Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Think Kit #3: I Yam What I Yam

(part of SmallBox's Think Kit project. ya can view it here, too.)

I don’t have a long history with sweet potatoes or yams, beyond the almost-runny, traffic cone orange Thanksgiving casserole that was (absurdly) topped with marshmallows, nuts, and maybe even brown sugar, just to make sure that any sweetness left in the potato was cloyed out of existence. Though, I did start eating them in other ways after turning vegetarian, diced and roasted, occasionally baked, shredded up in various ways.

To be clear, a sweet potato is different than a yam. Duh. A sweet potato is a root vegetable, while a yam is an “herbaceous vine” that produces edible tubers. Tubular.

This all doesn’t seem very strange, but don’t worry. On a recent sojourn in Chicago, we were looking for some unique eats. My friend Andrew shared a Vice video with me, wherein they follow star chef (and seemingly, low-key cool dude) Paul Kahan around town for some “munchies.” The crew stopped at a Korean BBQ joint, Kalbi.

Grilled meats at your own table? Decision made.

In the video, Kahan greedily consumes one of the least appetizing dishes I’d ever witnessed. A raw-beef dish with minimal garnish, served with a near-liquid goo that piled at the bottom of a shallow bowl.

MAH-DUPPI-YUKHWE–seasoned raw beef with mountain yam.

I’ve eaten raw beef before, spread thin over bread in a Belgian pate; ground coarse as tartare with a quail yolk nestled gently in its meaty nest; sliced thin as an envelope, drizzled in herbed olive oil. But never ground and submerged in a substance that, in the nicest possible way, looks like snot. I won’t even share a photo–check out the above link if you need convinced. After the video, Andrew was convinced he would order and consume Mah-Duppi-Yukhwe.

Here, the mountain yam looks innocent and potato-like.
Do not be deceived.

While waiting for a booth with a grilling apparatus, the small restaurant filled with meaty smoke that half-obscured the entryway filled with autographed baseballs and photos depicting some of Asia’s best stars in Major League Baseball: Ichiro, Matsui, and more. This seemed a good sign.

After choosing our meats to be grilled (some regular cuts, some organs) and dumplings, Andrew ordered the mountain yam dish. The owner laughed and insisted we try something else, “No,” she said, “that’s not the one you want.”

Andrew gracefully handled her refusal and impressed our wishes, “No, we really want the mountain yam dish.”

“Okay…” she said, trailing off, “but most people do not want.” She was off to the kitchen, and returned a few minutes later with the dish, gleaming with yam goo, fatty raw beef, and a sprinkle of julienned seaweed. Chopsticks in hand, we dished out a small heap onto each small plate, and began the trickiest part–transporting a slippery, gelatinous mass into your mouth.

The taste was completely unique–the fattiness of the meat and gentle, oily marinade playing off the earthy, smokily-sweet yam and salty seaweed. The overall effect was bracing–a heightened sense of umami and surprise.

The owner returned with our raw meats to grill, and many small bowls of banchan (traditional side dishes). She observed our empty bowl and asked, “What did you think?”

Andrew replied, “It was very good! We enjoyed it!”

She smiled, asking, “Very good! Are you chefs?”

“No,” Andrew considered, “just some weird guys.”


  1. Perfect for "Strange" day! I consider myself a foodie (blood sausage, fish eyes, problem) but something about raw beef turns my stomach (I recognize this as odd, but chalk it up to vegetarian roots). I was afraid to even click on the video! Fun article! :)

    1. Thanks, Renia!
      As a former vegetarian (of 6 yrs), I can definitely relate! I had to get over the texture before anything else though, and it's more a special occasion than something I seek out...definitely was one of those "close your eyes" foods the first couple times I ate it. Now it's a little easier :)
      I had the opportunity to eat fish eyes on Thanksgiving and I couldn't do it!