As a foreigner here in South Korea, I can sometimes feel like I am in a bubble. Sometimes without my participation in the process, sometimes willingly. At work, I am often left out of discussions about matters that might affect me until the last possible moment, or until the actual matter takes place and I am just kind of thrust into it. Often, at night, either Jen or I will ask the other if it’s time to “say goodbye to Korea,” code for closing the curtains on the outside world and cozying up to our insulated world of two inhabitants. That latter example does not necessarily reflect a poor opinion of Korea, but rather an opinion of the world at large and whether or not it’s sometimes therapeutic to escape it and all its associated bullshit; someday, far from today we might play out a similar scene where one of us asks if it’s time to “say goodbye to Middletown, New Jersey” or “Walla Walla, Washington.” But, I am not holding my breath: houses are too damn expensive in Middletown.
Still, we are in South Korea. Jen has occupied the country for going on about seven years while I am at about five years (if you count the first two attempts in 2005 and 2010). There are things about the country and culture we love, things about it we love less, and things about it we love less than that. Just like in Middletown (great parks, too many strip malls, those damn expensive houses).
One of the things we love about Korea pretty consistently is its food. Sure, the basis for most of the recipes are strikingly similar when you actually make them–soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seed, gochugaru (red pepper flakes), gochujang (red pepper paste), repeat for the next dish. And yet, years and years on we still crave them. There remains a comfort to them, to these combinations of flavors, paired with things like kimchi, pork, various vegetables, tofu and more. A plethora of side dishes (banchan) to accompany a hearty bowl of stew and hot, sticky rice is one of my world’s least guilty pleasures.
Perhaps some of the reason for this continued love affair, however, is just how rarely we participate in it at home. A look at a sample menu of the week in our household reveals very little in the form of Korean, excepting that most of the ingredients were purchased in Korea. More often will we cook things of Indian, Thai (sort of) or good old “American (whatever that means)” origins. Jen’s school has a complete (usually pretty decent) Korean lunch buffet every day, while I consume gimbap and sweet, sweet Dwaeji Gukbap pretty regularly when dining out. When we get home and want to “say goodbye to Korea,” we often want to say “hello” to a culinary culture far removed from our current location.
But, sometimes, our curtains might be closed to Korea for the night but our stomachs remain open. With the assistance of great resources like the popular Maangchi YouTube channel and less well-known but also helpful Aeri’s Kitchen, the incredibly fun and entertaining Cook Korean! illustrated Korean cookbook by Robin Ha, as well as great local resources like the woman at Geumnyeonsan Market whom I purchased our kimchi jjigae’s kimchi, a delicious, completely homemade Korean meal was on our tables and going into our bellies in about two hours (if you include things like sweating the zucchini and such).
If this was what we ate all day, every day, for decades on decades, I could see the possibility of having very little thought for it other than sustenance. And, for us, there can often be plenty of time between times we choose to make rather than buy our banchan. But, when the mood hits, there’s nothing better than a steaming hot bowl of kimchi jjigae between my hands as the temperature drops. And when something that seems so exotic and impossible to replicate like banchan is complete and consumed with my own hands and mouth, I feel like a Korean Titan with a full, happy gut.
How often do you make your Korean food? What are some of your favorites? Share and make us hungry in the comments.
Kongnamul muchim: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWfhIq_MiiU
Spinach banchan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4JgJec4QQI&t=189s
Fried zucchini banchan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voVMhqW5Hj8