Aleece Yim just emailed me from Korea, and has granted permission for me to reprint her great message here. Take it away, Aleece....
One of the primary joys about of being home in Korea (after living in NY and LA) has been MY MOTHER'S
COOKING. Yes, my mom is indeed the best Korean cook in the world (well,
that I've encountered).
I have been positively giddy about Korean food since I've arrived. I eat
vegetables and fish that I can't even identify, and fruit and dishes I
haven't had in years. The flavors and textures threaten to overwhelm me
everyday. I swoon--you know how it is. Chusok, the harvest holiday and one
of the two major holidays of the year, was last week, and I thought that I'd
share with you a short summary of what we ate:
We no longer hold the family ceremony to pay tribute to our ancestors that
is the main element of Chusok. "Cha-ryae," as it's called, requires a huge
amount of food and lots of special dishes. (I don't think that my mom was
sorry to break from tradition.) Instead of a major gathering of the clan,
we had a small family dinner, which meant that instead of preparing for a
week, my mom just spent the whole day before Chusok cooking. I was
recruited to wash the dishes and to cook the jon.
Jon has been my lot at holiday preparations ever since I was 10 or 11, and
it's pretty mechanical work. The best part of it is eating the jon fresh
off the pan. It never tastes quite as good as when it's freshly made.
Normally, we'd make about 8 or 9 different kinds of jon, but this year we
stuck to 6 at much smaller quantities (fish, zucchini, kimchi--2 different
kinds, b/c we had to make my father's favorite, shiitake stuffed with a
ground beef & vegetable mixture, and bindaedduk). The bindaedduk was the
highlight for me on busy Chusok "eve." Early in the morning, my mom had the
mung beans freshly ground at a local shop that grinds grains and makes rice
cakes (bangat-gan: I can't think of an equivalent in English). I remember
when I was very young that mung beans were ground in a traditional metdol,
made of two large, round slabs of rock. My mom told me that my grandmother
had insisted on using the metdol for many years, but my mom eventually got
her way. With the fresh mung bean puree, my mom whipped up some bindaedduk
in time for our lunch break. Filled with gosari (Eng.?), pork, sprouts,
scallions and some other things I can't name, the pan cakes were so
delicious, I didn't eat anything else at the table. The mung bean flavor
was very strong; at a lot of restaurants, they mix in flour or rice powder
(a big no-no). (Sigh) Heaven.
Aside from the bindaedduk, she prepared galbi (short rib) jim--one of my
favorites and something you like as well, if I remember correctly--taro soup
made with a subtle, refreshing beef and radish (daikon) broth, and the usual
vegetable side dishes. The other highlight of Chusok was the dduk, or rice
cakes. I peeled a big bowl full of chestnuts, determined to have chestnut
filling for songpyon, the traditional Chusok sweet. My mom's tastes run
more savory than sweet, so she usually makes only sesame and whole-bean
fillings. Songpyon are steamed with pine needles, which are sold in big
bags in the markets around the holiday. We also had fresh injolmi, plain
rice cake, steamed in the evening at the bangat-gan. We took our own sweet
rice to the shop, which they grind into powder and steam into one big block
right then and there. The injolmi still warm, we cut off pieces and dipped
them in jochong (a mild molasses-type sweetener usually made from rice).
Heaven. It was hard not to keep snacking on the chewy injolmi, which is
very filling, while assembling pat(red bean) injolmi, Hwanghae
province-style: taking a piece of rice cake, stuffing it with a sweet red
bean paste, sometimes with an additional walnut piece, and then rolling it
in a fine, yellow bean powder. I know I raved about fresh jon, but fresh
dduk was something else altogether. I can't remember the last time I had
freshly steamed dduk. Yum.
I had ambitions of learning how to cook during my time here, but the
prospect is daunting. I find out more and more just how labor-intensive
Korean cooking is. For example, we received some yugwa, traditional sweets
made from rice (crunchy, fried but light & airy, as if the rice had been
spun, covered with sesame or other toppings) as a holiday gift, and I
casually asked my mom how they are made. She proceeded to enumerate the
dozens of steps which included keeping the ingredients in a warm place for a
few days, drying them out, cutting into pieces, stretching out pieces,
adding this, adding that...I lost track and cried out, no wonder no one uses
the traditional methods any more! She said that commercially produced yugwa
are usually made with sugar syrup instead of jochong, which makes them more
sweet and also alters the texture, not to mention the preservatives. I then
made the mistake of asking how jochong is made, which launched her on
another 10 minutes of dizzying explanations.
Her theory is that human labor in the home (i.e., women) used to be
abundant, especially in the wealthier classes. Women weren't allowed to go
out or lead a life outside the home, so they spent their time refining their
cooking and sewing. I am always torn between lamenting the passing of
traditional cuisine and celebrating the Korean woman's liberation from the
kitchen. *I* am certainly not going to stay home all day to cook. It's
inevitable, I suppose, yet...the food...Tragic.
p.s.--my mom has been cooking up some delicious mushrooms recently, and I don't know if they're available in the States. I believe they're called wild pine mushrooms in English, but I'm not sure. They're in season for about 2-3 months (now), and they are quite pricey. But so delicious. A great, resilient texture and lovely earthy flavor.
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