It's easy to spend an hour in Koreana Plaza's deli section peering at the cooler shelves. They're a cabinet of curiosities, filled with rows of clear plastic tubs containing a colorful, peculiar assortment of snacks -- danger-sign red kimchi, translucent jade seaweed, black stewed sesame leaves. Tight lids and terse English labels ("boiled beans," "Japan cucumber") give no hint of the smells sealed inside.
The quality of the food you get in supermarket delis runs from haute to barely edible. But if you're looking for inexpensive, sometimes healthful, and always wildly flavorful fast food, wander through the East Bay's Korean and Thai markets. For the price of a burger and fries you can pick up pickled daikon, coconut-scallion pancakes, or fish mousse.
I first discovered Korean market food almost a decade ago, when a friend pointed out the sushi and marinated cuttlefish being sold at a market near the restaurant where I cooked, on the edge of San Francisco's Korean neighborhood. Once one of our waiters discovered that the markets also sold raw, marinated bulgogi and spicy chicken, staff barbecues went fusion.
Those San Francisco markets had nothing on the Koreana Plaza -- formerly Pusan Plaza -- which sells everything you need to cook Korean meals, from wok to garnish. The deli counter starts to your left when you enter, and stretches around into a bakery and butcher shop. All of the food is freshly made on the premises. Most of it is good. And some of it will even appeal to timid palates.
Case in point: the kimbap. Three bucks will get you a couple of six-inch rolls of this Korean sushi, enough for a hefty lunch. Instead of rolling nori and rice around small strips of raw fish, Koreana's kimbap makers craft thick, futomaki-like rolls filled with a jewelbox of lemon-yellow pickled daikon, julienned carrot, spinach leaves, and (cooked) beef, so flavorful you can dispense with the soy sauce. Next to the kimbap are Styrofoam trays of fritters and pancakes. As Koreana's selection shows, Koreans will dip just about everything in mung-bean or egg batters -- zucchini slices, small coins of whitefish fillet, fake crab -- and drop them onto the griddle in tangerine-sized rounds. Four-variety assortment packs cost less than $4. Other meal-sized bites are the deep-fried chicken wing "drummettes," fished from the oil and tossed in a sweet glaze, or plastic-wrapped trays of peppery, soy-seasoned jap chae, a stir-fry of springy yam noodles, beef, and vegetables, made recently enough that the noodles haven't had a chance to stiffen up. An octopus salad dressed in a flashy sesame oil and rice-wine vinaigrette disappeared fast.
Many of Koreana Plaza's pint-sized plastic containers are stocked with panchan, the infinite variety of pickled, gelled, and fried side dishes that crowd the tables at Korean restaurants. Half of the market's selection will be familiar to anyone who has eaten up and down Telegraph Avenue, such as the halogen-white radish threads pickled in sweetened rice vinegar or the pan-Asian seaweed salad, a mess of clear, crunchy green and white tendrils tossed in sesame oil.
Some of the panchan veer into truly foreign territory. Japanese pickles the size of my middle finger were brined in so much salt that my tongue curled away from them, a primordial instinct. So were the fragrant sesame leaves, whose soapy flavor I've grown to like, but not when it's masked by a red-miso salt rub. And boiled soybeans tossed with dried fish? Not to my taste, but for a couple of bucks a tub, hey, it's all worth a try.
Saturday mornings, Lisa Sarakul, owner of Sairoong Thai, clears off some counter space in this tiny market in the Pacific East Mall. Her shop is packed tightly with imported handicrafts, Thai videos and karaoke disks, and condiments and snacks, but on weekends she makes room for a few rows of freshly made snacks, entrées, and desserts, many of them made by nearby restaurants Krung Thep and Phuping Thai.
On any given weekend day, you can find twenty or so different little dishes at Sairoong Thai, all packed up neatly in clear plastic tubs. Though I've eaten at both Krung Thep and Phuping, I didn't see most of these dishes on their menus. And you won't, Sarakul confirmed, because these are Thai snacks for Thai snackers.
Several friends and I loaded up with $45 worth of containers -- more than enough food for five. Again, the food ranged from familiar to strange. The strangest of them all was a cup full of soft, slippery green rice-flour dumplings the size of stretched-out mini marshmallows. We poured a sweet coconut-sugar syrup into the cup and spooned the wriggly, squishy noodles into our mouths. I loved the texture, but the grassy flavor of pandan juice (the source of the green color) stopped me after a few bites. Another dessert, diamonds of translucent yuca-root paste dipped in enough shaved coconut to make them look like flokati rug samples, didn't have much going for them other than their jelly-like texture and sugary taste.
Some of the dishes at Sairoong were clearly meant to be eaten fresher and hotter. The hormok, a fish mousse steamed in banana-leaf bowls, looked like fish cupcakes frosted in coconut-cream and red pepper slices. A spell in the microwave definitely improved the mousse, but it lacked some of the vibrancy of other versions I've tried. Though it tasted great, catfish fried in a chile-flavored oil had been fried so hard that it was difficult to pluck the tough meat away from the tiny bones that radiated throughout the cross-slices of fish. And a grilled, marinated chicken leg with sticky rice dried out on the shelf.
Still, the chicken came with a puckery, bright-orange dip of chiles, vinegar, and scallions that was nothing like the supersweet syrup that I've been served with grilled meats at other Thai restaurants. And even the most familiar dish of all, pork belly with green beans, was coated in a thick spice paste that was more potently perfumed with lemongrass then most versions I've eaten.
As I duck-walked to the counter balancing teetering stacks of plastic containers, one of the regulars followed me, carrying one small tub of tapioca dumplings. "These are the best," he said. Luckily, they were in the stack. We wrapped the balls of pressed tapioca pearls in the cilantro sprigs that covered them, flushing our mouths with the herb's clean scent before it gave way to a sweet, meaty filling of ground pork, peanuts, and preserved radish. My friends and I preferred the custardy, sweet-salty appeal of little pancakes made with coconut milk, flour, and green onions. And I couldn't stop popping jerky-like strips of deep-fried beef glazed in garlic and fish sauce into my mouth. Better than Cheetos.
The find of the day was a coconut-milk stew of ground pork, lemon leaves, and pickled pea-sized eggplants. The creamy, chile-laced sauce simultaneously brightened and softened the herbaceous taste of the leaves, which gave off only the faintest scent of citrus, and the eggplants burst in the mouth with a sour pop. Like so many of the other foods Sairoong Thai sells on weekends, the dish may have been made to console homesick Thais. But one person's snack is another person's adventure.
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