Tag Archives: Korean food

Weekend Snapshots 58: Easter Fools Editions

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Friday

We celebrated the start of the kids’ spring break at Maru, the new Korean restaurant on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.

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There are some interesting twists on the menu, like kimchi arancini.img_3497

And there are straight classics, like dolsot bibimbap.

The kids loved their bossam, (lettuce wraps).

Saturday

Virginia Bluebells always remind me of this scene in Sleeping Beauty, when the fairy godmothers try to outspell each other to make her dress blue, no pink, no blue!

When my mother-in-law’s primulas start blooming, I know it really is spring at last. 

I took the kids to see Fun Home at LiveArts. The themes and language were far more adult than I was expecting, but the musical was deeply moving and beautifully performed.

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Sunday

I awoke in the early hours of the morning to the sound of tape being ripped with ferocious intensity. The night before the younger two made their declaration of war. Their older brother asked to be left out of the battle. It took me a moment to figure out that the Great April Fools Easter War of 2018 had officially begun.

The noise I had heard was the sound of the 15 year old taping saran wrap to his sister’s bedroom door. She had frozen his toothbrush in a mug of water the night before. He retaliated by using his Water Pik against her like a makeshift water gun. She in turn attacked him with chalk fingerprints all over his choir robe.

Finally, after singing for two Easter services in a row, we were all feeling rather exhausted.

“Please, let’s stop this. I can’t take anymore,” the 15 year old said as we trudged back to the car.

The 12 year old was exultant: “Does that mean I won?!”

“Yes! You won. I’ll take my punishment. But, please let me do it tomorrow. I just can’t face it today.” (More on that later).

And so an Easter Armistice was declared.

The kids celebrated the end of war with the Easter egg hunt that awaited them back at home…

The biggest hit was the new basketball the Easter bunny left for them…

That evening we sat down to a traditional Easter dinner…if Easter just so happened to coincide with April Fool’s Day…The parents had one last trick up their sleeve:

Oh…and that punishment I mentioned earlier?

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Jook & Jeju Island

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This is what we’ve been eating almost every day for breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner too!) since Thanksgiving.

I tried jook aka congee aka rice porridge for the first time sixteen years ago in a hotel in Jeju Island. I had never tasted it as a child. My mother never cooked it, because my father wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s probably the unfussiest eater I know, but jook reminds him too much of the thin gruel he had to eat as a malnourished child growing up in war-ravaged Korea.

As for me, the taste of jook was a revelation – a mellow, homey, cozy dish that tastes like a warm hug from someone you love. I have dreamt about it all these many years. I don’t know why it took me so long to finally try to make it, because it’s dead simple, really. It’s the perfect winter comfort food. It would make a great baby food, because it’s so easily digested. In fact, it’s sometimes fed to convalescents, because it’s so mild. Finally, it’s an easy way to use up the remains of a Thanksgiving turkey or a rotisserie chicken, bones and all. Have I convinced you? I’ll share the recipe with you at the end of this post, but first – Jeju Island.

I lived in Korea from the age of 8 months to about 3 years. About 16 years ago, my parents took me back to Korea for the first time since we moved back to the U.S.  We visited Jeju Island, a tropical island off the southern coast of Korea with dramatic lava formations, gardenia bushes taller than humans, and citrus and palm trees. It’s the traditional honeymoon destination for Koreans and a favorite vacation spot. Dutch sailors are known to have shipwrecked on the island in the 17th century. This perhaps explains why there is a distinctive, more Caucasian look to people from Jeju Island. My mother’s family has roots here. Her maternal grandfather owned a factory there that capitalized on its natural resources; it produced buttons made out of shells and canned sea food for export to China.

We traveled all over the island in a rickety old tour bus hung with ratty floral curtains of indeterminate vintage. Our tour guide told us that Jeju Island is famous for three abundances – wind, rocks, and women.

At a Stone Sculpture Garden, we saw plenty of rocks:

and creative depictions of the culture of the Jeju of old…

The Dol Harubang is the symbol of Jeju Island. They were carved out of the plentiful black volcanic rock and strategically placed around the island to scare off demons or invaders.

With their suggestive shape, they are also considered a symbol of fertility. Rub the nose for a boy, or an ear for a girl.

During the Joseon Dynasty, Jeju was used as a penal colony for political exiles and as a place for horse-breeding. One of the stops on our tour took us to a horse ranch. While all the other chump tourists donned doofy looking hats and red vests to ride, I settled myself on a comfy bench next to my mother, and prepared to watch.

My mother nudged me and said, “I think you should ride.” (N.B. – She did not suggest that we should ride).

“Hunh?! Really?” I asked, “Why?!”

“When else will you have a chance to ride a horse?”

I’ve never been a horse person. In fact, horses scare me. I had had opportunities to ride before, but had always declined them. My mother’s suggestion that I ride, delivered so earnestly and with a slight undercurrent of urgency, was so surprising to me that I, as if under a spell, got up off the bench and suited up. No matter that I was wearing a long sundress and had never been on a horse in my life, my mother’s wish was my command.

The horses lined up for what I thought would be an easy amble around the track.

Suddenly, a scrawny man in a wife beater rode up on a moped, and started blowing a whistle. The horses took off running:

I clung to the horse’s back as we whipped around the track. I miraculously managed to stay on my horse, but the next day I felt like I had been hurled down ten flights of stairs and had then been trampled by an angry mob all wearing soccer cleats.

“Moooom! I’m like a sack of broken bones. I can barely walk!”

My mother complacently listened to me complain about the pain for days.

The most illuminating discovery for me was that Jeju Island is known for its strongly matriarchal social structure, which is unusual for Korea. The women of Jeju Island are famous for their strength, indomitable spirit, and iron wills. Another revelation which explained so much!

Our tour guide explained to us how this social structure came to be. Men who fell out of favor with the king were banished to this tropical island paradise. And then – oh, the cruelty! – they were forbidden to work. Instead, they were forced to sit back and watch their spouses work. The women became “pearl divers” or haenyeo. These women were mythologized as mermaids:

…but in fact, diving is a hard and dangerous job. You can still see haenyeo bobbing around in the ocean these days, but the profession is dying out with the last of the elderly women who practice it. For centuries, the women have dived underwater for minutes at a time with no breathing apparatus.

We probably ate some of their catch at one of the restaurants we went to:

Waitresses kept bringing plate after plate until the long low table we were seated at was covered with seafood. Some of the seafood arrived at the table ablaze; many of the dishes were so fresh, that the creatures were still wriggling. As uncultured as it may seem, I couldn’t eat a thing and had to avert my gaze for the entire meal.

Luckily for me, I was filling up every morning with jook, a daily staple of the breakfast buffet at the Hyatt Regency:

Jook

Ingredients:

1 cup rice

6 cups water or broth

1 turkey or chicken carcass, bones and any leftover meat

Sesame oil

Soy sauce

Roasted, salted seaweed

Scallions sliced thin

Bring to a boil the rice, water/broth, and the turkey or chicken carcass. Lower heat and simmer for about an hour. Remove as many bones as possible. (I can never manage to get them all out, but the kids have become adept at discreetly fishing them out while eating). Put in a dash of sesame oil and a dash of soy sauce. Sprinkle a little seaweed and scallions on top. That’s my bare bones version, but the possibilities are endless. The hotel restaurant had lots of other things you could sprinkle on top such as shredded marinated beef and abalone.

 

Lumpy and Stupid Visit the Country, Part 2

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I remember once long ago asking my father what part of Korea he was from. He told me and then added, “There’s absolutely no reason why you would have ever heard of it.” On Tuesday we drove two and a half hours south of Seoul to Yesan-gun in South Chungcheong Province to visit my father’s last living sibling. As we were driving there I looked it up on wikipedia and found that in 2009, it earned the designation of a “‘slow city,’ one in which traditional cultures and communities are preserved.” Its most famous native son is the resistance fighter Yoon Bong-Gil. In 1932 during the Japanese Occupation, he carried out a bombing in Shanghai which killed a Japanese general and a Chancellor. Left seriously wounded were an army commander, the Japanese Consul-General, and a special envoy. As we got closer, the view out the window was mostly muddy rice paddies and greenhouses. In the midst of this agricultural landscape, it was quite a startling sight to see the monolithic memorial in Yoon Bong-Gil’s honor decorated with what looked like a million Korean flags.

We pulled into a narrow alley and came to a stop here:

This is a newer house that was built in the place of the old hanok, where my father lived as a child. It is now occupied by the widow of one of his older brothers, the second woman to the left:

My father’s brother (furthest to the right) and his wife (furthest to the left) drove the short distance from their own house to meet us there.

I was delighted when my aunt brought out an ancient-looking photo album. We have very few photos of my father, and none of him as a child. I had never seen this photo before:

My dad is not in this photo, but pictured are a lot of my aunts and uncles. My grandmother is in the center, fifth from the left.

Here’s one of just my grandmother. My dad has always said I look like her:

What do you think?

We admired the garden and the cats in the courtyard before heading to lunch. The calico’s name is “Nabi,” or Butterfly – a generic cat name in Korea. I wish I knew what the other kitty’s name is…My mom says it was probably also Nabi!

The county’s other claim to fame is Sudeoksa, a Buddhist temple, which has been designated a National Treasure. We drove there for lunch along with busloads of tourists who had the same idea:

A pama (perm) and a bright colored jacket – the official uniform for tourism.

We took a few photos:

and then went to my uncle’s house:

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a picture of the whole house, which is perched on supports with the entryway on the second floor.

This is the view from the front entrance:

Inside the house we were thrilled to find:

25 day old poodle puppies!

and a sweet Yorkie.

Both dogs immediately took to my dad, who has always been a dog-lover. Now I’m thinking it’s genetic…

After letting the mother poodle finish up his yogurt…

…my uncle kept hand feeding her and the Yorkie something else. He would crunch something in his own mouth and then spit it into his own hand to feed both of the dogs in turn. I was dying to know what it was. Later my dad told me it was candy.

After hugs and farewells, we headed back to Seoul with a stop for dinner:

…where this:

became this:

Lumpy and Stupid Visit the Country, Part I

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On Monday we drove two hours to the north of Seoul to visit the graves of my mother’s parents and brother. On Tuesday we drove two and a half hours to the south of Seoul to visit my father’s last living sibling – a brother who is three years older than he is.

En route we stopped at a rest area, where I couldn’t resist snapping photos like a hayseed visiting the big city for the first time.

Hmmm…Which side to pick?

WRONG SIDE!

The right side was equipped with this device, as many of the public restrooms are:

In the land of perfect people, with a push of a button, unpleasant bathroom noises can be masked with the pleasing sound of flowing water.

Here’s a good idea:

No Popeye’s Fried Chicken or Sbarros in this rest area:

We tried these cunning little walnut cakes, a specialty of the region:

Alas, like most Korean desserts, they were filled with sweet red bean paste.

More on Lumpy and Stupid’s visit to the country tomorrow.

Dog

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Did I freak you out with the title of this post? 

Remember: this week’s Stories from Easter Island are all about the foods my dad didn’t eat. But let’s face it. It is a notorious fact that Korean people have been known to eat dog meat. When we were together over the holidays, my dad explained to us the background behind this practice…

In the old days, nobody ate much meat. People would eat it maybe just once or twice a year. Farmers, after a season of hard physical labor, would need to eat some meat to recover their strength. But because they were unaccustomed to eating meat, they would get sick as soon as they ate it. It would give them terrible stomach aches. The one kind of meat that wouldn’t have that effect was dog meat. Apparently, dog meat is very easy to digest and never causes stomach upset.

Seeing our long faces, he continued his story…

You know, whenever I would go back to visit Korea, people would always want to take me out to restaurants and treat me to the best foods. They were always trying to offer me dog meat. I didn’t want to be rude to them, but I always declined. I had to explain that my children had made me promise not to eat it.

He imitated us in a high-pitched voice that made us laugh, “Dad! Promise us, you won’t eat dog meat when you’re in Korea!

Even though I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, I couldn’t lie to my own children, so I never ate it.

And that’s the last installment of this week’s Stories from Easter Island. I hope you’ve enjoyed sitting in the basement with me, and that you have a wonderful, wonderful weekend!

Sparrow

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Let’s pretend we’ve just gorged ourselves on Korean food and are drowsily sitting in the basement, sprawled on the couch with distended bellies full of rice and garlicky banchan. Imagine that you’re listening to my dad telling you more Stories from Easter Island. Maybe it’s because there is always so much to eat nowadays, and there was so little back then that the stories are so often about food. Here’s the first one…

DadI always had a dog when I was growing up in Korea, but I don’t like having a dog here. I feel sorry for dogs in America. In Korea, no one kept dogs in the house or on a leash. The dogs would be fed in the morning and then they’d join the rest of the village dogs. They would roam free in the fields all day long…huge packs of them. There would be fifteen to twenty dogs running around together all day long, having so much fun. In the evening, they would go back to their own houses and eat whatever scraps they were given.

All the dogs were mutts, but one of our dogs happened to grow up to look almost exactly like a purebred German Shepherd. He was such a smart dog. He was really good at catching mice and birds. He’d settle himself down in a patch of sunlight and pretend to be asleep. When a sparrow would wander past, he’d suddenly attack and catch it! Just like that!

Roasted sparrow tastes really good. You only eat the breast. They’re so small that they’re just one mouthful. Nobody ate meat in those days. We only had it for special occasions…maybe a little in dduk gook once a year on New Year’s. My brothers and I always wished we could eat the birds our dog caught, but we never got a chance to. Our mother would always take them to give to other kids in our village who had colds, because roasted sparrow is supposed to be a cure for the common cold.

Next time: More Stories from Easter Island.

That weekend when Grandma stabbed me and fed me poison

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From a distance, this house looks like your typical, vintage 50s brick rancher…

It’s only when you get a little closer that you realize something’s not quite right…To the left of the door, you have your predictable mid-Atlantic suburban landscaping: some Knockout Roses, an Azalea, and a Rhododendron. To the right of the house, the foundation planting scheme is far more unconventional:

Sure, azaleas and rhododendrons are nice…but can you eat them?

All of these plants (to the right, and the many squeezed into both side yards and burgeoning in overflowing beds in the backyard) will eventually make their way to the dinner table in some form or other.

As you may have guessed, the denizens of this house are not your average suburbanites. At least one of them, my mother, is not content with her own idiosyncratic planting schemes. She takes it upon herself to deal with her neighbor’s shrubbery too.

“See how nice this looks now? It’s because I prune it every day,” she says serenely as she breaks off branches from her neighbor’s shrub and secretes them deep into the foliage.

“Ummm, Mom? Should you really be messing around with other people’s plants?” I venture to say, casting a nervous glance over my shoulder.

“Why not?” she snaps. “The branches are in my way when I go for my walk. It annoys me. It looks much better this way…Did you just take a picture of me? Naughty girl!”

My children love visiting my parents’ house, where they are pampered, petted and allowed to freely loll about the basement all day long, playing board games and binge-watching the History Channel and Animal Planet. They look forward to the feasts that magically arrive at regular intervals. It’s a brave new world for my children, whose most exotic meals usually come from the frozen food section of Trader Joe’s.

Knowing how much my children, especially my second son, look forward to eating white rice, my mother never fails to cook up a pot for them. She does this despite the fact that my sister has proclaimed that the poor nutritional value of white rice makes it the equivalent of poison. (Never mind the fact that my sister herself always plies them with ice cream sundaes and sacks full of candy when they visit).

“Here’s your poison!” my mother announced with a flourish as she set the bowl of rice before my children, when were were visiting a couple of weekends ago.

As always happens when we visit my parents, self-control went out the window. My rice-loving son, who usually picks at his food like a bird, couldn’t stop gorging himself with the stuff. My mother watched him eat with her hands clasped over her heart. She loves nothing better than to watch people gobble up her food with relish.

After lunch, the children disappeared into the basement again. When I called them back up so that we could leave for a planned outing, my son came up the stairs, pale-faced and clutching his belly.

“I think I ate too much,” he groaned.

My mother called him over to sit by her on the couch. She took his hands in hers and began doing acupressure.

“I know you won’t let me do acupuncture on you,” she sighed, “but I know it would make you feel better.”

Have I mentioned that we sometimes call my mother a witch? Let me assure you that we say this with love and admiration. There’s something about that woman that allows her to get away with the most outrageous things. There’s something about that woman that makes people lose their minds, and go along with whatever she suggests, no matter how scary or preposterous it sounds.

Clearly under her spell, my son whimpered meekly, “You can do it, I guess.”

She practically clapped her hands in glee. She found her pincushion, a crazy looking do-it-yourself project she made a million years ago by stuffing a small container with her own hair and then covering it with cloth to resemble a whimsical hat. She whipped out a threaded needle from the pincushion and began methodically wiping it down with alcohol.

“HEY!” my sister shrieked indignantly, “You didn’t bother to sterilize the needle with alcohol when you did it to me the other day! You just rubbed the needle through your hair!”

My mother pretended not to hear her, though it’s very possible that the neighbors several blocks away may have.

She wrapped a string tightly around my son’s thumb and pierced the skin at the base of the nail to draw out blood.

“See how the blood is almost black? That shows you had really bad indigestion. Now let’s do the other side.”

She repeated the trick on the other hand.

“Do you feel better?” I asked him.

“Well,” he replied, “My stomach doesn’t hurt at all anymore. But my fingers are killing me!”

Later he perked up enough to ask me, “Have you called Dad yet to tell him that Grandma stabbed me and fed me poison?”