Home Run: My Journey Back to Korean Food | Roy Ahn

from Gastronomica 9:4

Last winter, I dined with my then-pregnant wife, Amy, at a Korean restaurant in a suburban strip mall, where all good Korean food establishments seem to be. This hole-in-the-wall, located on a stretch of highway outside Boston flanked by retail plazas and ranch houses, was filled with Koreans like myself, plus a Caucasian or two, Amy being one. The proprietor sat us in a spot away from the section with barbecue-grill tabletops, but the smell of seared beef mixed with garlic, soy sauce, and brown sugar still permeated our clothing. (Pop quiz: How long does the smell of beef bulgogi linger in a pair of blue jeans? Answer: Until it gets thrown into a washing machine.)

The waitresses spun like dervishes from table to kitchen to table, bringing out vegetable and fish banchan dishes in one pass and clearing them away in another, with little respite between customers to wipe their beads of sweat. I took particular notice of the diners’ white bowls, which reminded me of outsized pieces from Go, my late father’s favorite board game.

After a cup of tea and our own banchan, we awaited the main courses. Mine would be galbi-chim—braised short ribs—served with rice. I imagined pulling the meat off the bone and the flecks of burnt sesame seeds staining the white rice a deep brown, so I was understandably shocked when the waitress placed before me a bowl of oxtail soup. Had she misunderstood? No, I quickly realized. I had ordered the wrong dish.

On the surface, confusing galbitang with galbi-chim would seem an innocuous lapse. Both are beef dishes whose names share the same Korean-language prefix. But the two couldn’t be more different. Imagine a Bavarian confusing knockwurst with bratwurst! As I lowered pieces of kimchi into the beef broth to give it a spice kick, and as Amy sipped her way through her bowl of bean-curd-and-vegetable stew, I wondered whether my slipup was an omen: could I be losing my ethnic bearings? If so, there could hardly be a worse time.

I was harboring all sorts of yuppie anxieties about first-time fatherhood—the unit cost of diapers and 529 College Savings Plans chief among them. But as a Korean-American, I was also worrying about our son’s cultural identity. I especially looked forward to introducing him to my culinary heritage. That task would be solely up to me—Amy is from a multiple-generation Wisconsin family with European roots, and our culinary union is best described as Land of Rice meets Land of Cheese. Consider some of the foods you might see in her parents’ house near Madison: pepper Jack, butterkasse, and Limberger cheeses, along with sauerkraut, pickled Brussels sprouts, and wursts of all kinds.

As for my parents, they won’t be around to introduce my son to their native foods, teach him how to bow properly to his elders, sing Korean nursery rhymes, or explain to him that the number four represents bad luck for Koreans. Both of them died in a car accident when I was twenty-four.

I was born in Seoul in 1972. My parents, a physician and an elementary school teacher, were concerned about raising children in South Korea at a time when military conflict with North Korea seemed imminent, so they immigrated to the United States with my older sister and me when I was four. My official, stamped Korean passport noted that I was “90 cm” tall and weighed “11 kg”—about the equivalent of a twenty-five-pound bag of rice. But soon enough I began to grow, my chubbiness a testament to my successful American acculturation.

As a kid living in suburban Detroit, I loved two things above all else: Baskin-Robbins and the Detroit Tigers. (I still think the ice-cream-inside-miniature-batting-helmet remains one of the industry’s greatest inventions.) Inside our apartment I would mark out my own baseball diamond, sprinkle the floor with talcum powder, and, using my father’s thick medical textbooks as bases, slide my way across the room as though I were Lou Brock. Like many American boys, I dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player but lacked the athleticism to play beyond high school. My dream of pro ball quashed, I once told my mother that I wanted to become president of a Fortune 500 company. She laughed. A Caucasian businessman would never allow a Korean to have that job, she said, steering me into the sciences instead.

My childhood love of ice cream notwithstanding, my favorite Korean dish was a bowl of rice drizzled with soy sauce and topped with a raw egg. I learned to crack the egg over the rice while it was still piping hot, so the egg would cook a little. Sometimes my mother would add some sliced daikon to this silky porridge that glided so easily down my throat. Over time, I began to add my own flourishes—a handful of cooked ground beef and a pinch of dried red-pepper flakes.

During my teenage years, after we moved to Los Angeles, I chose to downplay my ethnic roots. I was a Ralph Lauren–clad American teenager living in “The Valley,” and my Korean heritage was an inconvenience. This applied to my culinary traditions, too. When I went out, I ate all the things my friends did—pizza, hot dogs, enchiladas, and fries with greasy chili that turned the paper wrapper orange. It’s worth noting that two Korean-American boys were among my circle, but we rarely went out for food from the homeland. Whatever the reason, they were much more comfortable than I was with being Korean-American. Still, when my circle of guy friends went out, we’d usually opt for fried zucchini with ranch dressing at Carl’s Jr., chicken burritos at a Mexican food chain on Ventura Boulevard, or pasta at the Cheesecake Factory in Beverly Hills, all the while rocking out in our cars to the Beastie Boys and Run-dmc.

When I got home, I chased down all that American food with Korean fare. My mother, who spoke to me almost exclusively in her native tongue, cooked it herself or stocked up on prepared foods from our local Korean supermarkets. Variations of kimchi abounded: red-pepper-flecked radish cubes, cucumber slices, bellflower root, and cabbage. Occasionally, too, there was yellow daikon, which paired well with ground beef, spinach, and rice. Or she would make ginseng chicken stew and japchae, a stir-fry of glass noodles, sliced carrot and onion, slivers of beef, and pink-and-white fishcake in a soy and sesame-oil sauce. Food to fuel the brain for studying deep into the night: a mother’s loving manifesto for her son. I never had the heart to tell her that the food had the opposite effect—the sugar crash put me to sleep atop my school papers.

I should mention that our house in California had two refrigerators: one in the kitchen for American food, and one in the garage for the Korean food. I’m not sure why my mother was willing to go dual-fridge. I imagine she’d had enough bellyaching from me about the garlicky stench of “Mom and Dad’s food” and complaints of how embarrassing it would be if my friends ever got a whiff of the real stuff we ate. She must have decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation.

My father, for his part, took my resistance to Korean food poorly. He’d wanted me to be proud of his homeland. “Italian food smells, too,” he once told me. But Korean dishes flavored with garlic smell different than Italian ones, and I imagined the odor exuding from my every pore. Leftover Korean food was even worse, announcing itself like a flatulent guest at a wedding. Never mind that a diet of smelly fermented vegetables, stews, noodles, and meats has nourished Koreans for generations.

You may imagine that my father disapproved of American ways. On the contrary, he immersed himself in the culture of his adopted country. Interstate road trips to amusement parks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, bowling. While he loved being Korean, he was fascinated by cultures other than his own and especially enjoyed commingling them. To this day, I can’t picture a bucket of kfc extra-crispy without adjacent bowls of white rice and kimchi. My father’s stacks of Japanese novels were piled right alongside Westerns by Louis L’Amour, and he listened to instructional language tapes on Spanish and Mandarin in his spare time. He often serenaded us on road trips with his rendition of “Tears on My Pillow,” a number he’d learned from the soundtrack of Grease. Once, I watched him eat a bowl of white rice with ketchup, straight up. Another time, he used chopsticks to pluck Vienna sausages out of their tin. He was so pleased with his concoctions, so original in his wackiness, that I believe I inherited my own willingness to improvise from him.

My mother, by contrast, was never comfortable in the States. She struggled to pick up English and didn’t make many friends outside her Korean church. A short woman with permed black hair, large brown eyes, and caramel-colored skin, darker than that of most Korean women I knew, she watched a lot of Korean soap operas on the vcr and seemed content to have a vicarious American experience through her children.

Little Korean boys do not take formal cooking lessons from their mothers; the kitchen is considered a woman’s domain. Nonetheless, I made excuses to spend time with her there. Cooking Korean dishes means a lot of sautéing, boiling, grilling, and frying. She rarely baked. I considered my mother a great cook, although she always told me she was only so-so, modestly claiming there were other women at church who possessed skills far superior to her own.

I don’t recall that we did a lot of talking while I watched her cook. She did not share with me the latest in church gossip, nor did she try to impart wisdom in the form of hackneyed analogies about food and life. Such things are better left for movies involving white people and karate. Instead, I recall marveling at the way she so deftly used a paring knife to peel fruit, her thumb applying pressure until the skin unfurled in a continuous ribbon. She had good hands for peeling, with strong fingers, neither long nor stubby. I watched her make simple dishes that, later on, when my parents both went to work, became my latchkey-kid staples.

There was one American experience my entire family did enjoy: eating steamed crabs at the Redondo Beach Pier. The dining experience was far from formal. We’d place our order, lay several pages of the Los Angeles Times atop one of the many communal tables, and wait for the crabs to steam. I remember how excited I was to buy lemons (for cleaning our hands afterward) and rent crab mallets. I’d crack my crab with authority, as though I were a judge lowering a gavel. Using my hands to eat, I tried my best to avoid touching the mustard-colored crab guts. Afterward, I played Skee-Ball until I drained my parents of ones and fives. As a family, we walked off our meals along the beach, sometimes until the sun set. My parents seemed so contented there. My mother was at ease at the beach, less concerned about fitting in, and she laughed a lot.

For a few years after my parents’ deaths, I lived in a weird fog, unable to focus on my future or reconcile my past. I lost interest in all things Korean, including food. When my mother was alive, she would ask me questions in Korean and I would respond in English. After she was gone, my grip on the language loosened.

I began to work summers as a cook at an artists’ colony café in a resort town in the Rocky Mountains. There, under the best of all possible circumstances—cooking for, and being inspired by, the master printmakers, woodworkers, painters, and ceramic artists who came through the colony—I learned to make crème brûlée, venison stroganoff, and other European dishes. In that nurturing atmosphere, as my confidence in cooking grew, so did my expressiveness through food. (Within limits, of course: my idea for a “healthful” sugar cookie made with lemon Ricola cough drops never made it onto diners’ plates.) But something even more unexpected occurred: latent Korean influences began to insinuate themselves into the food I prepared. I fried rectangles of tofu in vegetable oil. I tenderized flank steak in garlicky kalbi marinades. I slipped scallions into whatever dishes I could. Sesame oil found its way into my sauces.

I can’t say that I channeled my parents by cooking Korean food, or that food reinvigorated my innate sense of Korean-ness. I’m not at all certain about the synapses that get fired when human beings experience emotions from cooking and eating the foods of their childhoods. All I can say for sure is that something sublime happened in that mecca of Korean cuisine—the Rockies—where I rediscovered my native food heritage. My mother left behind no recipe cards. Instead, I created dishes based on my recollections of watching her cook, imagining her in that café kitchen with me, telling me to add a few more red-pepper flakes or dial down the sesame oil.

I still harbor mixed feelings about my parents’ move to the United States. Would they still be alive today if we had stayed in Korea? It is, of course, a fool’s errand to speculate about something like that. What I do know is that, because of their sacrifice, I have had terrific experiences and opportunities, and that our son, Charlie, will inevitably have the same. One day, if he so chooses, he may even become a corporate ceo—a Fortune 500 one at that. Or a professional baseball player, if I have any say in the matter.

As I write this, Charlie is just three months old. He has my mother’s skin tone and big eyes, but otherwise no physical features that specifically remind me of either of my parents. He has my faint black eyebrows and Amy’s broad smile. And because he does not cry when I play songs—well, not as much as usual, anyway—I’ve come to believe that Charlie likes music, especially party music, as much I do. Just last week, he and I danced in our living room to the Commodores’ “Brick House.”

Meanwhile, food remains a primary conduit through which I hope to instill in him the lessons of one half of his ethnic roots. I’m sad that my parents aren’t around to help indoctrinate him into their culture. Even though it might be naive to think that by teaching him to eat and cook Korean he’ll also learn about who they were, my gut tells me this is so.

Amy and I live near a Korean supermarket that sells a lot of foods from my youth: perfectly circular Shingo pears, each one cradled in its own Styrofoam nest, and too-sweet candies made from sweet bean, jelly, and agar-agar. I think how cool it will be to have these foods at Charlie’s first birthday party. For that celebration I can imagine cooking dishes that capitalize on my knowledge of Korean and non-Korean cuisines. I will sauté fiddleheads with leeks and reserve the leek fronds for garnish. I will make potstickers, doing my best, just as my mother did, to get that even seal on the wrappers, which is so critical to keeping the ground pork and vegetable filling moist. I will put creative spins on Korean classics. I will wrap bibimbap ingredients—sliced beef, spinach, carrot slivers, bean sprouts, fried egg, rice—in nori straightjackets, drizzle them with wasabi aioli, and present these oversized, funnel-shaped hand rolls in metal Belgian frites stands. For dessert, I will experiment by baking sweet red beans en croûte.

Of course, I am getting ahead of myself. At the moment, Charlie’s diet is limited to two options—fresh breast milk, or thawed-and-warmed breast milk.

Another way Charlie will learn is through language. At the peak of one of his nighttime crying fits last week, I found myself soothing him with calming words—“It’s okay, it’s okay”—but in Korean, the way my mother might have. Amy is learning the language, too. She has taken classes in Korean through an adult-education center. In fact, she can read and write Korean far better than I can. I intend to join her in these classes, or at least sit in front of a laptop with Charlie and complete our Rosetta Stone exercises together. I mean, who wouldn’t benefit from learning the Korean word for elephant (koo-kee-ree)? Perhaps this way I will register even farther east on the Korea-meter.

Recently, we had a family dinner at a Korean restaurant in Cambridge. It was a more formal, or, at any rate, more urbane place than the one where I had made my ordering mistake. The host put us in a private room where we had to take our shoes off. During dinner, as Amy nursed Charlie beneath a cotton shawl, I dissected the ingredients in the banchan I ate, the proper method of constructing our ssam (lettuce wraps), using rice and meat and red kochujang paste. I pronounced aloud the Korean names of as many dishes as I could. And this time I remembered most of them accurately.

Amy fears that our son won’t get a sufficient dose of Korean culture. It’s a familiar refrain. But I will make sure to offer Charlie Korean food and, as my parents did with me, exercise patience if he doesn’t want any. We will stick to one fridge in our house.

One thought on “Home Run: My Journey Back to Korean Food | Roy Ahn

  • I absolutely love Korean food — which is why I stopped to read — and this is a nice piece of food writing. But where were the editors? On organic, single-origin coffee break?

    A “handful” of cooked ground beef? Ick. Did she really use her hands?

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