I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really explored my concept of happy food on Big Hungry. I’ve described those completely happy moments for sure, when you lean back in your chair in a sunny dining room or on a waterfront deck, run your hand over your full tummy, sip a libation and exclaim, “I am so happy right now.” That’s always a mark of a great restaurant for me, one where ambiance, food, service and atmosphere have all come together to render me relaxed and slightly giddy with hedonistic pleasure.
But happy food is a bit different. What I consider to be happy food is something that makes you feel that giddiness and a slight high while you’re consuming it and immediately thereafter, despite your surroundings. Something that makes you feel just a little more alive, like no one on Earth is eating as well as you are in that moment, and a little bit drunk with the privilege of devouring such decadence. For me, this high most often comes in the form of spicy food, and even more specifically, Asian food. There’s something about the way spicy is delivered in Asian cuisine that really revs me up. I’m almost always happy eating sushi, and the unique spice that comes along with wasabi, spicy mayo, and sriracha sauce brings about a particular high that my body chooses to mark with the hiccups, and that my mind equates with an inebriated bliss.
Heretofore, I’ve never tested this Asian spice soft spot with Korean food. Frankly, I just haven’t had the opportunity. I was raised in an Episcopalian household. Casseroles, Americanized Italian food and meat and potatoes were the stock in trade. If someone brought a bean dish to a church potluck, that was exotic. There was no sriracha in Mom’s pantry. As my palate has widened and middle age has begun taunting me with fine lines and decreasing metabolism, I am starting only now to discover the intricate wonders of Asian cuisine, and especially the spicy depths it so often relies upon.
My friend Jill, or Big Hungry Jill to you, is well versed in such things. So when she visited a couple weekends ago, I asked her if she would be my food Sherpa as I climbed Mt. Bi Bim Bap (psst, that’s Korean food to the uninitiated!). BHJ is good people, so she obliged, and we lunched that Saturday at Man Nam Korean Restaurant, in Vestal, right by Binghamton University. Because the culinary gods hate me, Man Nam doesn’t have a website, but here’s its Yelp page if you want to take a gander: http://www.yelp.com/biz/man-nam-korean-restaurant-vestal
As this was my first adventure with Korean food, Jill and I sussed out our order together, deciding to split an appetizer, a noodle soup, and one entrée. But before I describe the food, a few details: Man Nam isn’t fancy. The comments on Yelp are true – from a décor standpoint, this college student-centric eatery verges on shabby. So don’t choose this for date night. Also, curiously, on both visits I made there, the side dishes and appetizers hit my table before the drinks. The second time, I had to remind the waitress to bring my beverages. Thirdly, I want to go ahead and warn you, as this was my first foray into Korean food, I’m not pretending I’m an expert in this cuisine. I am a novice, and can only share with you my first impressions on a foreign gastronomy. For that reason, I’m not going to grade Man Nam on the BHS scale, but rather describe the flavors and textures as best I can, so you can evaluate if you’d like to give it a try.
Jill and I began with duk bok ki, from the appetizer menu, which was described as stir fried rice cakes with scallions, onions, carrots and cabbage in a sweet and spicy house sauce. Let’s address the rice cakes first, which are not the crunchy, airy, Styrofoam-adjacent affairs you buy when embarking on a new diet. These were small cylinders of soft rice dough, like thick pasta made with rice flour rather than semolina. They were very bland, which had its place in the heavily spiced, complex broth, but I didn’t especially care for them. I’m betting these are a comfort food thing for people raised eating them, but I could have done without their gummy texture. And I don’t think they were actually stir fried, which would have put some color on them. They seemed steamed or boiled to me. The sauce, on the other hand, had that quintessential happy food mélange of Asian flavors: spice, sweet, sour, creamy but still clean, acidic without any bite. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s wonderful. The redness could have come from tomato, but there were definitely chiles in there, and maybe some coconut milk? The spice had me hiccupping, so you know I was happy.
At the same time as the duk bok ki, our ramen and rice dish came out. This was a more familiar dish, ramen noodles and more rice cakes, this time in disc form, with onion, carrots and egg in a broth very similar to Japanese dashi, which is made from kelp and fermented fish. OK, I know fermented fish sounds gross to you hamburger-and-fries-loving Americans, but I swear, Asians do mysterious and wonderful things with dried fish, fish sauce, and fermented fish in ways that add tons of savory flavor without overt fishiness. This soup dish was plentiful and fabulous, with another kick of fiery chile and salty soy. The broth was simply addictive, and we kept stealing the bowl from each other to slurp more of it into our greedy maws.
Served before these two stunners were the traditional Korean banchan, or side dishes. The one you’ll recognize is kimchi, which is spicy fermented cabbage, in the far right of the photo. Jill got this little bowl to herself, because kimchi doesn’t do anything for me – that faint spoiled taste that comes from the fermenting process just doesn’t sit well in my palate. But I enjoyed the mung bean sprouts and pickled zucchini as nice, cooling palate cleansers for all the spice in the two starter dishes.
We ordered the bi bim bap in a stone bowl for our entrée, but unfortunately for us, the restaurant filled up just as we ordered this, and the back-up in the kitchen didn’t jive very well with the schedule we were on. After our appetizers arrived, about 35 minutes elapsed before we finally gave up and cashed out, telling our waiter we couldn’t wait any longer for our stone bowl. At that point, the cook came out and kind of yelled at us a little bit in broken English. This wasn’t my favorite part of the experience, but again, we couldn’t wait any longer for the rest of our meal. Dear angry chef, don’t yell at me because you’re in the weeds and I can’t wait around all day for rice and veggies. Love, Shelbs
On the bright side, I had last Friday off, and was able to go back and order the bi bim bap lunch special. I did forget to order it in the stone bowl, and I’m kind of annoyed the waitress didn’t ask me if I wanted that way. According to Jill, it’s leaps and bounds better with the crunchy rice that sizzles on the hot stone bowl and adds texture to the overall dish. My lunch special came with miso soup, which was pretty ordinary. Savory broth, little chunks of tofu, some scallion, not served particularly hot, which is, for some reason, quite common with miso soup. The bi bim bap didn’t make me nearly as happy as the rice cake dish or the ramen soup had before. It’s a generous serving of white rice topped with sections of pickled vegetables and a small serving ground beef, and crowned with a fried egg. I think when you get it in Korea, the egg is raw, but leave it to boring NYS food regulations to put the kibosh on a little bit of culinary daring.
Honestly, while this dish was filling, and I loved the runny egg yolk with the rice and beef (why is egg yolk such a magical ingredient?), the overall dish did not impress me that much. The zesty, thick, chile paste that came alongside in a squeeze bottle certainly added much-needed personality, but I prefer the complexity of Asian sauces and broths to this sort of stir-fried, self-assembled food. This was fine, serviceable, but not my “happy food.” That said, if you’re looking for a non-scary entrant into Korean gastronomy or are being dragged along to a Korean joint and have no interest in testing your taste buds, go for this dish.
I will reiterate that I’m not scoring Man Nam, because I am by no means an authority on Korean cookery. That said, I will go there again, and I’d like to work my way through more of this lengthy menu. They have a short rib dish called kai bi that I will be trying at a future date, and I’d also like to sample the famous bulgoki, which is thinly sliced beef in garlic soy sauce with onions and carrots. I just read a quote from quirky Michelle Williams that fits perfectly how I feel about trying this new food, “Maybe when you see something different for the first time, you don’t know how to categorize it. It doesn’t really fit with anything else.”
That’s pretty much how I feel about this chow, which makes me happy, but which I find so hard to describe in way that will make you also want to taste it. It’s exciting, I know that. Sampling those intermingled flavors of salty, sweet, spicy and sour gives me little frissons of pleasure that are hard to translate to the page. I think they’re something you just have to experience yourself, something only the individual can deem “happy,” or just plain “foreign.” To be sure, there are folks reading this who will say, “pizza and wings make me happy enough; I don’t need to travel outside my comfort zone to get cheap thrills from lunch.” To you, I acknowledge this reality. But there are those who find great satisfaction in experiencing new things and exotic flavors, and for them, I recommend Man Nam and restaurants like it. Or, just go out there and find the food that makes you feel that way, then come back here and tell us about it!
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