension is the famed Kogi truck; a catering truck selling short rib tacos and kim chee to young hipsters hanging out in karaoke clubs.

Korean cuisine is assertive, and when Korean cooks take on other cuisines, something bold, brash and vivid happens; strongly flavored and served in abundance.

Al bap
Like Korean style sushi.

A-Won Japanese restaurant is serene inside, with teak-like wooden cubicles cozily enclosing each table, and a sushi bar at the back. You can get nigiri sushi here, but what most people get are Korean dishes that include raw fish and seafood with rice. A popular choice is hwe dup bap, a kind of sashimi salad on top of rice, seasoned with sesame oil and the ubiquitous condiment gochujang, fermented soybean and chile paste.

But what I wanted, on a grey November day, was al bap, which when translated into English appears on the lunch menu as "fish eggs with rice."

Kim chee, top, and acorn jelly, bottom
The waitress brought a bowl of miso soup and a few dishes of panchan, or the little appetizers that come with most Korean meals. There was kim chee, or pickled cabbage with chile, and some crunchy pickled daikon, and steamed edamame - and another dish I learned later was something called acorn jelly, marinated in soy.

And then she placed a beautiful rainbow-colored bowl before me - al bap. This was a treat for anyone who loves fish eggs - whether you call it caviar and eat it from a mother-of-pearl spoon, or eat it with crackers off a trash-can lid.

Colorful scoops of seaweed salad, pickled ginger, cubed omelette, and fish roe -  large pearly salmon roe or ikura; the butterscotch smear of uni, or sea-urchin roe; tiny crunchy grains of tobiko, colored green with wasabi; golden with yuzu, or red with beet juice. 

With my chopsticks, I chose wee bits of each, tasting them each in their turn. The waitress glanced at me as she hustled past to another table, and on her next pass by, she pointed an index finger at the bowl. "You mix it up," she said sternly.

Obediently, I did as I was told.

Mixed up it was even better, as each mouthful of rice mingled different flavors and sensations. With each bite, the little eggs popped vibrantly, or, like the ikura, gently imploded, oozing salty juices. One bite held the zing of ginger, the next the almost electric tingle of wasabi, or the suave oily taste of sesame. I teased half a lobe of uni out of the rice and put it reverently in my mouth, relishing its briny high note.

I alternated the fishy rice with bites of the sour-hot kim chee, and the radish pickle - I love the earthy funk of radish pickles, in almost any guise. I wasn't sure what the acorn jelly was, but its glutinous texture put me off. I'll try it again if I encounter it again, now that I know what it is.

Often, Korean food is too much for me - the serving sizes are huge, with lots of accompaniments, and I overeat and feel too full afterwards. But this was light, perfect; energizing and good, and left me ready to explore some more.

At the end of the meal, I asked for the check and it came with a little plastic bottle labeled "frozen dessert." This was a thin, milky liquid tasting of pineapple juice. Like acorn jelly, I'll have to get used to it.

I'm not sure where else but in L.A. you can find al bap on the menu - but if you're a lover of caviar or the roe of fishes, do try it!