On Brussels Sprouts...and Relationships

Anju, 344 17th Avenue, SW
Their motto?

Eat to Drink      Drink to Live        Live to Eat

I remember, when I was little, my mother making an effort to get me to try different vegetables—vegetables we might have considered exotic back then, ones that fell outside of the typical repertoire of corn and carrots and peas and potatoes.  

I recall beets, which I still enjoy to this day, and lima beans, which I can take or leave.  An attempt at artichokes (what was the purpose of that? I wondered…today I love them, in an occasional sort of way)…that sort of thing.

And then there was the Brussels sprout.  Little weenie heads of gas-bomb baby cabbages that grew on stalks (I didn’t find that out until years later), always prepared boiled or steamed and served with some butter.  Meh.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned to experiment with Brussels sprouts.  My standard recipe consisted of cleaning and halving them, steaming them and then tossing with butter, garlic powder, bread or panko crumbs, parmesan and salt and pepper, and sticking the whole concoction under the broiler for a few minutes.

It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered other methods of cooking the little green jewels—broiling after tossing them in olive oil and salt and pepper or cutting them into thin, julienne-like strips and tossing them with all sorts of flavours and sautéing them, or even roasting them whole along with root vegetables.

In general, they’re pretty good.  That said, on occasion, you’ll get a batch—or even just one in a good bunch—that is bitter and not palatable. It’s the luck of the draw, I guess.

So when quite a few people tell you that the one thing to order when visiting Anju, a bar and restaurant on the northeast corner of 17th Avenue and 4th Street, SW that features a modern twist on traditional Korean food and drink, is the Brussels sprouts, you have to wonder what they could possibly do to them to garner such a widespread reaction.

On a recent Thursday night I set out to find out.  Joining me was a good friend who made it explicitly clear that she was to be the one to visit this restaurant with me.  You see, her name just happens to be Anju.

According to the menu cover, Anju, in Korean, means “small plates (‘Korean Tapas’), sent as soon as they are prepared (so, fresh), shared amongst friends, to be had with alcohol”.  

The menu goes on to suggest that Anju is spicy and salty, meant to be taken with drink and meant to be shared.  Quite a few people got a kick out of the definition, and let Anju (the person) know it.

And the suggested alcohol?  Soju, a clear distilled liquor made from (usually) grains but one that can also be made from potatoes—kind of like vodka, but with half the potency, which means it’s a little smoother and less harsh.

Soju.  An interesting taste; I could see how this would be fun to drink in a group setting.

It’s taken in small glasses and often mixed at the table (by the drinker) with various liquids; Anju and I opted for pear nectar and aloe juice, not knowing what to expect.  The aloe was sweet, but not overly so, and the pear, when added, sunk to the bottom of the glass, so was good as a last sip.  Not bad, and by the time we were done eating, we had polished off the bottle. With a little buzz, I might add, but one that was manageable.

We ordered the anju, the shared plates: broccolini tempura (there’s another “new” vegetable), hot peppers sautéed in oil, and the Brussels sprouts; we also got KFC sliders (that's Korean Fried Chicken), and shrimp dumplings that were served in a bowl with a crust on top.

No doubt about it, the Brussels sprouts were the highlight. They’re made with bacon, onions, a maple syrup- soy glaze, and a product called “rice sticks”—the best way to describe them was that they looked like little dumbbells of rice—and they added a perfect missing texture to the dish. 

I have to say: the food's not pretty, but it is pretty good.  This is the Brussels sprouts dish. I can't show you the peppers; I just can't.  You're welcome.

Really, really, really good. (Note to self: check out the E-Mart Korean grocery a little further west on 17th at 36th Street SW for the rice sticks, and start experimenting!)

So, Anju and I ate and drank and talked, at Anju.  I learned that hers was an arranged marriage, and she explained to me how it came about.  And while the concept was certainly foreign to me, one thing she mentioned stuck with me: she said that the success of the marriage is especially important, not just to the couple, but to the entire family—a failure would bring shame on all. That means that everyone is there to support the couple and to work along with them to make sure the marriage succeeds. This sounds like a very important element, to me, whether arranged or not.

After we said our goodbyes and as I walked back to my apartment, I got to thinking about my life experiences with Brussels sprouts and marriage—what they have in common. 

And here’s what I figure: just as in relationships, you have to try the vegetable a few different ways before you figure out what you like.  Then you might find the perfect recipe and that may be the only way you eat your Brussels sprouts for years and years. But even the best recipes can be wrecked by a singularly bitter one, or an entire bad batch…and then you’re off the dish for good.

But if there’s someone there to support you after a bad batch—to help you get back on track and to encourage you to give it another try, you’re more disposed to do so—to give it another shot, as it were.

In my case, I'm pretty sure I’ll keep eating Brussels sprouts, and trying them in different ways. Who knows? I might just find a new recipe, like the ones I had at Anju, with Anju, that’ll change my outlook on the possibilities.