I have been missing Korea a lot lately. It has been quite a few years since my last visit and today being my real birthday, I am feeling nostalgic. So, what to think about? Food of course.
Kalbi, bulgogi, kimchee, guksoo, kimbap, chopchae, odaeng, gochujang, bibimbap, yukaejang, sulangtang, samgaetang……music to my ears and my mouth is watering like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Have you eaten? It is a stock phrase any good Korean knows well. It can be synonymous to hello.
For some of us who were adopted at an older age, the memories of our life in institutional care is not that far from the recesses of our mind. For, me, I remember menial meals of rice, water, kimchee. Protein of any kind was once a week and eggs were a treat. I have memories too of food I cannot imagine eating now. My first time in Korea, I went to an open market and was literally drooling after the smell of bundaegi (silkworm larvae roasted in broth). I promptly grossed myself out thinking that I actually ate this with relish when I was a kid. In exploring this idea of food memory with my friends, I am struck by how much we love Korean food and whether we eat the hardcore stuff like soondae (blood sausage) or the more westernized beef dishes, it never fails to bond us.
To this day, I love going grocery shopping, more than any other shopping. I love hardboiling a bunch of eggs and seeing them sitting there waiting for me in the fridge. To this day, the anxiety of not having enough food at any gathering is sweat provoking. I remember having to host coffee hour at my church and passing a comment about how nervous I was about not having enough. A well meaning parishioner calmly reminded me that every woman worries about that. How could I explain to her the depth of my concern? It is not a casual “gee I hope I do a good job” thought. There is nothing casual about making sure everyone is fed and fed well.
My worry translated to angsting about my kids. Both my boys have an uncanny knowledge of when they are full. There is absolutely no way to add more into their mouths when they have had enough. My husband is the king of portion control. I don’t know how they do it. I find myself coveting their plates for leftovers.
This love of food and large quantities matches perfectly with Korean food. Go to any restaurant (or any Korean home) and the standard fare includes small tapas like dishes scattered all over the table, bite size and colorful, before you even get to your actual meal. Learning to prepare Korean food has been a labor of love. I learned early on that to really get Korean food right, you have to eat it and eat it often. The essential ingredients are but a few so the key is in the variations of them in order to bring out the natural flavor of the meat, fish or veg. But training the sense memory of taste has been harder than I thought. I find myself making Korean food a bit Americanized and American food a bit Korean. Too, every household makes their own kimchee and a child grows up memorizing the flavors their mother makes for them. It is common knowledge moms cook what they like and in turn their kids grow up eating the same. But having grown up in a home where I didn’t particularly love bread and butter and always wanted hot sauce on everything, I wonder if in turn one part of feeling loved was in the yearning for someone to cook food I was missing. Was this disconnect an unspoken wall created to keep me feeling like an other?
When my Umma was here, she didn’t do a whole lot of cooking for me. I was really upset about that. I wanted her to cook for me. In retrospect, I pretty much took the wind out of her breath on every matter, so I am sure it was not easy for her to stay in the kitchen for me. What she did do though, I have incorporated into my repetoire permanently. I only make spinach the way she taught me and I try to have patience to separate spaghetti and noodles with chopsticks the way she did. Not an easy task. I think of her every time I pick apples – wider than taller is better. And her ghim (dried salted seaweed sheets) is the best ever.