Seoul Searching: Vegetarian Fish Cakes + Cucumber Pickle

Posted by Dani (@dani_sunario), Melbourne.

Korean fusion food is all the rage at the moment, especially with food trucks in the US capitalising on the Korean-Mexican fusion. Bulgogi burrito with a side of kimchi? You don’t have to ask me twice! I mean, both cuisines count rice as a staple, so really it’s not that far a leap.

Today, I too decided to jump on the Korean bandwagon, and though nothing beats a big bowl of Bibimbap, I decided to experiment by fusing it with some Japanese-esque flavours to create a vegetarian feast of Bibim Nengmyun (buckwheat noodles with enoki mushrooms and a gochujang and ponzu dressing), Vegetarian “Fish” Cakes with kimchi kewpie, and a light and fresh Cucumber Pickle to cut through all of the spicy deliciousness. This is the ultimate in comfort food.

Now by this time, you’re probably thinking, “I have no idea what 80% of those words are, what on earth is she on about?” Trust me, all of these dishes seem complicated and full of exotic ingredients, but the recipes are super duper simple. The hardest part would probably be sourcing the ingredients – your best bet is to go to an Asian grocer with a good Korean and Japanese section, but if you don’t know where that is/are really scared to go into one/really can’t be bothered making the trek, i’ll try to give you as many substitutes as possible. Unfortunately, having fresh kimchi is vital for this one, but i’m sure you’ll be able to find it at your local Asian store. Hell, Perth even has it’s own kimchi factory and if that nanna state has it, i’m sure everywhere else does too!

So lets start with the condiments for our feast…

Kimchi Kewpie

I’m a proud A-sian, not just a B-sian, so in honour of my ancestry I always keep a tub of kimchi in my fridge.
Very good one.

Asian food is all about mixing unusual textures and flavours, and somehow, even though there is usually a combination of several strong flavour profiles, they all manage to work together. Kimchi is one of those pungent ingredients – it is mighty strong, and the smell can be off-putting to some, but it is an ingredient that I swear goes with everything. Just last week I made a kimchi grilled cheese and not even kidding, it changed my life.

In my desire to add kimchi to everything I could possibly imagine, I had the brainwave of combining it with one of my other favourite Asian condiments – Kewpie mayonnaise – and boy, was I onto something! It is freakin’ dericious!

Kewpie is the most popular brand of a Japanese mayo that – in traditional Japanese style – comes in a cute, but odd-shaped plastic squeeze bottle with a star shaped nozzle. It is made with rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar (instead of the usual distilled vinegar found in normal Western mayo) and egg yolks (rather than whole egg), giving it a much sweeter taste.

You can substitute Kewpie for a good quality mayonnaise, but i’m pretty sure they sell it in the Asian section of most supermarkets these days.

2 teaspoons of kimchi juice (from the kimchi tub that you no doubt will start to keep in your fridge too)
4 tablespoons of kewpie mayonnaise
Sesame oil, to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until you reach a smooth and saucy consistency.

Chinese-style Cucumber Pickle

I made a Chinese-style cucumber pickle to accompany this feast for added freshness and crunch, and to cut through all of that chilli. It is super simple and takes barely any effort at all. I used a vegetable twister (that I bought specifically for the cucumber I add to my gin and tonics, handy) to slice it super thin and save time.

1 large continental cucumber (or 2 lebanese cucumbers), sliced thinly
1 shallot, diced finely
1/8 cup rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon white sugar
1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes
sea salt

Sprinkle the cucumber quite liberally with salt in a bowl, before leaving to rest for 10 minutes. This extracts some of the moisture from the cucumber, allowing the final pickle product to be crunchy rather than soggy.

After 10 minutes, squeeze and drain the excess moisture from the cucumber.

Mix the vinegar and sugar in a bowl until sugar is dissolved, then pour over the cucumber, diced shallots, and chilli flakes. Let the pickle soak and absorb all of the flavours for a further ten minutes.

Vegetarian “Fish” Cakes
Makes 12

These vegetarian “fish” cakes were delicious in their own right, but you could easily substitute the tofu and chickpeas in this recipe for any firm-fleshed fish – fresh poached or steamed salmon would be fantastic in this. For vegetarians, the mixture of the tofu and chickpeas gives it a similar texture to a normal fishcake – firm but also bouncy and smooth.

You could also substitute Panko for normal breadcrumbs, but definitely try get your hands on this bad boy first – once again, most major supermarkets stock Panko in the Asian section. Japanese Panko is a crisper, airier, and flakier breadcrumb than your usual breadcrumb, and it makes all the difference in the density and heaviness of the cake.

200g silken tofu
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons kimchi
3 spring onions, bottoms only and roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
1 large egg
1/2 brown onion
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon plain flour
Sesame oil, to taste

Plain flour for dusting
Vegetable oil (or other neutral oil), for shallow frying

In a food processor, blend together all the ingredients in the first group until combined into a chunky mix. It is a little bit more moist than your usual meaty mix due to the silken tofu, so don’t be too scared like I was that it won’t come together. Much like Gatsby, they turn out just all right in the end.

Divide the mixture into 12 even-sized rounds, about 7cm in diameter, then coat lightly in plain flour.

Shallow fry in hot oil for a few minutes on each side until golden brown and crispy, then drain on a paper towel.


Bibim Nengmyun

Serves 4

In my mind, noodle is – let’s just say… *traditionally* – pronounced “ndr”. Go on, try say it out loud.
Aaaaaaaaand… there you go.

These noodles are an untraditional variation of the Korean Bibim Nengmyun, and are fantastic in texture and flavour. This recipe uses Korean Gochujang paste – a strong pepper condiment made from red chilli, fermented soybeans, and glutinous rice, that is used as a base for many Korean dishes – and Japanese ponzu, a citrus based sauce made from rice vinegar, seaweed, and citrus juice. If you can’t get your hands on Ponzu sauce, mix some light soy sauce with some citrus juice (lemon works fine, but mix it up with other citrus juices too!). The noodles are a beautiful colour, quite starchy, and made from buckwheat so are gluten free. For a completely gluten free recipe, substitute the Ponzu sauce for Tamari soy mixed with a little citrus juice. You could also try this recipe with rice vermicelli instead of soba noodles.

The red pickled ginger not only adds colour to the dish, but also adds a tartness and heat. This can also be found in the Japanese section of your Asian grocer, but you can the substitute it with finely sliced young ginger.

Kombu are shredded rehydrated ribbons of edible seaweed. They’re crunchy and salty, but have a really unique flavour. I personally love the texture, but it can be quite slimy and take getting used to. You could omit this altogether if you really wanted, but if you find it you should definitely give it a go!

As an added bonus, this dish is totally vegan too.

1 tablespoon Gochujang paste
3 tablespoons Ponzu sauce
a handful of mushrooms – I used Enoki, but you could use oysters or wood ear – nothing too meaty
a handful of bean shoots
200g dried Buckwheat (soba) noodles, cooked and drained according to package directions
2 tablespoons kombu, rehydrated in cold water
1 tablespoon red pickled ginger
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
spring onions, to garnish
2 spring onions, finely chopped to garnish
extra sesame oil for noodles

Lightly dry-toast sesame seeds in a pan for a minute, making sure to move them around so they don’t burn.

Toss cooked soba noodles with sesame oil to coat, flavour, and loosen each noodle.

Combine Gochujang and Ponzu in a large bowl until the paste has dissolved. Add noodles, mushrooms, and bean shoots and combine.

Place on a plate and garnish with kombu, pickled ginger, toasted sesame seeds and spring onions.

It’s a massive feast, and though it looks like a lot of work, I swear it really isn’t as long as you multi-task and pre-soak the pickles and the kombu. It should take less than a half hour to prepare.

You could totally have each of these feast components individually, or you could even make a mini burger (sprinkled with sesame seeds for that real deal effect) out of the leftovers like I did. With a little sprinkling of sesame on top, you could easily deceive anyone into thinking it’s actually a burger. The best bit? It tastes 100 times better!

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