Haemul Pajeon - Korean Seafood and Spring Onion Pancakes
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
"In a Pyongyang restaurant, don't ever ask for a doggie bag.”
Christopher Hitchens (2004)
It was Shrove Tuesday, or "pancake day" as it's affectionately known in the UK, this week. And I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity of getting a seafood pancake out there now, was I?
My brother brought my attention to the fact that the Koreans are very fond of a seafood pancake and as soon as I had looked them up it was clear this was the dish I was after! Needless to say I was immediately in touch with Korean pal and fellow seafoodie, In-Chan Kim, who I first got to know in the queue for the fish stall at the farmers' market. With a recipe from Korean Bapsang in hand and some expert guidance from In-Chan, for which I am very indebted, these pancakes have turned out to be the most exciting thing I've eaten so far in 2021.
If I have understood correctly, the word jeon refers to a food battered and fried. The word pa means what we call in the UK, spring onion, and there are a variety of both jeon and pajeon enjoyed in Korea, of which a particularly popular example is one made with (various) seafood, or haemul. Choices typically include mussels, prawns, squid, oysters and clams but could quite viably have cuttlefish, cockles, scallops and razor clams added to the list from the extensive UK seafood larder.
The happy coincidence is that February, in which pancake day has fallen this year, is a month when both squid and mussels are coming ashore (weather permitting, yawn) in tip-top condition. Add to it that we have outstanding king prawns now cultivated year-round in the UK by Great British Prawns and FloGro Fresh and we have everything we need to enjoy this sensational Korean seafood dish with our native seafood at this time of year.
With our Dorset clam fishery now closed until the end of May, I considered including clams as inappropriate for the time being, tempted as I would be to try them in the mix. But oysters are available to us throughout the year and I believe that Koreans would enjoy a jeon or pajeon made exclusively with oysters. I'm always on the lookout for interesting and respectful ways to enjoy cooked oysters and believe me I will be trying this sometime soon!
And as I questioned whether I really was pushing the definition of pancake a bit too far for Pancake Day I just stopped and thought about the batter. Well, it's just flour and water with a bit of whisked egg added a touch later. The battered food is cooked in a frying pan, so I did satisfy myself that this was not stretching the definition particularly far at all! That said, I'm quite certain I'll be making these again a number of times before next Pancake Day!
I believe I'm right in saying that it would be more typical for pancakes like these to be made in Korea using a shop-bought pre-made mix of flour and flavourings. In fact, reading through the article by Korean Bapsang and with In-Chan's guidance (plus a look at the ingredients list of a widely available Korean pancake mix) it was a very straightforward matter to come up with a home-made batter mix that was effective, authentic and delicious. It's just a 3:1 ratio of plain flour to cornflour with a bit of seasoning from salt, white pepper and garlic powder (or granules). The garlic flavour could be achieved alternatively by adding a little minced garlic to the seafood while it marinates in the sesame oil.
The quantities and the variety of seafood are not strictly prescribed. And much like any pancake of this type, the thickness and texture is going to differ as quantities are changed, as will they with the width of the pan. What I have proposed below was tested several times and was pleasing each time using a frying pan that would result in a pancake of 7-8" in diameter.
The seafood wants to be in bite-sized pieces - smaller than bite-sized, I'd say. The key is to have the seafood cut in such a way as they all cook through in the 6 or so minutes that the whole dish takes to cook. So for the squid it's just a matter of slicing it up as such. The prawns can be halved lengthways or cut crossways into 3 or 4 pieces. If you're deft enough to remove mussels from the shell raw then all to the good. Otherwise, I suggest steaming them open in a saucepan with a scant amount of water for only long enough that they open but are not yet cooked. Once they are cool enough to handle, removing the meats is very easy.
When it comes to the dipping sauce, Gochugaru is something of a speciality ingredient and one I only very recently came to know of. Although it is now one of my favourite spicings or seasonings, not having it is not a reason to not make this recipe. For one, its more widely-available relative Gochujang could be used instead (I have seen recipes [not Korean ones, mind!] that suggest its use) - a half-teaspoon or so should work fine. Alternatively, a pinch of chilli powder, cayenne pepper or chilli flakes would be quite fitting, but in the end so would some finely chopped fresh chilli, red or green. The essence of the dipping sauce is that it be salty, sour, sweet and spicy. In-Chan was quite insistent that some sugar in the sauce was not a question of choice and, although the first flavour I often try to reduce in my food is the sweet, I now would absolutely not consider omitting it. The essential sourness comes from rice wine vinegar which, although now widely available, could be replaced if necessary with white wine vinegar. And finally, and again following In-Chan's guidance, some sliced or chopped spring onion in the mix is a definite must.
These pancakes need to be flipped, but I have found they look best if they're served with the side cooked second, face up - in other words, they need to be flipped a second time. I've seen videos of chefs flipping them artfully and skilfully, but not this chef! The old trick of covering the pan with a large plate and flipping onto that and then sliding the pancake back to the pan is a much safer option. It also has the advantage of removing a little excess oil as these pancakes are classically a touch on the greasy side. I've tried to bring the amount of oil used down to a minimum, but a dab with some kitchen paper at the end will do no harm if a bit more oil would rather be removed.
The length of the ingredients list belies how simple these are to make! As it stands this recipe will make a pancake that will feed 2-3 as a starter or snack but can easily be eaten by one as a meal in itself. It also happens to be one of those recipes where making larger quantities is just a matter of multiplying everything up. But the more people you make it for, you just end up with the same old challenge that you face with any pancakes: you never all get to eat them at the same time!
Haemul Pajeon - Korean Seafood and Spring Onion Pancakes
Ingredients (Serves 2-3 as a starter but can be eaten by 1 as a meal in itself)
60-70g squid, cut into 2 cm pieces
60-70g prawns, shell removed and deveined, sliced lengthways or cut into 2 cm pieces
60-70g mussels (cooked, see recipe intro), out of the shell, halved if large
1 tbsp sesame oil
3-4 spring onions, halved crossways, split lengthways if thick (approx 40g)
1 red chilli, thinly sliced (or quantity to taste)
2 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
For the batter:
45g plain flour
¼ tsp garlic powder (or granules)
¼ tsp salt
⅛ tsp ground white pepper
90ml ice-cold water (plus a little extra in case of adjustment)
½ lightly whisked egg
For the dipping sauce:
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp water
½ tsp caster sugar
Big pinch gochugaru, or chilli-pepper alternative, see recipe intro
Pinch of black (or white) pepper
1 tbsp finely sliced or chopped spring onion
(Optional) For the garnish (pancakes and/or dipping sauce):
Sliced or chopped red and/or green chilli
Sliced or chopped spring onion
Put the seafood in a bowl and coat with the sesame oil. Set aside for a few minutes to marinate.
To make the dipping sauce simply combine all the ingredients in a bowl. The spring onions may alternatively be added at the last minute to retain their raw, fresh flavour.
In a mixing bowl combine the two flours, salt, pepper and the garlic powder (or granules). Whisk in the ice-cold water, adding a little extra if necessary to achieve a consistency similar to that of double cream. Stir in the marinated seafood and the sliced red chilli if using.
Heat 1 tbsp of the sunflower or vegetable oil in a frying pan. Pour in half of the seafood/batter mix, arrange the spring onion pieces decoratively in the pan then pour over the remaining seafood/batter mix. Drizzle the (half) whisked egg evenly over the top and leave to cook for about 3-4 mins until the edges are clearly crisping. Flip the pancake (using a large plate is easiest!) then pour the remaining 1 tbsp oil around the perimeter of the pan and continue to cook for a further 3-4 mins to achieve a fully crisp edge and a slightly soft centre.
Flip the pancake again, transfer to a board and drain any excess oil if preferred. The pancake doesn't have to be sliced but it can be, and then it is ready to serve with a garnish (optional) and the dipping sauce.