The Korean cuisine is widely considered by nutritionists to be one of the healthiest in the world. Of course, the first thing they immediately mention is kimchi which, by now, is widely known throughout the world. The kind most people know about is baechu kimchi, the one made with what is known as Chinese or napa cabbage, known in Australia as “wombat”, with a lot of chili pepper and other seasonings and ingredients. But there is much more to kimchi than fermented cabbage, and much more to the Korean cuisine than kimchi.
After four trips to Korea, I think I have still only scratched the surface of this cuisine. Still, in this segment I would like to share with you a little of what I have learned, which is already enough to be the chapter of a book, or a small cookbook in itself!
Let’s start with kimchi, since that’s where everybody begins. Since I arrived in September and didn’t leave until late October, I missed the primary kimchi-making time, which normally takes place after the first week in November. That is a mega-deal often involving entire families, even extended families or neighborhoods. The mother of my daughter-in-law normally makes baechu kimchi with 100 heads of napa cabbage she and her husband have organically grown themselves in the garden of their country home. They spend about a week together picking and cleaning the cabbage and making the kimchi together. The idea is to make enough baechu kimchi to last an entire year, until the following November. This means, though, that by September the supply of baechu kimchi is running really low. But there are at least 200 other forms of kimchi, according to a Seoulistic, a website I found explaining the history and different types of kimchi.
When I arrived, it was time to make summer kimchi, known as oi kimchi, made with cucumbers instead of napa cabbage. If you click on the link you can find a recipe explaining how it is made. I had already attended a kimchi workshop in Germany, where we made three kinds of kimchi, one of them with cucumbersh. My teacher, who has spent a lot of time in Korea, urged me before I left to try all the traditionally fermented things in Korea I could get onto my tongue! “A good place to try all of that is at a Buddhist temple”, she said. Dahae, my daughter-in-law, has an aunt who is a Buddhist nun, and her mother, Hanna, sister of one of the nuns and also a devout Buddhist, spends much of her helping out at the temple. I hit the jackpot when one day, Hanna said, “The nuns wanted to know if you’d like to help them make kimchi. They’ll be making the summer cucumber kimchi tomorrow. Would you like to help? Is the Prime Minister of Korea Korean? That was on my bucket list! But I didn’t want to push myself onto anyone, so didn’t know how I could try out fermented temple food. I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days there, making cucumber kimchi, watching them make two other kinds of kimchi, and eating their delicious, nutritious vegetarian temple food, which includes many fermented roots and greens I have never heard of. And then, over the next few weeks, to visit and watch them cook on several other occasions.
We made buckets full of cucumber kimchi, which the nuns shared with Hanna and others. Cucumber kimchi from the temple appeared every evening on the dinner table.
During my previous trip to Korea, I met Beomseok, my niece’s boyfriend. They have since broken up, but Beomseok and I have remained friends, calling each other nephew and auntie. Beomseok is a Protestant Christian from an entirely different background than Dahae with her Buddhist relatives. When I told him about making cucumber kimchi at the temple, he said, “Nancy, you are privileged to experience something very few people get the chance to have.”
“What shall we eat for dinner?” Jayden asked me. “Shall I cook up some pasta and vegetables? I think there’s a little bacon in the fridge.”
“No! Let’s eat something Korean! I’m in Korea for the first time in two years. Is it possible to order something when we’re in quarantine?”
“Yes, we can. What a good idea!” He made a quick phone call to Dahae, his wife. Dahae was stationed at her parents’ home with little Lian, observing the quarantine regulations. As far as we understood the regulations, I was allowed to be with no one but Jayden until I tested negative for the coronavirus with a PCR test at an official testing location. Having just arrived from the airport, and it was 6 pm, there was no testing possible until the next day. So, from where she was staying at her parents’, she went online and ordered for us from Bonjuk, a chain restaurant in Seoul with a good reputation for porridge and bibimbap.
Jayden ordered mushroom bulgogi bibimbap. Bibimbab has become one of my go-to recipes when I’m in a hurry and want something nutritious and satisfying. A few years ago I wouldn’t have called a stir-fry of various vegetables, rice, and a fried egg with a flaming red sweetish hot sauce my idea of a favorite dish, but as Jayden once told me, one acquires a taste for Korean food only gradually. I’ve had plenty of bibimbap over the years, so this time I wanted to try something new, even though bibimbap is also one of Bonjuk’s specialties.
I decided to order something I hadn’t been able to eat during my previous visit, but have been seeing on the K-dramas on Netflix – porridge. In Korea, porridge seems to be something people eat when they’re sick, like the chicken soup we in the West eat. But there must be more to it than that, because perfectly healthy people seem to be eating it all the time in restaurants all over Korea. It wouldn’t be a staple on the menu if people only ate it when they were sick. There aren’t THAT many sick people, I hope! I ordered something called “seven-vegetable porridge” – “ilgob gaji yachae joog”.
I sat back and relaxed. Jayden was no longer a pixel image on a screen. I could touch him, feel the vibrations of his voice, and bask in his presence. I would have him all to myself for more than twenty-four hours! We talked, and talked, having the leisure to discuss anything we felt like for as long or briefly as we wanted. Jayden has learned a lot about being a gracious host by living in Korea. In Korea, you treat your parents and elders with special respect. It felt good to be waited on, hand and foot, by my son, who poured me a glass of cold barley tea after I declined the beer he was drinking. Alcohol does not agree with me after a long flight. I didn’t even miss it – I was at least as soothed by the conversation and barley tea as a glass of beer would have done.
Two years ago my conversations with Jayden were not soothing. “I was in the middle,” he tells me now, “and that was not a comfortable place to be.” None of us were comfortable that trip, and I understood least of all why Dahae wasn’t talking to me. After much anguish and many more conversations, I have come to understand that I had somehow inadvertently hurt my daughter-in-law in a major way, but her culture wouldn’t allow her to talk to me about it. But we managed to talk things out anyway, albeit years later, to clear some of the misunderstanding, and to restore our relationship. More than restore it – it has been resurrected into something much more beautiful than anything either of us had imagined, and has a beautiful, glorious, vibrating life of its own! I will write about relationship difficulties, the misery of cultural misunderstandings and the miracle of resurrection in another post. For now, suffice it to say that it felt wonderful to be sitting with Jayden, knowing that Dahae and I were also on the best of terms.
A restored relationship and relaxed environment are like candles and tablecloths, providing the setting so that comfort food can live up to its name, something that can comfort and cuddle the soul. When the setting is right – the relationship is sound, and everything is relaxed, then comfort is elevated to sublimity. Food is a fascinating substance, I think. One would think it was purely a materialistic thing, made up of nothing more than various combinations of molecules, chemicals balanced in various proportions. But food has spiritual properties as well. It can heal people, body and soul. Even when relationships ae struggling, they can be restored while sitting at a table, chewing on molecules. Hopes and dreams can be ignited. Food is a wonderful medium for us spiritual seekers as we journey through life. Comfort food is so much more than just some dish we like to eat.
I asked Jayden recently which dishes come to mind when he thinks about comfort food. Chile con carne, lentil soup, and kimchi stew, he said. What an interesting combination, I thought! These are all products of the cultures he has lived in. Chili con carne and cornbread are something I often cooked for our family as he was growing up, something I passed on from my American heritage. I had never thought about that before, but I suppose I could call it comfort food too. I do remember being literally warmed and comforted with chili con carne on the day my siblings and I scattered the ashes of our dear sister, who suddenly died much too soon. We threw some of the ashes into the icy waters of Lake Superior on a bitterly cold December day. We buried more of them in the garden of one of her best friends. After we were finished she treated us, fingers almost too stiff to remove our mittens – to chili and cornbread. We sat around her wood-burning stove in her little house, listening to the wood crackle, warming our fingers around our bowls of steaming chili.
I enjoy the mushiness of the kidney beans, and the rich Tex-Mex spiciness, contrasted with the warm, slightly sweet, tender texture of cornbread, with butter melting into the bread as soon as you spread it on. I guess we could call it an American dish, but I suspect some elements of it immigrated up from Mexico into Texas, spreading across the United States and then exported to the rest of the world.
Lentil soup is a staple of German cooking, something I often used to serve for lunch, just opening up a can I had bought at the supermarket and warming it up in time for lunch. I learned to make lentil soup, however, from the Jewish mother of one of my boyfriends, long before I met my husband. I suppose my lentil soup is a sort of Jewish-Italian version.
Kimchi stew is something Jayden learned to love while living in Korea. Like chili con carne, it is tangy, but not overly so, because the cooking tames the spicy acrid taste of the kimchi. It comes with tender chunks of pork shoulder, and often soft tofu.
My choices, like Jayden’s, are a product of the places I have lived, also not limited to the things I ate as a child. But childhood foods are definitely some of my favorite comfort foods. Waffles with butter and maple syrup. Mushy, cooked oatmeal. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But also creamy German noodles called spaetzle, mixed with fried onions and tangy gruyere cheese melted into it. I find it interesting to discover that food I first tasted in Germany could also be among those that warm my soul. Germany has become a part of me I marvel at discovering, as I realize that I must have assimilated to some degree, adding a German dish to my list of comfort foods.
The food arrived. My order had a pretty pink drink with it, a little sweet, and a couple of pickled things on the side. I took a picture of our dinner, slid my spoon into the soft mush, brought it to my mouth, closed my eyes and started wrapping my tongue around this soft, creamy custard. There was no dairy nor meat in it, but it was creamy nonetheless, cooked for who knows how long until it was so soft there was nothing really to chew. I could simply let it warm my mouth and later my tummy as it slithered down, warming the rest of me as it melted into my body. I took another spoonful. It was not purely bland, although my body had been unconsciously craving the blandness this dish provided. There were tiny chopped vegetables mixed throughout it, and there was a slightly nutty hint of sesame oil. I was hooked.
Before Jayden and Dahae had met, I’d never imagined visiting Korea, let alone tasting anything from this country. And now, six years into their marriage, I was incorporating the Korean version of chicken soup into my own repertoire. Vegetable porridge, jachae jook has become one of the foods I will turn to when my body and soul cry for comfort.
Mushroom bulgogi bibimbap
You can find recipes for vegetable porridge and bibimbap on the recipe page in this blog.
When my son was in college, part of the experience of majoring in European Studies was to spend a semester abroad. He was allowed four choices. His third choice, Korea, was the place destiny took him to. After one semester there, he fell in love with the country. And months and years later, after studying the Korean language in Korea and ultimately getting his MBA in an English-language program at a university in Seoul, he met his future wife there. This is where they now live with their little son.
This decision of his university to send my son to Korea ended up changing my life as well. My first trip to Korea was to their wedding. I can’t say I took to Korea like a duck to water, but I have enjoyed each visit, and little by little, this country has been growing on me. Almost all I know of Korea is only Seoul, so I can’t write about much more in this series, but Seoul does represent much of Korea. Some thirteen million of Korea’s 50 million plus inhabitants live in Seoul. That is about a fourth of the nation’s people!
This latest trip was my fourth – it’s about time I wrote something about this place! My last previous visit to Korea was in the autumn and Christmas of 2019. Like most people on this planet, I had assumed that life would proceed as usual, and that I’d be back in Korea, visiting my son and his family there in 2020. But no such luck. The corona pandemic visited every part of the planet instead and seems to have made itself at home among us like a parasite, eating away at things we thought were our birthright. Things like traveling.
So, returning to Seoul would be a little like returning to at least something that was familiar. Familiar like the feeling an astronaut must have, back up in the space station again, looking down at planet earth for the fourth time. In other words, not at all! But – I have been faithfully learning Korean for the past two years and faithfully entertaining myself by watching Korean dramas on Netflix. I have tried cooking all the Korean food my daughter-in-law’s mother cooked for me the last time I was there, so I at least know the names and flavors of some of these Korean foods. And I have even made kimchi, the one dish Korea is famous for. This should surely qualify me to call Seoul home!
In the late summer of 2021, as more and more people were being vaccinated, South Korea eased its travel restrictions. Normally, anyone entering into South Korea must undergo a two-week quarantine in a government-approved residence, paying for this themselves. But then, fully vaccinated (two vaccinations of everything except Johnson & Johnson’s one shot) people who have immediate family in South Korea could apply for a quarantine exemption. It is a complicated, lengthy process, but I applied for an exemption and was granted it. So I booked a flight immediately! Even as I write this, the rules have changed yet again. Last week the omicron variant made itself known. It seems to be spreading wildly, so many countries, including South Korea, have taken steps to restrict travel. Korea is back to a mandatory quarantine for all would-be travelers into their country. That decision just squelched my Christmas plans – all the more reason to reminisce here about the precious few weeks I was able to spend there this autumn.
I have always glanced enviously at those lucky few who get to travel business class. Sometimes I have actually been allowed to walk through the business or first class section on my way to my cramped seat in economy. And each time I have promised myself, “One time in my life I’m going to fly business class too!” This seemed my golden opportunity. I hadn’t flown anywhere in two years except for a short flight to Majorca earlier this year, again after restrictions started easing. Tickets are cheaper than ever, I suppose as a means of enticing people to fly again. I found a reasonably-priced business class ticket to Seoul on KLM.
The lounge in Düsseldorf was nothing special, but they did serve nice warmed Balkan cevapcici, little sausage-shaped meatballs, with rice, There is plenty of booze available for those who want alcohol. You can go to the bathroom there in complete privacy. The KLM lounge in Amsterdam was much more inviting, with many choices of food, drink, comfortable easy chairs, and books to browse through, whiling away the time until boarding the plane. First, I headed for the bathroom, eager to see what was on offer here. Showers! Changing rooms! I had plenty of time to kill, so I looked through the books on display. I found one about a man who cycled halfway around the world on his bike. As I gazed longingly at the photos, I wished I were young enough to do that. My brother cycled halfway across North America once, on his way to visit our mother on the West Coast.
Flying business class was truly a way to pamper myself, with a collection of cosmetics from Rituals in a nice bag, and noise-cancelling headphones, slippers, a big pillow and warm blanket, but I was disappointed in the food created by their star chef. It was, however, nicely served with a cloth place mat, real cutlery and stoneware dishes, but there were no Korean or even Asian entrees on this flight to Korea. The best thing was being able to turn my seat into a bed, lie down with a warm blanket and pillow and get several hours of good sleep!
The night began on the ground in Schipol Airport, and the next day, the day of my arrival, began somewhere about 35,000 feet above the ground, after midnight, depending on how you determined what was midnight. Time becomes a fluid substance when you’re flying. And when I finally arrived, disheveled, dirty and disoriented, it felt a little as though I was also some fluid substance about to dissipate into space. I had slept about five hours, half my flight, time, but I still had to shake myself into the shape of my body again, and remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming, that I was truly in Seoul – or rather, Incheon, a city near Seoul, where the airport is located.
It didn’t take long to find out that I was truly in Korea. At each of the many checkpoints there was always some Korean immigration officer instructing us how to fill in the various forms and download the app everyone entering into Korea was going to have to use for the next two weeks. Bus some of the instructions were in Korean, and the only way I could install the app was with the help of a nice young man waiting with me to go into immigration. With this app I would have to record my body temperature twice a day for the next two weeks and answer questions about my physical condition. After downloading the app, I was shepherded to officers at various points along the way, handing in forms I been instructed to download and print before I even left my apartment in Germany. Woe to those without copies of their quarantine exemption!
After well over an hour, and after many interviews and forms to be handed in, I was finally ready to pick up my luggage at the baggage claim and be reunited with my son for the first time in two years. In this disconcerting time we are all having to navigate ourselves through, without any guidebooks to show us the way, I was finally allowed to be with family, the only familiar thing about my life these days.