The taste of your hands

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Every Korean kitchen has a box of these: plastic disposable gloves.  Or if not, a big pair of pink rubber gloves.

Why?  Because Korean food has to be literally made by hand.

The most common phrase in Korean cooking is 손맛, “son-mat,” literally “the taste of one’s hands.”  Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a famous chef, if you are a good cook, you will be praised for the taste of your hands.  What makes your food taste like yours, and not like anyone else’s, is the taste of your hands.

In some sense, the phrase is figurative.  Koreans know, like all food lovers, that the best cooks don’t become that way through formal training or expensive equipment, but by the heart and spirit they bring to their food.

But more I cook Korean food, the more I feel the phrase is also quite literal.

My mother preparing to julienne carrots for kimbap.

My mother preparing to julienne carrots for kimbap.

Even though I don’t want to scare anyone away from Korean cooking, I can’t pretend that Korean cooking, at least when done in the traditional way, isn’t labor-intensive.  You try julienning a giant Korean radish—it takes a really long time.  (I finally took out my Cuisinart manual today to figure out the “julienne” function.)  We have a relatively small number of sauces and condiments, which means that so much of the variety that makes food a joy comes from texture and color.  You might have Napa cabbage in three different dishes on the table, and in each dish, it will have assumed a different form.  Or think about something like totori-muk, or acorn jelly.  People are impressed if you make your own instead of buying it in blocks like tofu.  But to dump a cup of acorn powder and water into a pot and stir for 15 minutes or so is nothing compared to what it takes to actually gather acorns, clean them, dry them, and grind them.  “Plating” isn’t just a concern for fancy restaurant chefs.  Even a home cook knows that if you’re cooking for guests, you should have the appropriate garnishes, like eggs cooked and slivered artfully or raw chestnuts chopped into an impossible fineness.

Mixing dried radish strips by hand--it's all a blur.

Mixing dried radish strips by hand--it's all a blur.

But in an even more literal sense, Korean cooking expects you to plunge your hands into that giant bowl of kimchi.  Whether you’re seasoning fern bracken for namul, or you’re rubbing salt onto cabbage, you’re supposed to do it with your hands.  Spoons, spatulas, even chopsticks are nothing compared to the tools you have in your hands.  My mother even said to me, “It’ll taste better that way.”   After all, how can your food have the taste of your hands if your hands haven’t touched it?

Washing the different grains for mixed rice.

Washing the different grains for mixed rice.

The gloves, of course, are a modern touch, and maybe the taste of your hands can’t get through plastic.  The woman who runs the most amazing bibimbap house in Korea has hands that are stained and cracked from years of soy sauce and ground red pepper.  But having rubbed my eyes one too many times after making kimchi, I’ll put on the gloves at least when I’m dealing with hot pepper, and hope that the love that I have for what I do makes the taste of my hands still come through.

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5 Responses to “The taste of your hands”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Did we already talk about this? But I remember reading an article or something on the traditional reasons why sushi chefs tend to be men and not women. It had something to do with their hands and the warmth of their hands, women’s hands being too warm to handle raw fish and the sushi rice.

  2. Grace Says:

    I might know if we talked about this if I knew who you were :)

  3. Leslie Says:

    Do you have a mandolin with the julienne attachment? That might make make prettier julienne than the cuisinart.

  4. Zizou Says:

    Someone once told me that her grandmother didn’t wear gloves when making kimchi because she gauged the appropriate level of spiciness and acid, not by measuring the chili put in, but by the tingle (burning sensation?) in her hands. I wondered how her hands look after all those years of kimchi making!

  5. Mrs Kim's Kimchi Says:

    Wonderful article. You couldn’t have explained it better.

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