Today Seoyoung is leaving. She’s heading back to Seoul to figure out her future. Her father is sick and she hasn’t been home in three years..and she misses her mom’s home-cooking.
Last week, as one last cooking hurrah, we made kimchi together. We went to my friend’s restaurant, put on our whites and rolled up our sleeves. I got to chopping Napa cabbage while she robo-couped massive amounts of garlic and ginger, mixed cabbage with loads of coarse salt, prepped gochutgaru pepper (Korean red chili flakes minus seeds) with brined shrimp, and trimmed up some scallions and onions to add water content, color and zing. It was a big project–we made enough kimchi to fill an eight quart lexan. I wanted something to remind me of her and her hot-tempered ways, so what better than a fiery, pungent kimchi?
I couldn’t stop smiling as we worked because Seoyoung has taught me so much about Korean food, yet somehow, we saved a Korean staple for our last kitchen encounter. How, after a year of cooking with her, had I not made kimchi??? She was the one who served me my first bowl of pork rib stew (and then I became obsessed and made it every other day–real good for the heart I hear..!), cooked seaweed soup for me when I had a cold, and introduced me to my favorite banchan dish: salted fish stomach.
Before Seoyoung, my Korean food knowledge was limited. I thought I knew Korean cuisine, but I only knew the basics. I would go to Korea town and order beef galbi or bulgogi. Perhaps even bibimbop. When I was feeling adventurous, I’d sample different varieties of mandoo. I never knew a whole other Korean world existed until Seoyoung showed me the way. Chinatown used to be my Asian staple (wait, it still is…), but now I mix up the flavors, trading all-spice and star anice for fermented cabbage and corn syrup anchovies. Both cuisine’s main focus is in titillating the tongue; teasing out taste bud reactions you didn’t know were possible. Seoyoung is all about the “show and tell” when it comes to her homeland food, and my mouth reaped all the benefits as my Korean food knowledge was being fed.
Now that she is leaving, I feel as if I have to keep the Korean torch alive. Aside from the five different types of kimchi in my fridge, I figured I would try to seduce my roommate into loving the food that I’ve come to obsess about. Jon’s friend was in town visiting a few days ago and he wanted to take him out for a great meal. I suggested Gahm Mi Oak, a restaurant known for their ox bone soup and daikon kimchi. Seoyoung had taken me here back in the fall and I fell in love with their dish of modum bossam. It’s a ridiculously soul satisfying dish that requires assembly at the table–and I love getting my hands dirty during a meal. Everything tastes so much better when there’s sauce dribbling down your wrist. Truth. A large platter of roasted pork belly, salted cabbage, a small mountain of oysters, chili, garlic and kimchi are all meant to be wrapped up into little bundles and then accented with soy bean paste, shrimp dip and chili sauce. You can add and adjust flavors to your heart’s content. And the combination of a chilled oyster and a warm piece of pork belly somehow sets off philharmonic overtures in your head! The dish is easily large enough for 3 people, but in my most gluttonous dreams, I would order a plate just for myself.
We also ordered another insanely tasty dish called yook hwe. Another massive platter arrived at the table with beef, red as a pomegranate, cut into match-stick size pieces, piles of cucumber, Asian pear and a raw egg yolk cradled in its cucumber dwelling. The waiter quickly mixed all the ingredients and placed the glistening mound of raw beef in the middle of the table. This is beef tartar taken to a new plateau…a Mt. Everest level. The dressing is sesame oil, sugar, and soy sauce, the cucumber and pear add loft and crunch, and the beef is so cold it’s on the verge of frozen. But the second your teeth envelop the chilly, aromatic salad, the beef melts on your tongue, the sesame warms your senses, and the touch of sugar entices you back, bite after bite…all the while the veggies make you feel good and guiltless about it all!
I could read the looks on both my friends’ faces. They were thoroughly loving every ounce of the meal. Though they’re both pretty open to food experiences, I was nervous that fermented cabbage, bold chili, and raw beef could possibly be a turn-off for them. Oh contraire. The plates were practically licked clean and both complained of the onset of a food coma.
Seoyoung not only taught me how to cook Korean food, but how it is meant to be enjoyed with friends. Korean food is communal; it’s a cuisine that relies on large meals with groups of friends and family. I’m really looking forward to going to Korea this summer and spending all day eating at her mom’s house. Rough life, I know, but I’m chalking it up to my Korean education!
So for the time being, I’ve lost one of my best friends here. I’ve become so accustomed to eating, cooking and thinking in Korean that I guess I’ll just have to continue on my path of Korean education until I’m fluent in Korean ways. I’ve been so lucky to have another friend in my life who is so completely consumed by food, ingredients, cooking, learning, reading and basically anything that’s consumption related–she’s irreplaceable. I will miss our day trips to H Mart for cod roe, Hong Kong Super Market for fish sauce and cheap vegetables, and Flushing for chewy black noodles. Sigh. Hurry back to New York Seoyoung…and bring some fermented crab back while you’re at it!