Forkways #8: Momo Fuk What?
Umami is the new black. In the culinary world funk is foodie gold. Those interested in the lifestyle of food desire the most intense version of any substance. Stephanie Danler talks about this experience in foodservice as an adrenalized lifestyle. Since I have started studying food I have heard these sentiments reflected in foodies, chefs, and waitstaff.
Danler writes in her novel, Sweetbitter:
“You will encounter a fifth taste. Umami: uni, or sea urchin, anchovies, Parmesan, dry-aged beef with a casing of mold. It’s glutamate. Nothing is a mystery anymore. They make MSG to mimic it. It’s the taste of ripeness that’s about to ferment. Initially, it serves as a warning. But after a familiarity develops, after you learn its name, that precipice of rot becomes the only flavor worth pursuing, the only line worth testing” (44).
Umami, fermentation, and funk are about the intensity of food experiences. You may be wondering why I am bringing this up now, and I am not going to answer this quite yet.
A new restaurant experience can have several factors in play. For me Eating David Chang's food was a pivotal moment. It is a balance of hype, expectation, and reality. Food has had many iterations and layers for me over the years. But David Chang was one of several gateways. The way he talks about food is addictive and I was sipping his Kool Aid. In that moment Momofuku could never be more than a pipe dream.
The Food at Momofuku was as intense as promised but not as enjoyable as expected. The flavors of Korean food are couched in spice, ferment, and funk. Chili, garlic, and pickle are the icons of Korean ingredients. The reality of these culinary aspects proved to be a challenge for me. This was actually a known entity when we were waiting at the bar for our table. But there was this other element sneaking around the corner, making different assurances of my experience. Embodied by one single word, it is a terminology that had haunted many of my culinary exploits. Fusion.
Fusion comes with a promise.
How will the funk of Korean be transformed by blending it with other types of food? My reality confirms that it won't be. The ingredients and techniques might not always be tradition but the Korean spirit will always remain intensely in the forefront. Because when you fuse tradition cuisine with something else, what is the goal?
Pickled vegetables were plucked up happily with chopsticks while a woman at the table next to us talked too loudly. She felt too close and was encroaching on an experience we had been pining for. She kept saying, "but the smoke. So much smoke. Too much smoke." She was talking about ramen that quite possibly created my obsession with coming to this restaurant. I had not tasted it yet, but it was all I could not to roll my eyes at her lack of respect for this reverent experience.
A few dishes later, my own ramen arrived. Meant to be a culminating experience of expectation. But after a single sip I found myself sputtering in disgust. Either one of two things had happened. This broth was not made correctly, or the intensity of the experience was too much for me and I would have to turn in my foodie card.
Excluding the smokeception that was ramen broth, a fact Chang is very proud of, the food was delicious. But the reverence I had been holding for the experience started to evaporate with the understanding that the establishment was not about the savor or the slow. We were in a money producing churn and burn. The women was talking too loud because she was sitting much too close. Intimacy was never the goal of the establishment. No matter how slowly we went and how many dishes we ordered we were done in forty minutes. The model is based on creating food good enough to keep every table filled hour after hour. And it was good. It was funky. And it was intense.
Momofuku is not now nor has it ever been about reverence. The seeds of which were first planted for me by David Chang himself during the first season of the PBS show The Mind of a Chef.
We ate with chopsticks the entire meal, though our waitress offered additional utensils on more than one occasion.
Pickled Vegetables - cauliflower, lotus root, pear, carrots, radish, and cucumber.
Togarashi cucumbers with marcona almonds
Chicken Karaage Bun
Spicy Sichuan Rice Cakes
Sweet and Sour Long Beans
The heat built through the entire meal and there was very little that decreased that for me. Yet another level of intensity I was not prepared for. Traditional banchan was transformed by Chang into composed dishes.