On Saturday, November 27th, I made the majority of a Thanksgiving dinner for all the foreigners Chris and I thought might like to come, and invited some Koreans as well. How many almost doesn’t matter, though I think there were about 35 people there at the peak.
The part of the menu I worked on was pretty traditional: Turkey, bread and walnut stuffing, gravy, roasted red bell pepper dip, and blueberry relish. Well, ok, blueberry relish isn’t exactly tradition. But it’s in the mix because when you’re trying to make the Thanksgiving classics outside of the US, it can be challenging to find all the traditional stuff. I don’t know about the rest of Asia, but S. Korea doesn’t make it easy.
First, what else, the turkey. While Koreans eat all manner of flying, crawling, walking, and swimming beasts, turkeys aren’t one of them. Chris, soon to be leaving Korean (and returning in the Spring) came up with the idea for the dinner, and since he knows I used to cook professionally and still like to cook, he asked me if I wanted to do something. Why yes, that’s a dandy idea!
Fortunately he has a Costco membership. There are seven (!!) locations in S. Korea, and we took a couple buses to the very popular (re: extremely crowded) Yang-jae location. It was a lot like any of US locations, except for the cool shopping-cart escalators and stuff like squid and shrimp pizza and 40 pound tubs of Korean chili paste (go-chu-jang). In the meat department, the frozen turkeys weren’t easy to find, and there’s wasn’t a dazzling array of them: One brand, maybe six birds total. I snatched one, and at least the most difficult ingredient to source was out of the way.
Of course, I only picked up a turkey because I had an oven that could actually fit a bird of that size. A toaster oven is the most that you see here, there’s just not a lot of use for a full-sized Western-style oven. Ovens, outside of restaurants, are uncommon in the Far East, since the cuisine doesn’t require them. And it takes a lot of energy/fuel to heat a larger oven. It’s almost a chicken-or-the-egg sort of question, but my money is on fuel/energy use as a major reason for the cuisine’s obvious lack of baked foods.
Let me correct myself, one of the foreign teachers told us they had a “real” oven we could use for the Thanksgiving meal, but neither Chris nor I got a look at it until I picked it up on the Wednesday night before the dinner, which was on Saturday evening.
I held back tears when I saw the oven. It was a glorified toaster oven. And to really improve on the situation, I blew a fuse (I’m hoping) or something when I turned it on for the first time. Nice.
Luckily I could roast the almonds for the chocolate almond buttercrunch toffee in my toaster oven, albeit in a few batches given the size. But I would have to cut the turkey into teeny, tiny little pieces and roast it in 30 batches to cook it all. Not a good plan.
So, Korean friends to the rescue! I contacted Julie, who has quite a large apartment on the Dongtan/Byeongjeom border, and who showed me how to cook some Korean dishes a couple of weeks ago. I’d been over to her and her boyfriend’s place a few times, but I don’t specifically remember seeing an oven. Her kitchen is large and, being from the US, I just assumed a kitchen of that size would have an oven, of course! Nope, but her friend Hye-shin, who I’d met, did. Or more accurately, her mother did, and she, her husband, and their son lived with her mother. Her parents were going to be out of town on the 27th, the day of the dinner, so I had free reign in the kitchen. To guard against any major last-minute surprises, I asked her to measure the oven and tell me how big it was. It was big enough to fit the roasting pan I bought for the occasion. Yipee! I was breathing again.
It was critical that I break down the turkey for a couple of reasons, the two biggest being it was too damn tall and would take too long to bake, probably 3-4 hours. Cooking a broken-down turkey takes about 1 1/2 hours. Thankfully, it was pretty easy to break down. While I’m less squeamish than most when it comes to handling raw meat, it was still a slightly gruesome task, replete with lots of blood, cracking bones, cold, raw meat, and cutting stringy turkey skin. Yum. Generally people love eating meat, but they don’t want to prepare it or know how it was prepared before cooking it. Actually, that’s not at all accurate. Koreans, and I’m sure people from many other countries, are very realistic about what it takes to take meat from a live animal to a cooked (or uncooked) dish. It’s Westerners, and maybe Americans in particular, which are so disconnected from the source of their food. This is a common theme in the American eating mentality. But that’s a good subject for another post.
Obviously, after being broken down, the bird doesn’t take up a lot of space vertically, but horizontally, uh, yeah, a lot more. In fact it filled not only my roasting pan plus a half-pan (a large cookie sheet). The nice oven that I was going to use wasn’t big enough for both pans, so I choose to bake the breasts first since they had the most meat and I could hold off the hungry hoards with them while baking the legs and thighs. Or that was my plan. I’d have to figure out something as I went along.
Because Hye-shin looked at me after the breasts had been in her mother’s oven for about an hour and said, “I don’t think you will get the rest of the turkey done.” She was just saying what I was thinking, and reading the worried expression on my face every time I checked the turkey in the oven, which I needed to free up as soon as possible, and poked the nicely butter-and-spice rubbed turkey legs and thighs that were not-so-patiently waiting in the half pan on the kitchen table.
I neglected to mention that Matthew, my Korean brother (not really, but really) was over the night I blew the borrowed oven. He works a few different jobs, primarily as a guitar repairman, but also as a fast-food delivery driver. And by driver, I mean, scooter driver, I haven’t seen food delivered any other way in Korea. It’s done at top speed with zero regard for anyone’s safety or for any traffic laws. Anyway, one of his most recent delivery gigs was for a chicken place that baked their birdie parts, and he told me that maybe he could ask them to roast my almonds. Since my almonds were roasted and nestled in the toffee, my panicked brain darted around for solutions, and latched onto Matthew’s oven offer. So I called him. He was working, but he agreed and ran over to Hye-shin’s apartment to pick up the legs and thighs.
He comes zooming up on his delivery scooter (his other scooter is a real motorcycle), grabs my bird, grabs a smoke, and zooms off after I tell him that I’ll stop by the chicken place in about 45 minutes, with my instant read electronic thermometer of course, to check on it. Matthew to the rescue! Again! (He’s worth at least a few posts.)
Feeling a lot better, I got back inside to check on the parts of the bird that were in the oven and to start getting ready to move out since all the sides were done by this point. We were snacking a bit on the candy, I have to admit, but there was over 2 pounds of it and we were showing remarkable restraint.
The turkey was finally done, I covered it with foil and we headed out the door. Young-ho, Hye-shin’s husband, pulled the car around. All 5 of us (the Kims, their two sons, Julie, and me) piled most of the food in the trunk and I sat with the very warm turkey on my lap for the short ride.
If you’ve done much catering, and I’ve done just a little (I’m not being modest, truly less than a dozen times I think), this type of craziness isn’t all that unusual, especially when you’re a beginner like I am. Even the pros expect the unexpected. And to use the cliché, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Same goes for working in a professional kitchen. Which I have a little more experience with, but not years and years, maybe just a few years.
The work was worth it. Everyone loved everything and were very grateful that Chris and I had gone to the trouble to put it all together, offer his apartment as the location, offer his 10 gallons of hard cider, and make the food. If turkey in any form was easy to find in Korea, they wouldn’t have gushed so much. But what we did, from buying the turkey to roasting it, was a big thing, and I was happy to bring Thanksgiving to some of my friends, and to their friends. I was grateful everyone enjoyed themselves and everything turned out so well.
Remind me to do a non-traditional Thanksgiving next year unless I have guaranteed access to couple of honkin’-big fryers. If so, bring on the bird!
Peace and mashed potatoes!