Films – Hail Caesar!

Last night I persuaded my reluctant husband to see Hail Caesar! on it’s all but last showing.  We had to go three towns over to catch a viewing. He dragged his heels, brandishing his phone and reporting that it had been seen by less that 24,000 people in Korea as evidence of it’s faults.

Hail Caesar! is a very silly film. In some respects it is the silly American cousin of Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian – there’s a board-meeting of spiritual leaders squabbling over how to appropriately depict the son of God on film, if indeed that’s what he is, and if you’re asking the Rabbi, then he’s not. There are many brassy winks to the beard-and-hairography of Hollywood Biblical epics, there’s even a Roman with a speech impediment.

It’s also the Cohen Brother’s affectionate tribute to the glory days of MGM, populated by a cast who are all enjoying themselves enormously, looking exactly as if they had wandered off a 1950s Hollywood set, not least CHANNING TATUM, who – to much delight – reveals himself as a proper triple threat. His singin’ dancin’ sailor routine is not only packed with gags but is genuinely awe-inspiring to watch, I could have happily rewound it and played the whole thing again, so too Scarlett Johansson’s brittle-grinning water ballet.

Meanwhile Alden Ehrenreich is loveable and authentic as hokey cowboy stunt actor, Hobey Doyle. Shot all squint and pout like James Dean, He gave the slightly bemused and very small Korean audience the biggest laughs of the film.

If you have a fondness for the golden age of cinema and don’t cringe at the idea of madcap, (firmly, this is a caper of the purest form), no doubt Hail Caesar! will bring you joy.

 

When you want to be body-positive but are a natural pessimist living in Korea

I am not, nor have I ever been a healthy person.

I hate exercise, all of my hobbies are sedentary ones, my favourite food group is beige, I love drinking and until a few years ago I loved smoking too. The phrase ‘clean-eating’ irks me for all the shade it implies and I am extremely suspicious of cleansing and detoxing. I have flirted with these things, and they mainly cause me to write maudlin diary entries and be mean to people I love.

The thinnest I have ever been was the result of a three-month starvation diet, a strange patch in my life where I went a bit mental and stopped wearing makeup or using a hair-dryer, and carried around lucky words on a piece of paper tucked in a locket round my neck.

It took an awful lot of effort to look as strange as I clearly did, and it didn’t last because it was extremely fucking boring, and I was miserable.

I still tussle with my own body-image. I always have done, and I don’t think I’ll ever be truly body-positive. It’s not in my nature to approve of myself; I can look at a glorious fat bird dressed with exquisite style and panache, radiating happiness and confidence, and I can feel a swell of happiness and confidence for her, but it never translates to myself. I don’t have the money to spend on amazing clothes, I don’t have nice thick hair and a radiant complexion, and I don’t own any brightly coloured handbags.

When I came to Korea I was sort of excited that I might lose weight. I kept hearing anecdotes about people who did, people who came to Korea bred on a diet of pizza-cheese and roast dinners, and for whom the weight fell off due to the relatively healthy Korean diet inflicted  offered through school lunches, and having to walk everywhere because of having no car and not understanding how the buses work.

All I can say is, those people must have literally made no effort to learn Korean whatsoever because all you need is a mobile phone and a few basic words that are essentially accented English, and you’re only ever one ‘large-y -cheejuh peejuh’ away from the fast food of your dreams in Korea.

I’d never ordered fried chicken delivery at 1am before I came to Korea. The notion of ‘chicken and beer’ had never even crossed my mind in England, raised as I was to think that McDonalds gives you heartburn, along with a vague suspicion of anything American. The only time we ever really ate McDonalds was at the channel tunnel in the Europark before getting on the train to France, and my mum always seemed quite cross about it.

I was raised on ‘proper’ food, such as sausage and chips, shepherds pie, steak and kidney pie, in fact any kind of pie you can imagine, as long as it was served with some kind of potato side. You know, for the much needed bulk that is so often absent in PIES.

And yet, even though I always ate heartily, something about coming to Korea and having free reign to get drunk and call for a pizza with my friends every Friday was sensational. Where I lived in England it used to be extremely rare that ANY company would want to deliver, because we lived in the middle of nowhere. Imagine then moving to a country where McDonalds has 24 hour home delivery – they call it McDelivery, if it aint broke, etc – and you can see why I might have cultivated a problem.

In the beginning I did lose a bit of weight; because I was lonely and homesick, the food in the supermarket was strange, I didn’t have an oven and I wasn’t a good cook anyway.

Then things changed of course, I met my boyfriend and I wanted to impress him so I learned how to cook a little; and then we would stay in bed all weekend and order food; and he introduced me to the Friday night ritual of chicken and beer which remains my favourite dinner of all time; and eventually, I got an oven. It was a miniature toaster oven with one little rack, and manufacturing a roast dinner with it  would take me all afternoon, but by god it was worth it.

The trouble is, you have excellent access to all the delicious food of your dreams, and yet you are living in a country that is OBSESSED with female physical appearance, where every woman is a foot shorter and several hands slimmer (horse terminology? What? I don’t know) than you, and every time you get on the subway you see an advert for plastic surgery staring you in your imperfect face. What might have been a mild concern that you should do a bit of jogging every now and then because you’re worried about being heart-healthy, turns into an insidious paranoia and preoccupation with size, shape and space that you take up.

I sometimes feel embarrassed on a bus or a train when someone pushes past me. It must be because I’m so much bigger, I think. I stick out far too much. I would admire clothes from shop-windows, but walk sadly by because I knew that if I entered the store there was a good chance I’d be hurried out by the nervous staff, worried that I wanted to try something on and stretch their merchandise beyond recognition.

My mother-in-law, who I love dearly, is constantly offering me unsolicited diet tips and advice, but I haven’t got any slimmer, all that’s happened is that I don’t really enjoy eating in her presence. People might be horrified by that and leap to judge her, but she’s a Korean woman in her fifties, this is the culture and pressure under which she was raised herself. Being the youngest of 8 children in a poor family without access to complete education meant that, for her and for many women like her, life was about being pretty and slim so that you could marry well.

My own strange response any time she talks about the future daughters I may have, is to insist blithely that they will be plain and ordinary but hopefully die-hard hilarious. Not because I think it’s true or important to even think about, but because I am already guarding my unborn, possible future daughters against this culture that will set it’s beady eye at their face and body and overlook their heart and humour.

I do worry about the kind of example I will set for my children one day, that my general disappointment with the way I look will rub off on them, and so every few months I dust off my trainers and go running, or cut out wine and just eat chicken breasts for a solid four weeks. But then I feel guilty about all the little chickens who’ve had to die to supplement my lazy, low-carb diet and I console myself by purchasing a baguette and eating the whole thing.

I read body-positive essays and follow plus-size fashion bloggers the same way that other people might follow Cara Delevingne. I’m technically straight size, they link to products I won’t or can’t purchase and some of their looks would never work on me.But I read it for their joy, hoping that I’ll be able to absorb some of their relaxed happiness and stop giving so much of a fuck. And yet every time a ridiculous new health fad comes around, I will roll my eyes, and scoff at it, and then try it anyway before giving up, caught between wanting to take up less space and railing against the idea that the space is finite, when I know that isn’t.

It’s a work in progress.

 

An Introduction to Korean Skincare and general chat part II

Last time I wrote about some of the reasons I think Korean women are oft-proclaimed to have the best skin in the world, and – spoiler alert – it generally aint cos they are slathering snail cream and horse oil (yes it’s a thing) on their faces. More likely it has a lot to do with fastidious sunlessness, to the point where one lady I knew had to get vitamin D injections, so committed was she to keeping out of the sun.

However, the Korean skincare business does offer a better range of ingredients in products affordable to all, unlike in Europe where good quality acids and such are the preserve of the well-moneyed.

In addition, Korea was one of the forerunners of the BB and CC Cream boom, and while these strange products midway between a tinted moisturiser and a foundation are still a bit of a mystery to people back home (DO WE NEED THEM, WHY ARE THEY SO CHALKY, IS THIS BB, CC, DD, THING JUST THE BIGGEST GIMMICK EVER) here they are the staple, and in my opinion it’s because they serve a look that is more popular in Korea than in Europe.

While girls and women all over England are busy carving out their faces in shades of brown and cream, hunting for new cheekbones and different-shaped noses, Koreans tend to go the opposite way. Generally speaking, they don’t want an angled, chiselled mug with bronzed temples and HD arched brows. The preferred look here is more of a uniform, flat whiteness, a completely even canvas without emphasis of dimension. The overall look should be soft and dominated by eyes as large as it is possible to make them, with tattooed eyeliner being quite a common thing as well as iris enhancing contact lenses. Lips stained but rarely painted, in soft, smudgy girlish shades of pink and peachy orange. Blusher is the merest hint of the palest pink in iridescent shimmer, and brows are drawn in straight, short lines with black or brown crayons.

I have to be honest, it’s a look that works better on Korean women than it does on me. SO great is the Korean love of erasing the 3D face, that every time I get my picture taken here for a school event or – god help me, a passport photo – it is airbrushed to fuck and whitened up so much that I look like a paper plate with a face drawn on it. A happy plate, mind.

If all of this sounds like an indictment, it’s not meant to. I find it quite spiriting that all over the world makeup is this weirdly tribal thing and women will follow the most insane trends because fuck you for not thinking it is what you consider beautiful. They like their Kardashian contours or their orange stained lips and that is none of your business.

Now, onto the products I like.

While Korean BB creams are perhaps too uniform and flat for some people, if you have redness or scarring on your face they really do smooth the texture of your skin quite beautifully and as someone who has very reactive red skin, I like a welcome blanket of actual face-colour to cover it up every now and then.

One of the BB creams that really delivers and is not too white for my skin is the Face Shop’s extremely affordable Power Protection BB Cream, which manages to stay on my oily skin even in the extreme humidity of Korean Summer. It blends beautifully, covers redness and blemishes without appearing mask-like and the rarest of things – doesn’t need setting powder. Oily ladies rejoice.

face shop bb cream
The Face Shop Power Protection BB Cream

 

Of course the country that pioneered BB and CC creams was among the first to introduce ‘cushions’. I haven’t seen these taking off hugely yet in Europe but they will. Some large beauty houses like Lancome have released their first cushions, for silly prices compared to what you can find in Korea where they are a few bucks and EVERYWHERE.

Cushions are small compacts with BB or CC cream inside, kept neatly beneath a sponge which allows you to apply your base using an applicator or your fingers without making  a mess or using too much product. Innisfree have three different cushions, two if which I own. There’s the WaterGlow which gives a very dewy finish, not best for an oily skin but still pretty for a fresh day look and excellent in Winter when even my oily skin turns dry and craves water.

The Longwear Cushion is better for a day when you need your makeup to stay in place and keep you hydrated. What I like about Korean makeup is that products designed for oily skin are never drying or matifying, they just seem to cling better to your skin.

innisfree cushion waterglow
Innisfree Water Glow Cushion
innisfree cushion longwear
Innisfree Long Wear Cusion

The third one that Innisfree does is anti-ageing, I’ve not tried it yet but I expect good things.

Snail secretions are big news in Korea, and you can buy ‘snail gel’ in many forms from saturated sheet masks to moisturiser and toner sets and even in BB or CC creams.

Snail gel is odourless and does not look like the silvery slime you used to see in your back garden on an Autumn morning after the snails had been at it all over the place. The collection of snail gel is harmless to the snails, and it’s properties are claimed to include the healing of scar tissue and inflammation as well as extreme hydration.

I love a sheet mask of the stuff, these are grim-looking cut out faces saturated in goo to be unfurled and placed on your skin so that you look like Leather Face for twenty minutes while your face absorbs all the good stuff. I was less crazy about the snail gel moisturiser I bought. Which leads me to think that if a product is fun, I will always prefer it.

However, I bought this Nature Republic Snail CC Brightening Cream one weekend away when I forgot to pack any foundation, and it’s something I come back to time and again. This has an enormous SPF30 as I explained in the previous post, and this was the main reason I bought it as it was the height of summer and I wanted something to protect my skin and make me look a bit less like an angry red-faced baby.

snail cc
Nature Republic Snail CC Brightening Cream

Although the high SPF does leave me looking whiter than I ideally like, the coverage is good, the staying power is excellent, and it feels gentle and cooling on a hot, irritated face. It comes out as an interesting green colour to counteract redness, but soon changes upon contact with your skin. Anything that says ‘brightening’ in Korea does often mean it has a whitening effect. This is desirable for some women, but not for me. I was born with celtic blue skin, but I look better a few shades warmer. Pale skin is so beautiful on other people, but on me it just shows up all the veins, all the scars, all the red spots, and so I prefer a nice peachy wash which is much more forgiving.

This can be achieved with one of the best concealers I have ever used, bought the very same weekend, when I basically forgot all my makeup. This Nature Republic Botanical Concealer covers anything, and has a proper colour, not white in the least. When I dab it on the back of my hand to apply to my face, the swatch on my hand stays put until I scrub it off with several rounds of soap. This is a brilliant, heavy duty concealer and this one tube has lasted me a year because such a little goes a very long way.

nature republic
Nature Republic Botanical Concealer

Another way to counteract the whiteness and sometimes flatness of BB and CC creams is to use a radiance-giving setting powder. The Face Shop has an excellent one which does the same job, if not better, as some of the most expensive brands. I set it aside a few times, my head turned by the likes of Laura Mercier and Bobbi Brown, but The Face Shop Radiance Powder really, really works. It gives a beautiful, peachy glow, sets makeup, is finely milled and so doesn’t cake, and comes in a satisfyingly enormous sturdy pot with a good quality chenille powder puff.

radiance powder
The Face Shop Face It Radiance Loose Powder

There are still plenty of things that I don’t love about the Korean beauty industry, and there are some products that people swear by that I can’t stand. In Korea people still love a foam cleanser even though it’s like soaping your face with washing up liquid. I can feel my skin tightening up just thinking about it.

And I prefer a proper blush and lipstick, not just some swipe of pearly highlighter on my cheeks, and stain on my lips that looks like I’ve been gnawing berries, because I don’t want to look like a little kid forever, I don’t mind looking like an adult woman with cheekbones and a mouth that is often filthy. As someone recently pointed out, I didn’t look like a little kid even when I was a little kid. And I do think makeup is at it’s peak when it enhances your personality, says something about who you are.

I do miss the beauty diversity of home, of seeing girls in full-on Rockabilly makeup, complete with Bettie Page fringes and beauty spots, or the expertly, heavily made-up eyes of the Muslim ladies at my old college who matched their eyeshadow to their headscarves. When I got married, I had my makeup done professionally at a Korean salon against my better judgement and I’ve never looked less like myself. Korean beauty is prettifying, but I would like to see more Korean women using it to express themselves, rather than to make themselves more generically attractive.

My mother-in-law always compliments me if I wear my makeup in a more Korean style, i.e  extremely fair base, pinkish something on lips, a little mascara and some drawn on eyebrows. Light, pretty, girly. But I always feel more immediately like myself if I put on my black felt-tip eyeliner wings and wipe my eyebrows off.

Go figure.

Because my face is literally the only part of me that I still make an effort with.

face effortEvery year I seem to care less and less about what I am wearing until I have basically found myself in the Nirvana of only ever wearing leggings with baggy jumpers and fluffy socks made of fleece that, if I pick up a good charge on the rug, can enable me to deliver a mild electric shock to the cat. So, I recommend this style of dress for its versatile mix of being both comfortable and amusing. My only worry is that Korean Summer is coming and soon it will be too hot for my preferred attire.

The idea of wearing leggings and jumpers out of the house used to be quite off-brand for me, a person who until recently always dressed as though I was off to a  business meeting, followed by a wake.

I still think black is the best clothing choice you can make and am inherently suspicious of people who wear ‘fun’ clothes and bright colours, even though I have learned the ways of some such people and would even call some of them ‘friends’.

My face is increasingly the only part of myself that I bother to make any effort with, which means I frequently go out for dinner with my husband wearing a full contour, highlight and Winehouse eyeliner package on my face, and some leggings with holes in the bum, paired with  a jumper just long enough to cover the holes, which I like to think adds a daring, fresh element.

I think my ongoing attention to my face is because, unlike the rest of me, it has stayed more or less the same over the years and is the facial equivalent of a small child’s reading book with big letters and a simple, reassuring story. All the features are spaced well-apart and are large enough so as not to make any mistakes.

Also, and probably more importantly,  I haven’t had a job for six months and so haven’t had money to buy yet more black dresses that all look exactly the same. This is something I like about makeup. You can spend silly money on it if you like, but in a pinch, all you really need is anything pinkish to put on your lips and cheeks if you’re feeling a bit meh, and some kind of black thing to draw on your eyelashes if so inclined.

There is something joyful about it, like colouring in, which I hear grown ups are currently paying money to do in ‘adult’ colouring books. Incidentally I find this so silly, because why use a template book when you can go off-road and do your own, fucking weird drawings to horrify pets and children?

An introduction to Korean skincare and makeup Part I

 

Beauty is one of my BEST hobbies. I enjoy the fun, creative escapism of makeup as well as the  uplifting feeling of discovering a skincare product that helps my bat-shit insane skin look and feel better.

That said I am clearly no expert and one thing I can’t get behind is the (probably small) number of beauty bloggers who regurgitate brand-lead rubbish about what is essentially chemistry. Now, I’m not a chemist – I know – but I can accurately name key ingredients and  identify anything that’s comedogenic, and that’s about as far as I’ll go.

What I can do is talk about the things that work for me, and recommend things based on my own experience. Having lived in Korea for almost 6 years now I feel like I can speak with some knowledge of Korean skincare and cosmetics, from a foreigners point-of-view. Most Korean beauty blogs are run by Koreans and GYOPOs, and are utterly fab, but not much help if you want to know how it works on oily caucasian skin, on faces with deep eye sockets and dark circles. (This is what I look like and I’m aware it is not what everyone else looks like, before anyone starts thinking this is some kind of weird, racist beauty blog.)(Imagine a weird racist beauty blog. My god.)

Korean beauty has stealthily become anecdotally lauded by proper beauty people and normos alike. People from back home ask me about miracle products they’ve heard of. ‘Can you talk to me about snail secretions?’ A friend once asked me, both curious and self-conscious in equal measure. I felt like a wizard from another time.

Honestly, I don’t totally buy this OMG YASS KOREAN BEAUTY stuff and neither should you. Yes, there are some extremely good Korean brands and some individual products that are much better than things you pay twice the price for in Europe. But there are always the duds, and I’ve tried a few. So, I’ve decided to talk about Korean skincare and makeup in general, and then give you some products that I use and really like, and tell you about some that I think are rubbish. Everything I talk about I have bought online from Gmarket or the Korean high street, but can also nearly always be found on Amazon.

Disclaimer: One thing that bothers me is when people talk about Korean women mysteriously having great skin due to some mental, time-consuming 5 step routine. Actually, the biggest reason I think Korean women have such good skin is that they never expose it to sun-damage. Sunbathing is not a thing here, if you go to the beach you will see whole families swimming in the sea, entirely clad in tracksuits. People regularly wear baseball caps, visors and sunglasses, and the dainty-as-fuck ladies use actual parasols. (I brought my mother-in-law a beautiful hand-made lace one from Venice and my husband said she won’t use it because it doesn’t provide enough sun protection. But it’s cute as hell.)

On top of this almost all Korean makeup contains very high SPF. While my UK-bought L’Oreal foundation has a paltry SPF15 content, my bogstandard Nature Republic CC Cream from Korea contains a giant SPF30. There are some drawbacks to having such strong measures of SPF – the flashback in photographs can make you look like Caspar The Friendly Ghost. It’s a look, some people like it, I don’t especially. You can counteract it with wise use of concealer and radiance boosting powders, more of which later.

To buy, and buy again… 

                      Cleansers and Tonersgrouped cleanse

I love this Banila Clean It Zero cleanser because it’s a balm that melts into an oil as you apply it. It removes all hint of makeup in one clean swoop and leaves my skin soft and normal. It’s quite a heavy cleanser, so I only use it on days when I’m wearing makeup, but there’s no need to double cleanse with this product which is good for thin and sensitive skins like mine that can only handle minimum mucking about. It contains a lot of fruit extracts but the biggest ingredient is mineral oil. Some people hate mineral oils; I think, this is a cleanser, it’s only on your face for a minute or so, It’s fine. People spend a fortune on expensive Eve Lom products that do exactly the same job.

clean it
Banila Clean It Zero

This toner is called Skin Renewal Program AHA & BHA Daily Clean Toner (why can’t things just have sensible, short names?) by Mizon. It is good for OCCASIONAL use, for example when you’ve got a giant spot as I currently have, and it just won’t leave you the hell alone. The toner contains both BHAs and AHAs, so can dissolve oil in pores as well as stimulate cell turnover but it is too drying to be used every day because it contains alcohol. I prefer Paula’s Choice 2% gel for everyday use, it’s non-drying and can be worn without moisturiser if you’re very oily. But it aint Korean.

toner
Mizon Skin Renewal Program AHA&BHA Daily Clean Toner…. ffs 

 

                                Skincare

grouped skincare

I have oily, dehydrated skin which means it needs a lot of care but I don’t like to do it during the daytime as using too many layered products causes my makeup to slip off my face. I tend to use my best skincare products at night when the skin has ample time to rest and let it get to work. In the daytime I usually just use a serum for dehydrated skin followed by makeup or nothing else.

BUT at night it is basically a satanic ritual, one that I enjoy by the way. I do feel that I should point out I do this stuff because I enjoy it, but if you don’t, well, life is short so if you don’t fancy spending a portion of it rubbing unguents into your face then don’t worry about it.

Essence vs Serum:

Quite often in Korea what I would call a ‘serum’ is called an ‘essence’ and what I would call a ‘moisturizer’ is called a ‘serum’. FFS. It’s a texture and consistency thing. My idea of serum is the fine, velvety and quickly absorbing stuff that looks a bit, well, spermy. This is what Korean essence is often like.

My idea of moisturizer is basically anything that is a cream. That is often Korean serum.

SO after cleansing I start with the thing called essence first. This is Missha Time Revolution Night Repair. It looks and, so I have been told, acts like a dupe for the much more expensive Elizabeth Arden Advanced Night Repair. What this essence does is give an easily absorbed layer of moisture and visibly improves the texture of my skin. It’s aimed at those in the market for anti-ageing and contains lactic acid for gentle exfoliation. What I like about it is that it provides very deep hydration without being oily at all. I always look better in the morning if I’ve used this product.

 

missha
Missha Time Revolution Night Repair

Next up is Isa Knox Nox Lab Retinol and Moisture Lipsome Serum. Retinol is basically the only ingredient that scientists have proven to significantly improve wrinkles. While I honestly believe that the required dose of retinol is much larger than most products actually contain, this serum is quietly effective. I’m not much be-wrinkled yet, but I do have a line in my forehead after long days of frowning at the computer, which goes away after a night with this product. It also acts like polyfilla on the dry, emerging fine lines I have below my eyes.

nox lab
Isa Knox Knox Lab Retinol And Moisture Lipsome Serum

 

So that’s it for part one, next time I’ll be looking at eye-creams and makeup bases and some of the things I’m less mad about in the world of Korean beauty.

New Year Dumplings: Because Your Diet Was Never Going To Happen

ddeokguk
ddeok mandu guk made by my own fair hand

Koreans mark the Lunar New Year festival with an interesting tradition – they eat a bowl of ddeok guk, or rice-cake soup in the (mildly-held, not at all serious) belief that it helps you turn a year older. Forget your actual birthday, depending on how many bowls of ddeok guk you consume, you could reach veritable middle age at Lunar New Year.

These rice cakes are not the humourless, brittle diet-aids that the average Brit is familiar with, to be slathered in butter or whatever you’ve got in the fridge because to eat them plain is hellish. These ddeok are instead glutinous, pleasantly squashy cylinders made of boiled and pounded rice. They are also rather tasteless to my palate, but no one tell my mother-in-law this. There is something strangely comforting in their chewy blandness, uncomplicated and satisfying – a step up from, let’s say, gruel; and a step down from Mother’s milk. (Probably, I don’t know, I can’t remember.)

To add ddeok to a rich broth of garlic, beef stock and the umami weirdness of soy sauce and sesame oil completely raises the taste game, but what’s really needed to make this soup a proper meal are the dumplings.

Korean dumplings, referred to hereafter as ‘mandu’ are fat, snug packages of finely-chopped meat – pork or beef is best – noodles, garlic, ginger, tofu, shredded kimchi and spring onion. This mixture is pressed firmly into mandu skins which are usually made of rice or potato flour and can be cheerfully coloured with various vegetables, like pumpkin, for example.

It has become a family tradition that every New Years Eve we sit on the floor in my Parents-in-law’s bedroom and assemble our mandu ready to be steamed, frozen and later eaten at the Lunar New Year. It’s a tradition I have come to love, in spite of the old lady knee-ache that comes from spending hours sitting cross-legged on the floor (English legs and Korean legs are not alike. One day I’ll teach you about the Ajumma Squat, and the fearsome angles old Korean women can be comfortable in.)

I have always absolutely hated New Years Eve, with it’s extreme pressure to have THE BEST NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, and so do not mourn the loss of the annual event spent queuing with other miserable people to get into shit venues. Instead we do the countdown to Midnight in our pyjamas, with some dodgy z-lit Korean celebrities on the TV, and toast our beer glasses with floury, mandu-y hands. Nobody here knows about Auld Laing Syne and so nobody takes a running jump at it only for everyone to politely look away, embarrassed.

My mandu have improved in appearance over the years – in the beginning they looked like sad, half-emptied  pupae; now they look something more akin to the real deal. My mother-in-law always reminds me that if you can make beautiful mandu it means that you will have beautiful daughters. If so, my girl will just have to get by on her personality.

Here’s how to make ddeok mandu guk, or rice cake and dumpling soup:

Ddeok mandu Guk serves 4

 

*Shop-bought mandu is fine, they usually come frozen in large bags and can be found in almost all Korean and Chinese food markets. However, if you want to make your own, you will need:

  1. 500g of minced or finely chopped pork or beef. You can actually use far more than this and make a huge batch to be frozen and used as and when you feel, in which case use your imagination and increase all ingredients sizes accordingly.
  2. Two large packets of tofu, drained, squeezed through a cheesecloth and crumbled.
  3. 300g of boiled and finely chopped glass noodles.
  4. A generous handful garlic cloves, crushed.
  5. two large spring onions finely chopped.
  6. 3-4 tablespoons of finely chopped ginger.
  7. A few handfuls of finely shredded kimchi.
  8. 1-2 packets of mandu skins.
  9. an egg for sealing the skins.
  10. all-purpose flour for dusting the mandu.

 

For the Ddeok soup:

  1. 2 litres of water (or as much as you need to fill a large saucepan)
  2. large packet of ddeok rice cakes.
  3. 250g of chopped stewing beef.
  4. 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed.
  5. 2 generous tablespoons of soy sauce, try to use soy sauce that’s meant for soup, it’s called guk gan jan but if it can’t be found, not to worry
  6. 2 tablespoons of yeondu seasoning If yeondu is unavailable you can boil an onion skin in the water for extra flavour.
  7. 2 tablespoons of sesame oil.
  8. 3 eggs, 2 separated.
  9. 2-3 tablespoons of ground perilla powder, or sesame powder. If neither available use two extra egg whites.
  10. one drizzle of any oil.
  11. Chunkily-chopped spring onion for decoration.
  12. Salt and pepper.

 

Directions:

For the mandu: It is best to make your mandu in advance. Mix the minced meat, two thirds of spring onions, tofu, noodles, garlic, ginger and kimchi together in a large bowl, getting right in with your hands to make sure all components are evenly distributed. Grind a generous amount of pepper into the mix, and add a few pinches of salt. Dust a large tray or work-surface with flour. This is where you’ll place your mandu and you don’t want them to stick.

makingmandu
Packin’ that wet mixture… 

crack and whisk an egg into a small dish and, dabbing with your finger, use it to moisten (sorry) the rim of the mandu skins. This will help the edges stick together when you form the mandu. Using a table spoon, take a good dollop of the wet mixture and pack it firmly into the centre of your mandu skin. fold the edges of the skin together around the mixture and use your fingers to pinch the skin in pleats along the seam.

 

manduupclose
Pleat that seam…  

 

It’s best to steam your mandu immediately and then they can be eaten, added to soup of frozen for later use.

For the soup: First season your stewing beef with a little salt and pepper. Boil the water in a large, deep-bottomed pan. When the water begins to boil thrown in your garlic, pinch of salt and the stewing beef. Cover the pan and allow it to boil for fifteen minutes to produce a flavoursome broth.

Reduce the heat until it is just rolling and add the soy sauce, and yeondu. Cover and allow to cook for a further ten minutes.

Take the separated egg yolks, whisk with a fork and add a little salt, before carefully tipping into a sparingly oiled frying pan. Fry the egg on both sides for a couple of minutes until you have a beautiful, shiny yellow disk. remove from heat. Set aside.

Add the ddeok and as many mandu as you want to the soup. We usually go three mandu per person but this might be excessive for normal people. The mandu and ddeok are sufficiently cooked when they rise to the surface. The ddeok should be soft and malleable but not gloopy, similarly the mandu should not disintegrate, but hold it’s shape and wiggle a little when held on a spoon.

Next it depends on what consistency you like your soup to take. If a clearish broth is your bag then you’re done, you dont need to do much else, maybe stir in the separated egg whites to add some extra texture and serve. However, I enjoy the nutty flavour and more opaque, smooth texture that sesame powder or perilla powder gives, so here stir in a few spoonfuls of the powder and allow everything to thicken for a few minutes. Add a couple of glugs of sesame oil right at the end to deepen the flavour and add a shimmer to the soup.

Return to your fried egg yolks, cut them into slivers and after ladeling your ddeok mandu soup into bowls, arrange the egg on top for decoration, with some green spring onion rings as a final garnish.

Films – Room

I read Emma Donahue’s Room when I flew to Korea for the first time. It was pre-kindle days, I was nervous and looking for something to take my mind off my impending journey into the unknown, so I bought the paperback at the airport and read almost all of it on the 12 hour journey.

I hated it. I found the voice of the young boy Jack inauthentic and cloying, and there was a sense of claustrophobia that may certainly have been intentioned, and yet was not what I wanted to feel on my first major flight, having left my friends and family behind me.

That was over five years ago, and so when I heard a film of the novel was being made, I was interested, partly because I knew Lenny Abrahamson was involved – I had seen his film Frank, and loved it – and partly because I was curious as to how they would manage to pull it off. For one thing, the whole story comes from the viewpoint of Jack who is a five-year-old boy. Now, I don’t wish to be unkind. I think it’s probably a good thing when child-actors are wooden as hell, it likely means they are ordinary, well-adjusted and completely, obliviously unselfconscious which is how children should be, for as long as they can.

But when you’re making a film which so relies upon the performance of a child, that seems incredibly risky, especially when there is such a fine line between naturalness and precociousness.

The film handles this delicate balance in several ways. While we do hear only Jack’s thoughts, the camera lingers long and often on the face of Brie Larson who plays Ma, Jack’s mother and the victim of a kidnap seven years prior. And Ma looks like someone who has been kept in a garage for seven years. Her face is ashy, she has a cluster of spots on her temple, her lank hair hangs, not quite as long as Jack’s, her shoulders hunch like a tired school-kid. I wouldn’t expect any less authenticity from Abrahamson, but it’s the unshowiness of how run-down Ma looks that is impressive. It’s not the Oscars-courting facial prosthetics of Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman. It’s just pure, inside-out, quiet depression and it seeps out of her. We can feel Ma’s heaviness, her loneliness, her boredom. Brie Larson is mutedly, brilliantly effective.

I needn’t have worried about Jack either. Jacob Tremblay is a raw talent with a beautifully articulate face and Abrahamson coaxes a fine performance out of him, often filming Jack’s face in profile, so that we are left looking at him, looking at things beyond the frame, his expression conveyed only by the slow movement of his long eyelashes.

The film also handles with the lightest of touches everything that such a dreadful situation implies; rape, loved ones’ inability to cope, family estrangement. Key events never feel like set-pieces and never turn soapy, even when there is high potential for it to all go a bit Eastenders. William H Macy’s brief scenes were amongst my most personally heart-wrenching, another example of a fine actor who has a face capable of demonstrating chasms of emotion.

My husband was so unusually affected by the film that he was left badly injured when he tried to give our house-bound cat a taste of the world beyond our front door, and the horrified cat panicked and scratched the bejasus out of him.

I’ve since seen all the Oscars furore, and I know that Brie Larson won the Oscar for Best Actress. I don’t follow the Oscars, they always seem to give awards to the films that haven’t even been released yet in Korea so I usually haven’t seen them, and the pool they fish in is so narrow to begin with. It all seems a bit naff these days, I know that there was no one ‘Best Picture’ of last year but several; same as I can’t tie myself down to one actor giving the definitive best performance. However, Brie Larson deserved recognition for her work in Room, there can be no question of that. And it’s confirmed for me that Lenny Abrahamson is one of the very best directors working today and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.