Friday, July 6, 2012

Garlic Saturated Marketplace

Trucks transporting garlic bulbs, marketplaces spilling over with garlic bulbs tied in huge sachets, garlic bulbs being deskinned by ajummas in the subway, or to be laid in doorways to dry in the sun or even tied up in clumps to dry under eaves ... garlic everywhere! Ah, the garlic harvesting season has arrived, and with it the air made pungent with fresh earth clods and garlic vapors. I love it! People back stateside just don't understand the importance of using garlic to flavor food, and so back ages ago when I got off the plane my first time in Korea and my first meal was filled with aromatic garlic and flavored with salt instead of sugar, I knew I was "home"!

Back then (in the early 1990s), garlic was sold by the bulbs in the marketplace. In the intervening years, garlic came to be sold skinned in the marketplace or stores (as stores grew in size and gained popularity for selling produce) and then later it was sold freshly pressed in the stores. A machine would press the garlic in front of housewives and then huge spoonfuls would be ladled in a plastic bag and weighed. At first this was a luxury and looked down upon as the garlic wasn't considered it's freshest or most pungent when cooking, but gradually the concept of buying freshly minced garlic in the stores caught on. Now, the store garlic presses are long gone and many companies package different sizes of plastic cartons of "fresh" pressed garlic. It's really not so "fresh" as frequently it's already turning yellow which means its aged and been exposed to oxygen for a period of time. Call me old-fashioned but the food value in this oxidized garlic has been lowered through shelf life and so I buy my garlic peeled but without the skin broken. Formerly, even the peeled garlic looked great but now there are often pits and wrinkles in the garlic testifying also to some shelf life. Korea certainly is not the agricultural society it once was, but short of me taking up a hoe and growing my own, I, like the other "city folks", depend on the less than fresh garlic and produce to be sold in large supermarkets.

Anyway, the new garlic apparatus I've seen this year (it might have been in existence before, I just didn't know about it) is an automatic trimmer. One person feeds uprooted garlic stalks through a machine and the stalk gets chopped away and separated from the bulb which is shot out the side for another person to bag for marketing ... or perhaps for further processing. This is incredibly efficient in a country that "wolfs down" garlic in kimchis, stews, with meats and sauces, as bases for noodles and broths, and you name it. The apparatus very much reminded me of our American-made old-fashioned hand-cranked corn shucker and separator. The concepts of separating the refuse from the food product is practically identical, and both so cultural important as American is a corn-based society and Korea a garlic-based one. Yeah, I think it's fair to call garlic as one of Korea's staple foods as it certainly falls in one of the top 10 foods that Koreans are most likely to purchase when making a meal.

And then of course when so many garlic bulbs are filling the markets, there are garlic stems in huge bundles and cheaply sold too. The air-conditioned green grocery shelves are well laden with stems and so of course they surface quite frequently in side-dishes in restaurants particularly at this time of year. Lightly stir-fried these lose their pungency and take on a sweetish flavor. Many Koreans cut the stalks into small segments and stir-fry them with seafood or anchovies.

They're a very common side dish at this time of year ... and seriously need to be introduced as a food staple likewise in the states. While visiting my parents last summer, I wanted to make a side dish with the garlic stems but unfortunately the US is lacking in this department. I got lucky however when my brother spotted a wad of them in a Vietnamese store. I had actually overlooked them because Vietnamese garlic stems are triangular and look more fragile. No matter. They still have a rich pungency that appeals ... and when I made a chili with them once and a side-dish another time, my family became "sold" on having these pungent stems as part of their vegetarian meals too!

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