A Pancake Named Desire
“Like most humans, I am hungry... our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it...” ― M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
When I contemplate the potato pancake, memories of my grandmother’s kitchen come to mind. I recall spoonfuls of sour cream and applesauce, and those golden pancakes made of shredded potatoes. But the latke, the beloved potato pancake, has other relatives. The Chinese make pancakes called yu bing, and also mu shu. The Irish call them boxty. Eastern European cultures of Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, and Belarus have their own names for the tasty pancakes. The Germans call it kartoffelpuffer. My Ashkenazi Jewish heritage know them as latkes. In the Korean culture, the savory pancakes are called jyun or jeon, which are made with different ingredients, such as meat, seafood and vegetables, coated in a flour and egg batter then pan-fried. The first time I experienced pajeon (pa is scallion or green onion and jeon is the pancake) was memorable.
As I mix up the pancake batter, I recall that late afternoon turning to evening. So many years have passed and I still can feel that moment as my cast iron pan heats up. I was exhausted, hungry and the rain made me feel a little blue. Hunger began to make me weak and magnified my worries. My chest and shoulders felt weighted from the demands of my day; driving in the city traffic, getting children from one place to another, minding my baby daughter and the sinking need for a night of sleep. I had forgotten what it was to be just myself, as a woman, not encumbered by schedules, errands, and mundane tasks. I sought comfort in food. So I went to a friend’s restaurant to eat, and although it remained unrequited physically, the love affair between the head chef and I was expressed through the language of food.
The memory returns to me as I make these pancakes in my small kitchen. I followed a recipe that didn’t come from a Korean kitchen, because those recipes don't exist in cookbooks, but in the minds of the mothers that make them to feed their children and families, from the wives that make them for their husbands. They are made with the comforting love that nurtures, how hunger and answering the desire are the same in food as it is in love. All of the many recipes to answer the desire to be fulfilled.
Desire. The aroma of sesame oil rising in the hot pan. Hunger for food and love. The way making these pancakes brought me back to this story, listening to the rain outside at night, I think about how the desire for comfort creates an emulsion of emotions that have no descriptive words. I am seeking a recipe for something that has no true name-- it has many names and stories by many people. It’s the simple thing, the kind of food that has so many interpretations, but one central ingredient. That ingredient is the feeling it gives us.
My grandmother knows how to make latkes. It’s not gourmet or complicated. She just knows how to make them. I'm sure her mother taught her. It is peasant food, nourishing, made from earthy things like potatoes and flour, egg to bind, fried in a pan. I didn’t expect the comfort of a pancake to come from desire, from the handsome Korean chef that caught my eye, who answered my hunger. As I make my own pajeon, I remember that night.
I pushed the glass door open, the rain droplets on the window dappled the neon sushi sign into rainbows. The dining room was empty and dark, but at the very back of the restaurant, through the rectangle of light, I could see that he was working in the kitchen. I recognized the long, fluid shape of his tall body, dressed in an indigo blue yukata, his head wrapped in the same color fabric as his uniform, covering the thick of his inky black hair. He looked up at me and his face blossomed with delight. As the bright clatter of dishes rang from the kitchen, sentences of desire ran between us. I could hear that desire rise through the laughter of the dishwasher, above the torrent of rain on the roof, and it came down upon me, this feeling, when his eyes smiled at me and I inhaled the scent of sesame oil mingling with all the aromas of the kitchen.
“Are you hungry?” he asked gently. He had come out from the kitchen to greet me at the little café table, his face smooth and open, looking into my eyes.
“Yes,” I answered feebly. “I haven’t eaten all day.”
“I know just what to make you,” he said, heading back to the stove. The waitress brought ice water with lemon wedges, and later came back to my table with a teapot full of hot green tea. She swirled some into an open teacup and went back to her conversation with the bartender.
I knew he was making something special, which gave me a sense of girlish anticipation that I hadn’t felt since I was fourteen years old, when a boy had intentions of kissing me. As I peered through the open window, I saw him cooking something at the stove.
There was the thrumming sound of a whisk and bowl. The sound of something sizzling in a pan. The smell of sesame oil.
The language of food was our love affair. On other nights he had made me servings of albacore in ponzu with scallions, hamachi, maguro, and toro, little “bouquets” of slivered ebi with spicy daikon sprouts as “flowers” tied with a thin strip of nori. All of his creations were delicate and flavorful, sensuous, as I imagined tasting his kiss might be. But I only imagined. I was certain desire came through his fingertips and by some alchemy, he transformed longing into sustenance. When I tasted his food, it was as if he entered my body through some magical ability. I felt him, with a slow taste, each bite bringing me closer to euphoria. I savored a mouthful while watching him prepare other orders. Occasionally he glanced up and gave a tender look.
As he served me the hot plate of pajeon pancakes, I knew what desire tasted like. These pancakes were thin and crispy, like crepes, lacy with green scallions. He placed a small dish of sauce down next to the plate of what he called pajeon, the Korean name for scallion pancakes. I must have sighed audibly because when he saw my happiness it pleased him. So he sat with me at my table, watching me eat those delicious pancakes with the lusty abandon of a woman in the throes of passion. The grease from the fried pancake was light and gave it a golden hue. Fragrant with promise, the scallions were cooked just until plump. I dipped them in the ginger sesame sauce with such relish. He watched me eat, amused. My eyes sparkled, my body was satiated. Because of that moment, for me, pajeon is synonymous with desire, with comfort, and that deep satisfaction of an answered belly.
As I left, the warm scent of sesame oil clung to my clothes. Whenever I smell sesame, I remember those scallion pajeon pancakes with ginger sauce, the sound of rain, and a moment when we were, for that moment, lovers through food alone.
Korean Pajeon Pancakes
There are many variations for pajeon or scallion pancakes. You can add other ingredients to your scallion pancake, such as carrots, potatoes, thinly sliced shiitake and grated zucchini. I find that these pancakes are the Korean version of potato latkes.
A non-stick skillet or cast iron works best. Add a plentiful amount of oil to prevent the pancake from sticking, and use moderately high heat to create a golden crust. Temper your heat now and then so as not to burn your pancakes. A wide spatula works best for flipping.
Here is an adapted recipe by David Leibovitz. I’d trust a man named Leibovitz to make a good Korean latke. The recipe calls for all-purpose flour but I used buckwheat pancake mix. I also used milk instead of water, two eggs instead of one, and I added grated carrot and potato, and sliced shiitake mushrooms. You could just make them with scallions. When I made each pancake (you can make them individually or make one large pan sized pancake to cut into wedges) I topped them with the scallions last. I liked how the scallions blackened a little in the pan when frying.
1/2 cup (70g) all-purpose flour (or buckwheat pancake mix)
1/2 cup (125ml) ice-cold water (or milk)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large or extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 bunch of scallions, chopped
a spoonful of soy sauce
vegetable oil (or sesame oil) for frying
optional additions: grated carrots, grated potatoes and sliced shiitake
serve with sour cream and garnish with long scallion greens
1. Stir together the flour (or buckwheat), beaten eggs, water (or milk) and salt until just mixed.
2. Chop the green parts of the scallions into 3-inch (10cm) lengths. Reserve the white parts for another use.
3. Heat a thin layer of oil in a 9 or 10-inch (23-26cm) skillet until hot.
Fry the scallions until they are lightly cooked through and soft. Add a touch of soy sauce to the pan when they’re almost done to season the scallions.
4. If using other ingredients, add them now, then toss a few times to heat them through. Mix ingredients into the pancake batter or add them to the top of your pancake while cooking in the pan.
5. Using a wide spatula, flip the pancakes and cook for another minute or two until set and crispy at the edges.
6. Serve hot or warm (with sour cream for more of a latke taste) and/or a dipping sauce of your choice. I recommend a ginger sesame sauce or a spicy chili gochujang.