In this edition of Global Gourmet I speak to Ijlaal Mohamed Cassiem from Cape Town, South Africa. Ijlaal and her husband and their baby are now living South Korea.
Tell me a bit about how you came to live abroad.
I used to work in corporate finance before. It didn’t take me long to discover that the cutthroat, bureaucratic, under-the-bus-throwing world of corporate finance was not for me. I was working an okay job, earning an okay salary but I was very unhappy. The idea of working abroad was very appealing to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, because I could earn substantially more than I could back home. Secondly, my living expenses were cut down to basically just my utilities and groceries because accommodation and furniture is provided.
The first two years were tax free and after that the tax deduction is negligible really. I think I pay just over one percent. No, I kid you not. This obviously means that I am able to save much more than I could even dream of back home. Lastly, and this is probably going to paint me as an entirely lazy creature but what the hell, the ease. Life is very easy here. Most days I start at 9am and I’m finished by 12:30pm. Lots of vacation time, opportunities to travel the world etc.
South Africa is a melting pot of cultures which means the food is as diverse as the people. Which South African dishes did you grow up eating and is it still part of your meal plan now?
My mother is Cape Malay and my dad half Indian and half Afghan so I grew up eating a lot of bredies, curries, boboties, sweet rice and of course braai, lots and lots of braai. I think I miss the braai the most because living in South Korea, as you’d imagine, is not very easy for Muslims with their religious dietary requirements. I’d say Korea is probably one of the worst countries to have any kind of dietary restriction. Because they’re such a homogeneous nation, everyone eats almost exactly the same stuff. One would expect that a country in which 50% of the population is Buddhist would have a bit of tolerance for vegetarians at least? Not the case. People look at me squint when I tell them I don’t eat meat (too difficult to explain the whole halal thing so i just act like I’m a vegetarian). So you can imagine how hard it is to find good halal meat here. I buy my meat from an online Muslim store that sells prepacked frozen meat shipped from Malaysia, Sri Lanka etc. Needless to say it’s not the greatest quality but its not awful. The reason I don’t braai is because I don’t get the good cuts like lamb chops and fillet steak etc. it’s all just chunks of lamb, and beef pieces etc and no braai is complete without a lekker chop. Another thing I miss is terribly is deli meats. Just the convenience of being able to go to the fridge and make myself a spiced beef sarmie. Oh I also make my own beef patties now. Best I’ve ever had if i do say so myself.
I cook every single day because there are no halal takeout options for us here unless we go to the big cities. I make a lot of things from scratch. I make my own garlic and ginger paste, my own pastry, rotis etc. I’ve even bought a spice grinder to make my own spice mixes for when my stock in the pantry is depleted or I don’t have a certain spice that’s really hard to come by here. Sometimes you can find the whole spice if you’re lucky. I try and make it as comfortable for us as possible here so that we don’t get homesick. Food plays a huge role in homesickness. People make life changing decisions based on their cravings for Nando’s and Spur.
What would you say is the best South Korean dish you’ve eaten? Describe the dish and what you love about it.
The thing is I’ve never really been able to eat proper Korean food because nearly everything is unhalal. So the best that I’ve had is by no means a representation of what Korea has on offer. I really love their dwaen-jang-jiggae which is soy bean soup (dwaen means soy, jang is paste and jiggae means soup), they also make a mean savoury pancake. My favourite one is pajeon (pa means green onion and jeon means pancake). But I think most foreigners would agree that Korean barbeque is out of this world. They barbeque inside the restaurant. Everyone sits on the floor around a table that is fitted with a barbeque and an extractor fan that hangs from the ceiling. They have tons of delicious veggie side dishes to accompany each meal. The most popular of course being kimchi- a side dish of fermented cabbage in a spicy hot pepper sauce eaten at every meal including breakfast.
What is your favourite South Korean dish to cook?
I love making pajeon because its easy and so delicious. I’ve also made dak-bokkeum-tang which is a spicy chicken stew and yang-nyeom chicken which is a crispy double fried chicken coated in a sticky sweet sauce. It was absolutely delicious. I make soybean soup at least once a week that’s how much I love it.
Have you tried any weird or unusual South Korean dishes and what did you think of it? (Would you recommend or did it make you gag?)
The weirdest thing I’ve eaten in Korea apart from kimchi is raw sea critters. Not the yummy kind I remember fondly from places like Sevruga and Beluga. The gross kind that will forever live on in my nightmares. I think most westerners prefer their sushi soft in texture and pretty dead. In Asia however, they seem to prefer their sushi chewy and wriggly. While I must admit I haven’t had the wriggly kind, I have been duped into eating a few of the gross chewy ones. It’s like eating a fishy tyre. It definitely made me gag. Lesson learned about telling Koreans that I love sushi.
Now for something weird that didn’t make me gag. In summer, Koreans eat a dessert called pat bin su which is a shaved ice dessert similar to a snow cone but just way more fancy. It’s perfectly normal here to get your dessert topped with tomatoes. At first I was like WTF?! But then I was like, meh, it is a fruit after all. Not gonna knock it before I’ve tried it. I was pleasantly surprised. So now I eat tomatoes as a dessert. I even like tomato juice which I wouldn’t even have touched with a ten foot pole before.
How do the eating habits of South Koreans you’ve encountered differ from the eating habits of South Africans you know?
Koreans eat a lot! Most foreigners are shocked at the amount of food in the trays at the cafeteria. They’re so tiny! Where does it all go? Granted, most of it are the obligatory healthy vegetable side dishes. This is the standard Korean meal at breakfast lunch and supper: rice, clear broth soup of some kind, protein and a few side dishes (kimchi is not negotiable). Koreans don’t eat a lot of junk. The restaurants here serve home-style food. Like us going to a restaurant and ordering tomato bredie or something like that.
What foods from South Africa do you miss and what do you miss the least?
I think I covered what I missed most in the second question. But if I have to say what I find myself craving the most is a “medium 523” from Simply Asia with linguine noodles and beef. That’s my go to comfort food and I never tire of it. My order is always the same. The thing I miss the least would probably be the stuff that I’m able to make here. So I don’t miss stuff like bredies and curries and milk tarts because I can make all of that here.
Have you cooked any South African dishes for your friends over there? What has been the most popular one?
I’ve cooked a number of dishes for my friends but I think the there are two that stand out above the rest if we’re talking about traditional South African dishes. Boeber and milk tart. They seemed to really enjoy those and were pleasantly surprised by the idea of adding pasta to milk.
Share a recipe of a South Korean dish you’ve mastered.
- 5 mushrooms (of your choice) sliced
- 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 knorr beef stock cubes
- 1.5 litres water from a recently boiled kettle
- 1 potato cubed
- 1 yellow onion cut into big chunks
- 1 korean pumpkin (zucchini like vegetable)
- 1 leek chopped (white and green parts)
- 2 green chillies
- 1 pack of firm tofu cubed
- half a cup of soy bean paste (or miso paste)
- 1 table spoon red pepper paste
- 1 tablespoon red pepper powder (paprika)
- Fry mushrooms and garlic in the sesame oil on high heat until mushrooms have browned - a lot.
- Add boiling water and stock cubes and potato.
- Cook for about 7 or 8 minutes until potatoes of half soft.
- Add Korean pumpkin or zucchini, yellow onion, soy bean/miso paste, red pepper paste and paprika.
- When veggies are nearly soft add leek, chillis and tofu.
- Simmer for another 2 minutes and serve with some nice crusty bread.
- This dish is traditionally made in a stoneware pot atop a one plate portable gas burner, so it simmers away at the dinner table while everyone is eating.
- When the broth is reduced and there's a lovely sticky mess of vegetables at the bottom, Koreans add rice to the pot at this stage and mix it through and enjoy the leftover veggie reduction this way.
- Absolutely delicious. Enjoy!