BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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A Meditative Meal

Not so far from the maddening crowds of Manhattan midtown, there sits an oasis of tranquility, hidden in plain sight. Prompted to remove your shoes before entering the dining room itself, this simple gesture simultaneously suggests that all other extraneous distractions be left at the door before proceeding. Adhering as closely to tradition as an entirely vegan Korean restaurant can, the experience of dining at Hangawi is almost as noteworthy as the food itself.

Presented as a modern temple of cuisine, it may be understandably intimidating at first glance, but waiters will kindly guide the curious, the clueless, and the seasoned eater all with equal grace. Even if you’ve never tasted kimchi before or couldn’t tell bibimbap from bulgogi, you’ll be able to find a meal that satisfies. Entering into this serene cocoon within the city, my most memorable prior experiences led me to believe that Korean food would taste somewhat like spicier Chinese takeout, which is to say homogenized, Americanized fast food. It was about time I got a new perspective on this previously foreign food culture.

Lightening the serious mood with a splash of iced tea, beverages are poured right at the table into purposefully imperfect ceramic tea cups, spacious enough to rival the pedestrian venti latte. Pomegranate Iced Tea, with its clear ice cubes sparkling within luscious crimson liquid, is a study in restraint. Tart without being aggressive, gently sweetened to take the edge off, and bearing a well-rounded fruity flavor, even such a generous pour goes down easily. Awareness of the sweltering heat and humidity just beyond those insulated walls vanished after a few restorative sips.

Diving head-first into the unknown, I was clamoring to try Todok Salad above all other dishes. Never before had this unusual root crossed my path, despite how common it seems to be in Asian cultures. Frequently described as “poor man’s ginseng,” todok has similar purported health benefits, but what I was more interested in was the taste. Fibrous yet still tender, the pale white shreds were very subtle in flavor- Mild, slightly nutty, and perhaps bearing an earthy sweetness, they proved to be an easy introduction for a meal outside my comfort zone. Paired with watercress, carrots, and dried cranberries, it would have been a pleasant enough start if not for the tide of dressing that washed away distinction between the vegetables. Already soggy by the time it hit the table, in hindsight, it might have been wise to request dressing on the side.

Picking up the slack for that underwhelming salad, an appetizer plate of Combination Rolls brought together a wide variety of savory samples, each one wrapped up in its own discrete nori or rice paper package. Trios of buckwheat noodle rolls, seaweed rolls, mushroom rolls and kimchi vermicelli rolls artfully adorned the plate, ideal for sharing with an equally hungry date. Easily eating more than my fair share of both the mushroom and buckwheat assortments, they both shared an unexpected depth and richness, enhanced by a lightly battered and fried exterior.

Silky Tofu in Clay Pot brings the heat, arriving in a bubbling hot broth and sizzling metal bowls we’re advised not to touch. Served with sticky white rice on the side to soak up every last drop of flavorful soup, this dish alone would have been enough for a solo diner’s lunch. So soft it practically melts in your mouth, the tofu is just as tender as promised. Stewing away in the boldly astringent, tangy, and spicy liquid, this pillowy bean curd is anything but bland.

Arriving with a plume of aromatic steam, each order of Kimchi Stone Bowl Rice comes with plenty of bean sprouts, shredded nori, and of course kimchi, with a bit of performance art on the side. After allowing us to admire the kitchen’s handiwork on the carefully composed grains and vegetables, our waiter snapped to attention and began vigorously mixing, scraping, and stirring, until every last morsel in that bowl begged for mercy. Dramatics aside, it’s easy to see why this signature dish has taken off with such ease. Well balanced, as I had come to expect from Hangawi‘s offerings, the crispy rice is truly the best part. Perfectly crunchy in a way that standard skillets can only dream of achieving, it’s the sort of dish that I could never fully replicate at home. There’s such finesse that goes into the technique, transforming plain white rice into something extraordinary, which demonstrates the mastery of the chefs here.

The spice level in the funky, fermented Kimchi isn’t hot enough bowl you over, but the burn certainly grows with each successive bite. Crazy though it may sound, the thin sheets of delicately rolled cabbage struck me as ideal palate cleansers between bites of so many wildly different dishes.

Unrivaled even in this city of unparalleled choice, there is no better place to experience a wholly plant-based Korean meal. Fine dining does come at a price, but lunch specials are much more budget-friendly, and I’ve heard that Hangawi‘s sister restaurant, Franchia, also serves similar dishes in a more casual, low-key setting. Clearly, my adventures into Korean cuisine are far from over… I can see a trip out to this second outpost in my near future, purely for the sake of research, of course.


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Noodle of the Sea

A curious craze if there ever was one, kelp noodles have gained popularity in leaps and bounds, going from unheard oddity to pantry staple for many overnight. Though still a more difficult ingredient to procure, ever since I discovered one fateful package at a local international market, rather than an expensive specialty shop, they’ve been showing up on my plate more often.

Finding them mixed amongst the bottles of soy sauce and bean paste was inspiring, not only due to the substantially lower price. Despite their typically raw preparations, these chewy, translucent seaweed strands are a perfectly tasty ingredient for cooked dishes, and in fact, may be more palatable warm. A brief sauté seems to relax the tightly wound noodles, making them more like starch-based cellophane noodles or sweet potato dangmyeon. With this realization, it became crystal clear that these particular kelp we destined to become japchae.

Switching out the traditional beef for thinly sliced seitan, the dish came together in a snap. Packing in the fresh vegetables for a lighter rendition, this is the perfect dish for bridging the gap between winter and spring. Bright and colorful, the sheer variety of flavors and textures makes for a highly satisfying eating experience. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to japchae, so consider my instructions more as guidelines. The best additions are what’s in season and what’s on hand. Consider switching in some sliced asparagus and fresh snow peas to really celebrate spring, or give chopped kale a shot rather than the standard spinach. Of course, if kelp noodles still elude you, the traditional dried and cooked cellophane noodles are always a welcome swap.

Kelp Noodle Japchae

1 12-Ounce Package Kelp Noodles, Drained and Soaked Water with a Splash of Vinegar for 15 Minutes

2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil, Divided
8 Ounces Seitan, Thinly Sliced

1/2 Medium Yellow Onion, Thinly Sliced
1 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
6 – 8 Rehydrated Dried Shiitake Mushrooms, Stems Removed, and Thinly Sliced (Soaking Liquid Reserved)
1/2 Cup Sliced Fresh Cremini or Button Mushrooms
1 – 2 Small Carrots, Julienned
1 Red Bell Pepper, Julienned

3 Tablespoons Tamari or Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
6 Ounces Fresh Spinach
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
2 – 3 Persian Cucumbers, cut into 2-inch julienne

Toasted Black or White Sesame Seeds (Optional)

While the kelp noodles are soaking (which helps to soften them up a bit,) heat 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil in a large skillet. Once hot, toss in the seitan, and sauté for about 5 – 8 minutes until the pieces are all nicely browned. Move the seitan onto a plate, and let rest while you move on to the remainder of the stir-fry. Start draining the kelp noodles at this point so that they’re not sopping wet when you need them.

Add the remaining sesame oil to the pan, and start by adding in the onion, ginger, and garlic. Cook until the onion is translucent and highly aromatic. Toss in the mushrooms, carrots, and pepper, along with about 1/4 cup of the reserved shiitake soaking liquid, and cook for another 8 – 10 minutes, until all the veggies are softened but still crisp. Mix together the tamari, agave, mirin, and pepper, and pour the mixture into the skillet, stirring to incorporate. Add in the kelp noodles and cook for 3 – 4 minutes, to allow the flavorful liquids to become assimilated. Finally, toss in the spinach, and cook for only 30 seconds or so to lightly wilt the greens. If using kale or any heartier greens, give it another minute or so to become tender. Turn off the heat and stir in the scallion and cucumber. Top with sesame seeds if desired. Enjoy hot or let cool and eat as a salad.

Makes About 4 Servings

Printable Recipe

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