My first brush with Korean food was in 2007, at a small restaurant on the outskirts of Harvard Square, sandwiched between an Indian buffet and a boba tea shop. The restaurant was infamous for being expensive and not extraordinarily tasty for the price (a criticism that could admittedly be applied to many dining establishments in the area), but I was pleasantly surprised by both the variety and amount of food that was served.
I don’t recall everything that I ate that night, but two dishes stand out against the rest like onions over a pancake. Both were banchan (飯饌/반찬) appetizers served before the actual meal: The first was kongjaban (콩자반), salty, smoky soybeans in sauce that I continue to encounter at less than ideal frequency even in Seoul; the second, slices of steaming pajeon (파煎/파전).
To those familiar with Chinese food (or its Cantonese-American variant), a pajeon may be likened to a scallion pancake (cóng yóu bĭng 葱油饼): large slices of green onions cooked into a soft, thin cake of doughy rice flour, though rendered into a product perhaps not quite as thick or greasy (the Chinese version is, after all, called “onion oil cake,” while the Korean version is simply “onion cake”) and often with more and larger onion pieces than the Chinese variety. But unlike the Chinese scallion pancake, which is, as its name implies, made with the scallions (대파/daepa) of leekspin fame , the Korean jeon is generally cooked with smaller, thinner green onions (실파/silpa; English speakers might call them spring onions or chives) . And, unlike a scallion pancake, a pajeon often prominently features ingredients besides onions: peppers, carrots, kimchi, ham (or spam), mushrooms, beef, or, in the case of a seafood pajeon (海物파煎/해물파전), squid, shrimp, mussels, oysters, clams, and other seafoods [2, 3].
Dissimilar to a pancake as it may be envisioned in some regions of Europe and the United States, the dough of a pajeon is simply a light crust meant to bind the various vegetables and proteins together instead of the main focus merely to be decorated by berries, walnuts, sweet syrup, and/or a pat of butter. This often results in a thinner and more organically shaped cake than the monster carbohydrate frisbees to which some may be accustomed when they hear the word “pancake.” In this way it might be likened more to a latke or hash brown patty than a dough hotcake destined for being drowned in sauces and toppings less boring than itself. Förlåt, mina svenska vänner, men inte ens lingonsylt kan hjälpa er här.
As mentioned in our post about soju and makgeolli , pajeon are sometimes eaten on rainy days with a bowl of makgeolli. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious link between rain and green onions except that both might be sketched with long and skinny lines, and there certainly seems to be little relationship between rain and makgeolli over that with any other potable liquid, so an examination into the origin of this tradition promises an interesting story.
The word on Naver street seems to be that the putative link between rain and pajeon is not visual but, rather, auditory, as the sound of pajeon frying in oil resembles (or should resemble—-all you novice Korean cookers take note) the sound of rain pattering down on a roof . Where the makgeolli comes in is still unclear. But hey, I’ll take it.
So the next time someone asks you, “What’s round, yellow, and green (and sometimes red, brown, orange, and pink) all over?” you will now know that the obvious answer is “a pajeon rolling down a hill.” And the next time you chance across a pajeon rolling down a hill, you will now know a little bit about the culture that makes it more special than just a gyrating lump of dough with some onions hiding inside. But with great knowledge comes great responsibility: So go, now, and use your newfound awareness to make friends with onion pancakes and their creators across the world.
This article was originally written for The Silk Road Project, now I Dig Culture, an international media channel that explores human cultural diversity and exchange.