“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.