Thursday, November 7, 2013

Miracle of the fishes

I was exploring Los Angeles' Koreatown - that busy, bustling neighborhood infused with multiple layers of the city's history. Once LA's most exclusive address, it went from show-biz glamor to run-down slum, to besieged and burnt out during the '93 unrest. And all the while since the 1960s, the Korean immigrant community thrived and grew here, transforming fusty old hotel dining rooms into hip young anju bars, karaoke clubs, and upscale shopping malls.

The City Center mall on 6th Street between Alexandria and Mariposa isn't as grand and populous as Koreatown Plaza on Western, or the Koreatown Galleria on Olympic, but, like them, its slick polished surfaces and overscaled graphics evoke the style of a 1980s shopping mall.

But it has a thriving and busy ground floor supermarket that draws local residents in to do their daily shopping. This converts the cold, empty atrium into an updated version of a small neighborhood market, with all the homey atmosphere you'd expect.

Zion Market
Here, pallets stacked with 20 pound sacks of rice encroach into the mall courtyard, and shoppers pore over giant bins of persimmons, apples, and melons. Elderly ladies with shopping trolleys prod at tomatoes, or inspect the giant bags of peeled garlic cloves or mung bean sprouts, knowing exactly what they want.

I wandered without knowing what I wanted, looking at everything. The meat department displayed beautiful marbled slices of short rib, perfect for grilling. The fish department had tanks with live abalones, and also Styrofoam trays with perfectly sliced sashimi, or pickled mackerel. In one corner of the store was a prepared foods section - what in a typical American supermarket would be the deli, with the salad bar and sliced meats case, here at Zion Market was a counter that offered various prepared panchan, or tasty side-dishes like pickled squid, fermented black beans with chile, radishes, and seaweed salads.

I walked through it all, loving the sights, smells and flavors, and then something caught my attention. A sweet, hot scent rose into the air, like the smell of warm pancakes on a Sunday morning.

Goldfish pastries, the sign said. A man placed golden pastries on a rack to cool. They were shaped or molded like cartoon fishes. I stopped to watch him as he sold a paper packet of them to another shopper. "What are they filled with?" I asked.

"There are three kinds, red bean, custard, and vanilla," he said. He let me take a picture of the press he uses to make them. Batter goes into the molds, and then the filling goes on, then more batter. The top part of the mold closes over, cooking the pastries.

At home, now, I've learned that these pastries are traditional Korean street food called bungeoppang. They're made as a warm treat in the winter, which, on one message board I read, led one commenter to call them "Korean aebelskiver" - a traditional Scandinavian wintery waffle. Which only goes to show you that there is, perhaps, a universal craving for sweet hot crusty treats in countries with cold and snowy climates.

The man gave me a custard pastry to try - a whole one! Warm from the griddle, it was hot and delicious, and the warm custard oozed out in my mouth. The crisp, the crunch of the freshly baked crust, and the heat and molten custard tasted so immediate, so good. I wanted more

"If I buy some and take them home to my family, will they still be good later?" I asked.

"You just put in the toaster first," he said. "They'll be good."

The sign said two for three dollars. "Can I have one red bean and one custard?"

When I held out a five dollar bill, he thrust a plastic bucket at me. "Put in here, take your change." I stuffed in the five, and took my hand out empty.

He tucked a red-checked paper boat with three pastry fishes into a brown paper bag, and nestled paper napkins between them. "I give you one each - red bean, custard, and vanilla."

Warmth and generosity is what always makes the fishes multiply.


smalltownme said...

Cuter than aebelskiver.

Kizz at 117 Hudson said...


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

My favorite part of a Korean meal is the variety of panchan- I usually refer to them informally as "Scooby snacks".

Those bungeoppang really look nice. There's a huge Korean superstore about halfway between home and work which has an in-house bakery. I am going to have to seek these out.