I went out with my sister today at our usual and favorite vegetarian Indian restaurant. We piled on the food and sat down, while waiting for the steaming naan to come out. Then, we shoveled it in, as if regular breaths were not necessary for survival. The flavors were extraordinary and as I wiped my nose – though Korea has increased my tolerance of spicy foods exponentially, I’m still far from being immune from it’s effects (i.e. pink tint to the face, runny nose) – I took another bite of the palak paneer, my favorite Indian dish… only to encounter a crunch.
Palak paneer is basically paneer, or Indian cheese, in a curried spinach puree. At the most, the only resistance my teeth should be feeling is the slight texture change of the cheese, which is reminiscent of extra firm tofu. Being as this is my favorite dish, I’ve had it multiple times before and it was one of the main reasons I return to this restaurant. They always have it on their buffet menu. There’s nothing in it that should be that crispy or crunchy – like a frito chip. I suddenly felt like something was wrong so I froze and stopped chewing after that first chomp down.
I wish I could have said that I swallowed it, but then this certain taste invaded my taste buds… the taste of beondegi (번데기). I usually love most of what I eat, but beondegi‘s something that I only tried once and never tried again. Beondegi is Korean silkworm pupae. It’s not completely gross and as an open-minded traveler and mostly-vegetarian, I had a go at one of the smaller guys. The taste is distinct – somewhat savory and nutty and the flavor stays. It’s one of those foods that you need to acquire a taste for. The aftertaste was the same aftertaste I got with that mouthful of palak paneer and mystery something. My first thought: it better not be a cockroach.
My sister began to notice something was wrong. I love food and I don’t stop until my plate’s clean. My plate still had two more spoonfuls of food on it so I clearly shouldn’t be pausing just yet. She started to randomly throw out questions, trying to figure out what was wrong all the way from did I see something odd to if something was wrong with the food to if I was feeling nauseous. I finally got tired of shaking my head and so I spit out the food onto my plate. I’m not a squeamish person but I was stalling until it was time to see what came out of my mouth. I told her I detected something odd in my palak paneer… and then I looked down and started poking around the contents.
It looked fine and still like palak paneer except for a chunk of something off to the side that looked a little splintered. It was about an inch in length and covered in pureed spinach so I tried cleaning it as best as I could with my spoon. It was unrecognisable but some odd black balls kept on coming out of it. Then I turned it off to the side and I saw something that looked like legs. At this point, I was lamenting how I bit into a roach, reminiscing about that cute roach I declared my pet for all of 10 minutes until my mom found him and murdered him, and somewhat disgusted with the taste of beondegi still lingering in my mouth. I wasn’t going to stop eating, though, so I took some kheer and another small bowl of curry to clear out the taste. I did call over a member of the restaurant staff and showed them what I found so they could be a little more careful next time.
She told me that it was most definitely a whole spice they stuck in the dish for flavoring – black cardamom she said, pointing out the little seeds. I let it go and agreed with her; I wasn’t going to raise up a fuss, I just wanted to let them know. Then I thought about it: the mystery chunk of splinters honestly wasn’t completely recognisable so it could totally be black, cardamom, right? I had never heard of any form of cardamom being cooked in palak paneer but perhaps it’s the ‘secret ingredient’ at the restaurant… Before, I was so sure I had caught sight of wings and legs and even a head, but perhaps it was all in my head.
Honestly, the only thing that refuses to let the idea of me chomping on a poor roach go is how it tasted distinctly like beondegi. I looked up the black cardamom and the article compared the black cardamom with the green cardamom, one of my personal favorite spices with the following:
It has some of the same flavor notes, especially an uplifting menthol element, but it’s also smoky, brash and bold. There are times for green cardamom’s delicacy, and then there are times to turn things up to 11. Although they have similar flavors, they have very different culinary uses. Black cardamom is the bacon of spices.
So this is my question: does black cardamom taste like beondegi and if one were to bite through it, would it resemble a crispy corn chip?