Korean Steamboat

When I meet up with people who have known me for ages – often my best friends seem to be from that far-ago time when our children were small – they ask me "do you still cook a lot?"

The answer is No. And yes. After all, what is "a lot"?

I remember many years ago being asked a couple of times by men in conversation, "do you cook every night?" which seemed to me at the time (and still does) a very strange question. After all, we eat dinner every night, so of course I cook. But there was something in their faces (a yearning, perhaps) that had me wondering what their wives did. This was well before we had to remember to say 'partner'. And before takeaways.


So yes, I cook every night, and sometimes in between. If I find a recipe that is begging to be tried, of course I can't resist the temptation to check it out. I have over a thousand cookbooks. Before you snort in dismay, I'll hastily argue they have been collected modestly over forty years and helped, firstly, by a generous mother-in-law, remainder bins and Lifeline book sales; more recently they are sent to me for review by publishers. So while they are now useful as a double-check on a recipes, most nights I will play around with a basic recipe, writing down anything that turns out particularly well. Now, interestingly, it's these hand-written notes I return to.

I cook less, though, in that the children and their multitudes of hungry hangers-on have gone. At one stage my son's skateboarder friends would reliably swarm in late afternoon and I made sure I usually had a massive cake on hand. One young man called Fletcher could almost single-handedly reduce a cake to crumbs in minutes, and his name entered our family vocabulary. Now if anything disappears inordinately fast, we say it has been "fletchered".

I do love to stumble across something completely different from time to time, for that is the truly amazing wonder of cookery. Like music, there is no end to it. A slight twist of ingredients, method, shape, cookware, and voila! we have a completely different dish.

Travel often proves to be a wonderful catalyst for me, and on my trip late last year to Korea our group visited a tofu restaurant. Now you need to know that tofu is not my favourite food, mainly because it is the culprit, I believe, for a couple of nasty hives incidents. So my participation in the dish I am about to describe was purely visual, which possibly is why I was so keen to try it for myself sans tofu once I returned home. . (click here to continue).

Koreans are greatly enamoured of a little contraption which is a portable gas ring, fuelled by a small canister that slots into the side. These are available from Korean grocery stores, and come in a handy plastic carrying case. I bought one years ago (to face the rumoured Y2K threat, actually) and so the other night I pulled it out, set it on the outdoor table (for this, apart from picnics is its intended use – think Korean BBQ) and set up my hotpot.

In China they have hot pots too, but there it is prepared in a deep pot on a burner and you are given a wide selection of meats, vegetables and other things to cook briefly in the broth which arrives bubbling already. I have tried this too at home, even locating the rolls of wafer-thin shaved beef and lamb in a Chinese grocery store, but the main problem is that it is better served the way they do, on a lower table, as the height of the pot makes it difficult to reach into as you remove your morsels of cooked food.

The Korean version used a wide pan, and for this I chose my 38cm Staub paella pan. It is a glorious dish, coated cast iron, similar to Le Creuset, heavy and ideal for paella of course, but perfect for this too as I discovered. I prefer Staub cookware, possibly for a sentimental reason. I was lucky enough to be part of a group visiting the Alsace region some years ago and we were taken to meet the owner, Monsieur Francis Staub, a charismatic fellow whose looks made it no surprise to learn that as a child he starred opposite Rock Hudson and Julie Andrews in Darling Lily.

"Alsace has the most three-star Michelin restaurants in the world," he told us proudly, "so we need the best cooking equipment." At that time he had just devised a range of cookware bearing the name of Alain Ducasse with a wooden disc under the steel handle, a take on the old chef's trick of placing a cork there to insulate it. It was in his showroom that I found my bottle-green paella pan and happily lugged it home in my suitcase.

So, now, working from the memory of the tofu-restaurant dish, in a saucepan on the stove I heated some fish stock which I had made a few days before from the bones of salmon tails I baked in another recipe which I just had to try for New Year's Eve - a great success I'll share another day. While this was happening I placed shelf-ready noodles, thick and thin in the base of my pan,  topping them with some prawn and fish wontons which had been waiting in my freezer for just such an occasion. I had briefly half-cooked the latter in the heating stock, as I wanted them to be ready when we were. Over this I sprinkled shredded chinese cabbage.

Then, a new trick I am using in many dishes. My local shopping centre has a Harris Farm fruit and vegetable market, and a couple of days before I had found some garlic prawn sausages made by Nonna's Gourmet Sausages (02 9734 0769). These were ideal for our  seafood-inspired hotpot I thought, but rather than cooking them or slicing them I squeezed out small balls of the filling and scattered them over the wontons.

Next, working to the picture in my head of the tofu-version in Korea, I arranged snow pea shoots, bean sprouts, slender white enoki mushrooms, slices of hardboiled egg, halved baby corn cobs, and sliced green beans in spokes radiating from the centre. I sprinkled it all with a little sesame oil and soya sauce and on another plate put calamari rings and shelled and deveined green prawns as I wanted us to be able to add these as we wanted, rather than have them overcooked.

From here it was all pure fun: the pan went on the burner in the centre of the table. The boiling stock was poured carefully over the ingredients without disturbing the pattern, and left to heat for just a couple of minutes until the dish was steaming, while we collected plates, chopsticks, glasses and people, and settled down to enjoy.

It was a great success with each of us seated around it, dipping into the steam and picking out noodles, seafood, prawn balls, whatever, the flavours finally simmering down to a rich stock that became a soup for us to enjoy at the end. I'd put out a small dish of my favourite condiment, the spicy gochujang so beloved by Koreans, as well as some soy sauce, and we seasoned our selections accordingly. Mine ended up pretty spicy, but then I am quietly addicted to this pepper paste.

Not a shred of tofu in sight, I can tell you, and probably any visiting Korean would not have recognised my version of their dish, but it really doesn't matter. For that is what cooking is all about. The wonderful flexibility and versatility of food, and what you can do with it, is what keeps me hooked – and yes, cooking every night.


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