Friday, August 06, 2010

This Takes Me Back

There was an article on Yahoo's front page today about the best fried chicken in America, and one of the places they mention is a place in Chicago called Crisp that serves Korean-style fried chicken. Which of course immediately set my mind to Pelicana Chicken (warning-the site is not only in Korean, but there's a commercial in the lower-right corner that you can't turn off!!!--bad form).

I've mentioned Pelicana before. It's a Korean fried chicken chain whose specialty was crispy chicken with a spicy-sweet garlic sauce that I just loved. The closest thing I've had to it in the U.S. is General Tso's (they may in fact be the same basic recipe, but it's hard to remember the exact flavor of the chicken I had in Korea 13 years ago beyond OMG!). Not that it was perfect. In fact, half the time, the chicken was likely to be overcooked and a little dry inside, and the sauce was insanely sticky. But I loved the taste of the sauce so much that when I could afford it, Pelicana was a wonderful treat.

The big problem with Pelicana was that it was a twenty-minute walk from our post to the nearest location. So I didn't have it often. But one day as I was driving past a Pelicana on some exercise or other, I noticed that there was a little descriptive phrase on the sign that said (Romanizing here because I'm too lazy to learn how to type it up in Hangul) yangnyeom tongdalk. So it occurred to me that maybe Pelicana's recipe wasn't in fact unique, and that maybe this was a more commonly available dish.

(quick aside--in Wikipedia's listing, they give the spelling as tongdak without the 'l,' because it is mostly silent, but the funny thing to me is, though both romanizations feature the word "tongdak," the Hangul says yangnyeom chikin).

There was a little place in the ville near the post where some folks often went to nosh after a long evening of drinking. One afternoon as I was walking past, I noticed that they had yangnyeom tongdalk listed on the window. So I went in and ordered it.

Here's the thing about Koreans: they know that most Americans have very little knowledge of or appreciation for their culture, and they know that Americans have very narrow palates. When an American comes into a Korean place, they're either going to order (depending on the restaurant) ramyun (ramen), bulgogi (grilled beef), or mandu (potsticker dumplings).

Want to freak out a Korean whose only experience with Americans is serving mandu to drunk G.I.'s every night? Order something Americans don't normally order, like dolsot bibimbab (mixed rice, vegetables and egg served in a sizzling-hot stone bowl) or tteok manduguk (soup made with mandu dumplings and rice cakes--my KATUSA roommate was quite amused when I told him one of my favorite Korean dishes was tteok manduguk--I don't know if he was surprised I knew the name, or if he just thought I was weird for liking it).

Or in my case, yangnyeom tongdalk.

The lady in the shop went to work making the dish, repeating the name over and over to herself, as if she couldn't really believe it. I don't know if she was amazed an American was ordering it, or annoyed at the amount of extra work I was creating for her, because she had plenty of mandu already made and ready to serve--was I sure I didn't want some nice mandu, because it was right there!--and this stuff she was having to make from scratch.

It wasn't quite the same as Pelicana, but it was pretty good. But given the reaction from the lady, I never went back.

God, now I'm dying for some good Korean food, and I can't afford it.

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