What I learnt from a year of cooking Korean food with my mother

I’ve eaten my mother’s food my whole life, says Eric Kim, but the pandemic made me realise how much I didn’t know about her cooking

Thursday 06 May 2021 10:05
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<p>Bibimbap is one of the most popular and well known Korean dishes</p>

Bibimbap is one of the most popular and well known Korean dishes

Let the record show that I make a terrible roommate. I can still hear my mother’s voice as she encountered the sink full of dishes, the counter spilling over with spices and syrups: “I can’t live like this!”

About nine months ago, I moved back home to write a cookbook with my mother, Jean. A couch-surfing freeloader, I was only supposed to be there for a couple of months to work on the kimchi chapter, a selection of heirloom recipes I would never have been able to develop over the phone. But as each month passed, I found more and more excuses to stay.

By cooking with Jean in such a structured, quotidian way, I was able to stop time, a compelling state for an anxious mind like mine. I could finally slow down and ask her questions about the foods we ate when I was growing up. What I didn’t know was that I was entering a master class in Korean home cooking.

All my life, I thought I knew how my mother cooked, because she had done it for my brother and me every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I had watched. But there were so many details I missed, like how, when making her signature kimchi jjigae, she blanches the pork ribs first with fresh ginger to remove any gaminess. Or how she always blooms gochugaru in a little fat before starting red pepper-based stews. Or how she adds a small handful of pine nuts to her baechu kimchi, because that’s what her mother did. (I wish I could interview my grandmother and ask her why she did that.)

In 2004, columnist and cookbook author Nigella Lawson wrote: “Quite often you cook something the way your mother did before you.” Describing an allegory that has since been dubbed the Pot Roast Principle – in which a cook cuts the ends off a roast because her mother does it, who does it because her mother does it (the punchline being that the grandmother only does it because, depending on the telling, her pot or her oven is too small) – Lawson discussed the way children of cooks straddle wanting to honour tradition and, as sentient beings, wanting to carefully tinker.

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“So we credit recipes with much more authority than they necessarily deserve,” she wrote. “It might be better to regard them really as more of an account of a way of cooking a dish rather than a do-this-or-die barrage of instructions.”

At first, I treated some of Jean’s culinary quirks as accounts rather than barrages. I gave her a hard time about cooking with maesil cheong, a Korean green plum syrup (often labelled an extract), to lend sweetness to her savoury dishes. I told her that if more readily available sweeteners can be used, we should use them. But maesil cheong is a main ingredient in her kimchi recipe and not infrequently finds its way into her jjigaes as well. When we tried certain recipes with, say, granulated sugar in place of the idiosyncratically tart, fruity syrup, she’d take a bite and say, “It’s not the same.” And she was right. It wasn’t the same.

As I watched my mother cook and move and breathe in her own kitchen, I realised that maesil cheong is an essential ingredient to her in the same way maple syrup and dark brown sugar are to me. So I started to bend.

But even then, I had questions. I wanted to tinker.

Growing up, after long days at the swimming pool, my brother and I often came home to Jean’s kimchi jjigae, a bubbling, cauldron-hot stew of extra-fermented kimchi and other bits and bobs from the refrigerator. We usually had it with spam, pork belly or tofu, but my favourite was when she stewed ribs in that gochugaru-flecked lagoon. But I wouldn’t, for instance, inherently think to blanch those ribs. Wouldn’t you lose some of the pork flavour, not to mention the glorious fat, that would be better pooled in the stew instead of in the sink?

Sure, she explained. But the resultant broth will taste much less clean, and the kimchi will be overcooked by the time you get the pork tender enough. “Anyway,” she told me, “the point of kimchi jjigae is the kimchi.”

Kim’s mother adds a handful of pine nuts to her kimchi to give it a ‘Sprite-like freshness’

Unsatisfied, I pressed her again. “So why do you add pine nuts to your kimchi?” She thought hard and finally came up with her own response, one that wasn’t, “Because that’s how my mother did it.”

“The pine nuts are surprises for future you,” she said. “When you bite into one, it releases a Sprite-like freshness.” According to Jean, it’s the little things that find you later.

The Pot Roast Principle – in which a cook cuts the ends off a roast because her mother does it, who does it because her mother does it (the punchline being that the grandmother only does it because, depending on the telling, her pot or her oven is too small)

During my time at my mother’s, I was in charge of dinner. One night after work, I only had a few minutes to get food on the table, so I opened the fridge: sad vegetables, all languishing in the crisper drawer. Bibimbap, or mixed rice, came to mind. So I took a baking tray and arranged the sad vegetables on it to roast in a hot oven. The sad vegetables were no longer sad. I realised I could also reheat leftover white rice and bake a handful of eggs on a second tray.

As dinner took care of itself in the oven, I poured myself a cold beer and waited patiently with empty bowls to be filled with the rice, eggs and roasted vegetables, each portion dabbed with gochujang for savoury heat and dribbled with toasted sesame oil for nuttiness.

When Jean took a bite of my baking tray bibimbap, she said: “I’m never doing it the other way again.”

On the last day, the morning before I drove back home, I noticed that my mother had left on my bed a tray of gyeran bap, or egg rice, with kimchi and a mug of burdock-root tea. I would miss these little deliveries we made each other, two introverted roommates leaving behind treats like anonymous neighbours. I usually left her late-night recipe tests with a note: TASTE. Or toasted slices of milk bread. Once, she left me a mojito at three in the afternoon.

When I brought the empty tray downstairs, I saw that she had finally cleared the counters of all my spices, equipment and baking trays. “Oh, this is what the kitchen looks like,” I joked.

Gochujang, a fundamental ingredients in Korean cooking, is made from red chilli pepper flakes, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt

“You were here a long time,” she said. “Now I can live in peace.”

For weeks, I dreaded this moment, the leave-taking. But it came and went, as things do. I packed the car, hugged my mum goodbye and drove off, promising to visit again in a few months.

Back in my apartment, I made a batch of her kimchi. I sprinkled in some pine nuts, thinking of what she had said, how the little things are what find you later. When the jar of kimchi fermented, weeks later, I turned it into kimchi jjigae, first blanching the ribs like she did and blooming the gochugaru in butter. That first bite was clean, the disparate parts alloying like copper and tin, and I had totally forgotten about the pine nuts until I bit into one. It surprised me with its Sprite-like freshness.

I picked up the phone and called her.

Baking tray bibimbap

This version uses beef, but use oyster mushrooms and load up on veggies for a meat-free version

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 35 minutes

Ingredients

170g oyster mushrooms, torn into bite-size pieces

1 medium sweet potato, scrubbed and thinly sliced into half-moons

1 small red onion, thinly sliced crosswise into half-moons

200g coarsely chopped Tuscan or curly kale (from 1 small bunch)

6 tbsp olive oil

Salt and black pepper

800g cooked medium-grain white rice, preferably cold leftovers

4 large eggs

4 tsp toasted sesame oil, plus more to taste, for serving

4 tsp gochujang, plus more to taste, for serving

Kimchi, for serving (optional)

Method

1. Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and heat oven to 230C.

2. On a large baking tray, arrange the mushrooms, sweet potato, red onion and kale into four separate quadrants. Drizzle the vegetables with three tablespoons of the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat, keeping the types of vegetables separate. Try to not crowd the vegetables; you want them to brown, not steam. Roast on the top rack until the sweet potato is fork-tender, the onion and mushrooms are slightly caramelised and the kale is crispy but not burnt, 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, place another large tray on the bottom rack to heat. When the vegetables are almost done cooking, in the last five minutes or so, remove the heated pan from the oven and evenly drizzle the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil on it. Spread the rice over half of the pan. Crack the eggs onto the other half and carefully transfer to the oven. Bake until the whites are just set and the yolks are still runny, three to six minutes (this time may vary depending on your oven, so watch it carefully).

4. To serve, divide the rice evenly among four bowls. Now divide the vegetables evenly as well, placing them in four neat piles over each portion of rice. Use a spatula to slide the eggs over the vegetables. Drizzle each bowl with one teaspoon of sesame oil and dollop with one teaspoon of gochujang, adding more if desired. Mix everything together with a spoon or chopsticks before diving in, and serve kimchi alongside, if you prefer.

Kimchi jjigae with ribs

You can find most of the ingredients online or in Asian supermarkets

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

1 rack baby back ribs (about 680g), sliced into individual ribs

1 (7.5cm) piece ginger, scrubbed and cut into 1.3cm slices

1 tbsp unsalted butter

1 tbsp gochugaru (see tips below), plus more to taste

4 large garlic cloves, minced

300g coarsely chopped ripe kimchi (about 450g), plus any accumulated juices

Salt

1 medium yellow onion, halved and cut into 0.5cm slices

1 tbsp fish sauce, plus more to taste

1 tbsp maesil cheong (green plum syrup; see tips), plus more to taste

34g watercress, leaves and tender stems, for serving (from 1 small bunch; optional)

Cooked white rice, for serving

Method

1. Place the ribs and ginger in a large casserole dish or other heavy-bottomed pot and cover with cold tap water. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook the ribs until they are no longer pink and grey foam collects at the surface, about five minutes. Drain the ribs in a colander and rinse under cold tap water. Discard the ginger. Rinse the pot out if it is especially dirty; place the empty pot back on the stove.

2. Melt the butter in the pot over low heat and add the gochugaru and garlic. Stir until aromatic, just a few seconds, watching carefully to avoid burning the gochugaru or garlic. Add the kimchi and one pint of water and stir to combine. Nestle in the cleaned ribs in a single layer and season the cooking liquid generously with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover the pot and gently boil until the kimchi starts to soften, five to seven minutes.

3. Add the onion slices in a single layer over the ribs, tamping them down slightly to dampen them in the porky kimchi juices. Cover the pot again and continue gently boiling until the ribs are cooked through and the onions have released their juices and thinned out the broth slightly, 10 to 15 minutes. These ribs should tear off the bone easily but remain juicy and chewy; they aren’t meant to be fall-apart tender.

4. Turn off the heat and stir in the fish sauce and maesil cheong, adding more to taste. Season with a final pinch of gochugaru and salt if desired. Top the stew with the watercress, if using, and let it wilt slightly in the residual heat. Serve the pot of kimchi jjigae in the centre of the table, family-style, with a ladle and bowls of fresh white rice and a plate for the bones.

Tips

Gochugaru, or red pepper powder, is available online, at Korean or Asian supermarkets and at most supermarkets. It sometimes comes in larger bags, which is not a problem because it keeps in the freezer beautifully.

You can find maesil cheong, or green plum syrup (also labelled an extract), online or in Korean or Asian supermarkets. Add a splash to a mug of hot water and drink it as tea, or mix it into salad dressings, marinades and stews as an aromatic sweetener with a touch of tartness.

© The New York Times

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