Dehn-jahng and "Suh-biss" at Sagan

Last week, we went to Sagan in Buena Park for another Korean family feast. Members of my family have thrown humungous hints about how they feel about my taking pictures of food in restaurants (“You’re not going to take pictures, are you?” with head shaking no already), so I don’t have any pictures from this go-round, though there are lots from my first visit. I have some more thoughts about the food.

The bahn-chan were different this time, which was a little disappointing, since I absolutely loved the soon dooboo (extra soft tofu with soy sauce, vinegar and spices) and the boochoo jun (flour and egg crepes with chives) from last time. However, the changing bahn chan is a good indication that Sagan is making theirs fresh from whatever is available. There were standard things like kimchee and other marinated vegetables, but I was surprised to see some of the other things. I am not exactly sure what they are, but they looked like snails. I think they’re called gohl-baeng-ee. The French put butter on them and call them escargot, but they’re still garden pests. I put them on the other side of the grill.

There’s a pickled garlic that the Japanese call rakkyo which I love. Sometimes the rakkyo are pickled in vinegar and a bit of salt and sugar as individual cloves, but Sagan just slices the top and pickles the whole head. As daintily as I could, I tried to coax one clove from the head with my chopsticks, but the prissy little things wouldn’t give themselves up. I went in with my bare hands to squeeze a clove out of it’s soggy papery casing, but I must have squeezed a little too hard. The silly thing shot out of the head like a miniature pickled missile and ended up on the table. *shrugs* I ate it anyway. In fact, I just gave up trying and put the whole head of garlic on my own plate. They’d bring more for everyone else, that is if anyone else at the table actually wanted it.

We ordered regular marinated galbee and saeng galbee, short rib meat without marinade. Sagan does a fairly good job, though there’s not much to be said for the saeng galbee, since its taste is strictly up to the rancher. In recent months, saeng galbee has become my choice at Korean barbecue restaurants because regular marinated galbee ends up being too sweet. Atkins dieters used to flock to Korean barbecue with the promise of piles of protein, but too bad now, as galbee marinades are dripping with way too much sugar. Sagan’s galbee is good, but it wouldn’t hurt them to cut back on the sugar. With saeng galbee, the restaurant gives each person a tiny dish of sesame oil with salt and pepper in which to dip the meat – season it to personal taste. I actually skip the sesame oil, too, and dip instead in a little bit of soysauce, like sushi. Much more control over the flavor.And if I want to get really crazy, I might actually do a tiny dollop of ggoh-choo-jahng. Crazy.

Lots of Korean restaurants do “suh-biss,” which is the horrible Konglish (Korean/English) word for “service.” It basically refers to the restaurant bringing a complimentary dish to the table, particularly for a large group that runs up the bill with a lot of food orders. We were going to order a jji-gae, but upon suggestion of this out loud, it was quickly hushed with “Don’t order it; they’ll bring it suh-biss.” I laughed. But they did!

Sagan gave both our tables (yep, that’s how big our feast was – two tables) dehn-jahng jjigae – a boiling hot pot of broth made from dehn-jahng with vegetables, some sort of meat of seafood (but not always), and tofu. It’s different from soon doo-boo jji-gae, which is also a boiling hot pot, but with a spicy broth base of red pepper that comes from the addition of ggoh-choo-jahng (red pepper paste) and ggoh-choo gah-roo (red pepper powder). Soon doo-boo is silky soft tofu, different from the regular firm tofu cut into cubes or bricks for dehn-jahng jjigae.

This is what dehn-jahg looks like in Korean: ??. Wow, I just squealed because it actually shows up on the screen!

Dehn-jahg is fermented soy bean paste, similar to miso. If Japanese miso is your sweet, innocent baby sister toting a pink plastic Hello Kitty pencil case, then dehn-jahng is your dark, moody older brother rotting away in teenage angst. “Fermented” and “paste” are hardly food words, and used together, could only conjure images of a 14 year old bottle of Elmer’s forgotten at the bottom of your desk. And decaying glue probably doesn’t smell anything like sweaty fungus feet the way dehn-jahng does. But as much as it smells like feet, dehn-jahng tastes delicious. I don’t think I’d lick clean a tablespoon of dehn-jahng right out of the jar (in Korean markets, it comes in jars or plastic packages), but added to soups, jji-gaes, bahn-chans and other Korean condiments, it adds a lot flavor. Dehn-jahng adds richness, body and character. You know, whatever those annoying cliche foodie terms are for making food taste focking great.

Sagan’s dehn-jahng jjigae was only what would be expected for “suh-biss,” just okay. It came to the table burgling (a deliciouslife contraction for bubbling and gurgling) in the characteristic dark, glazed clay pot. The dehn-jahng was potent enough that I could actually sense it over my rakkyo breath. But as strong as the smell was, the thin broth lacked any real dehn-jahng flavor, and had only a few tiny pieces of tofu, a couple of clam shells (for I have no clue where the actual clams went), and some obligatory zucchini. Disappointing, but again, it was suh-biss so I was okay with it.

I have a mind to make my own dehn-jahng jjigae now, which would be about number 74 in a growing list of things to do in my personal kitchen stadium. I think soon doo-boo is somewhere up in the 30s, and hae-mool pah-jun is definitely in the Urgent Ten. That got bumped up after a miserable experience with “hae-mool” pah-jun at Chosun Galbee. In quotes because it was imitation krab. I know. Can you believe that?

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  • Helen (AugustusGloop)

    Great descriptions of all of these Korean delicacies. It’s so nice to have some authentic inside knowledge into culinary affairs.

    As for the photo-poopers, aw shucks, I think we’ve all faced that wall of exasperated familial derision =) I’ve got most of ’em trained. I’ve worked out you can usually get at least 6 seconds of frantic snapping before you get poked in the eye with an impatient chopstick!

  • sarah j. gim

    lol! i wish, but they get all bristly if they even catch sight of my camera. i don’t think it’s the fact that they have to wait to eat; rather that they are embarassed and wonder if the restaurant will politely ask us to leave! lol!

  • Christian

    Based on your reviews of Sagan, my co-worker and I, visiting back east, decided to make our first ever foray into Korean food. I have to admit that even with your accolades, I was still pleasantly surprised. In Boston, where I am from, Korean food is a relatively frightening affair (especially being a recovering vegetarian) with tail of this, tongue of that, entrails and tribulations. The staff was gracious and understanding of our lack of experience (and probably poor table manners), explained what each bahn-chan was and were careful to double check that I could handle the spicy chicken (which wasn’t terribly spicy despite their warning).

    For less than $20 each (not including drinks) we had more food than you could shake a stick at. I will definitely be looking for Korean BBQ next time I am in LA or Asia. Thanks for the fantastic review.

  • sarah

    christian: *phew* so glad you didn’t hate it! when you DO come to la, you MUST MUST MUST let me know!

    um not sure why you must let me know, but…YOU MUST! :)

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