One writer shares recipes and stories about the food that reminds her of home
Story and Photos By Sarah Lee
I took my mother’s homemade dinners for granted when I left for college. My dad told me that I should learn how to cook from my mother because she is the best chef he knows. When I come home from school during breaks, I always crave her Korean food the most. The smell of her stews simmering on the stove for hours fills the house with comfort. Her deep brown and red marinades of pork belly in kimchi-jjigae can’t be replicated by any restaurant. My dad and I actually tried to find a local Korean restaurant in Syracuse, but none of the dishes taste the same as my mom’s.
During dinner, my parents would tell me the cultural significance of our food. My favorite noodle dish, janchi-guksu, is a popular wedding entrée. Tteokguk is a traditional dish to celebrate the new year. Learning about the food I enjoy makes eating it all the more special to me, even though my memories with the dish comes from my Korean-American experience. Here’s my favorite Korean dishes I commonly eat at home.
When I was little, my family went to a Korean-Chinese restaurant and always ordered jajangmyeon for me. Jajangmyeon are noodles with black bean sauce often served with pork or beef. Over winter break, my mom taught me how to make it. The recipe was easier than I thought it would be, and I’m excited to say I know how to make at least one Korean dish. In South Korea, it’s a popular takeout food, most commonly ordered after moving into a new apartment. It’s also enjoyed by single friends who eat together on Black Day, an unofficial Korean holiday for single people (April 14).
My mom never measures anything exactly when she cooks. It’s always about balancing the different flavor profiles. Jajangmyeon sauce needs chunjang, a specific black bean paste used in Korean-Chinese food. To start, fry a spoonful chunjang with hot oil and mix in the vegetables and meat. Jajangmyeon typically uses onions, potatoes, and ground pork. You can also find pre-made mixes of jajangmyeon sauce too. The specific noodles are called jungwhamyeon, but my dad said udon or even spaghetti are good replacements. You can also pour the sauce over rice and eat it like a curry.
Kimchi is Korea’s national dish and is always present at dinner. Traditionally, kimchi is spicy fermented cabbage or radishes. They can be eaten as a side dish (called banchan in Korean) or cooked as a stew (jjigae in Korean). Like other foreign cuisines, certain foods have an acquired taste, and kimchi is definitely one of them. My dad told me that Korean food can also be addicting — once people try it and get used to the new smells and taste, they will always crave it. I introduced Korean food to my friends at school and now they can’t get enough of it. But nothing will beat the warm, inviting smell of coming home to my mom’s kimchi-jjigae. She makes her food with love and care, and her food always cheers me up on a rough day.
Sour kimchi will give the best taste. The more fermented, the better. Put the kimchi in a pot with some fatty pork belly and let those cook before adding any liquids. My mom uses anchovy broth, but you can use chicken, vegetable or milky bone broth as substitutes. Add some leftover juice from the kimchi. If the taste is too sour, adjust it with some sugar. Toss in some pieces of tofu and let it soak up the broth. Scallions are an excellent garnish.
Kimbap is a seaweed rice roll with various fillings. In Korea, it’s often considered a picnic food and packed in lunch boxes because it’s so portable. My mom’s recipe adds pickled radish, beef, spinach, carrots, fish sausage, and imitation crab. Kimbap is the “road trip” food my family brings for long car rides. My family gathers around the kitchen table to eat the scrappy end pieces my mom chops off before we leave the house. This family tradition started when my family dropped me off at college for the first time, and it was the first Korean food I introduced my friends to. This dish is irreplaceable to me because no one makes it like my mother.
Kimbap is very customizable. To get started, you’ll need sheets of dried seaweed (gim in Korean), it’s the same seaweed as a sushi roll. My mom uses extra sesame oil to coat one side of the seaweed sheet. She also adds a little bit of vinegar to the rice. You need long strips of fillings for the roll. Popular fillings are cooked eggs, spinach, carrots, imitation crab and strips of beef (bulgogi, if you want to get specific). Add a layer of rice on the unoiled side of the seaweed, then layer your fillings. My mom uses a bamboo mat to roll everything together. Lastly, cut the roll into bite size pieces and enjoy.
My mother’s food helps me feel connected with my Korean heritage. Her food means so much to me because it affirms a part of my identity I am learning to be proud of. Korean food helps me share a part of my culture with my friends and will always remind me of home.