A friend of mine recently told me that she thinks the title of my blog is a little lonely. It is, isn’t it? It made sense when I was traveling alone and generally eating alone, but it’s definitely not a way of life that I espouse. I’d rather have ten people over for dinner than eat alone, which is good because I’m now doing that every Sunday.
Korean food isn’t hard to eat alone, at least if your mother has already stocked your fridge. So much of Korean food is meant to be eaten over days, if not weeks and months. We are masters of food preservation. It’s so easy to cook a quick pot of rice, and then sit down with some kimchi, roasted seaweed, and maybe some sweet and spicy dried squid or soy sauce-sauteed anchovies.
But Korean food isn’t meant to be eaten alone. A Korean meal isn’t complete without soup, but you can’t quarter or even halve the recipe and expect to have a full, meaty tasting broth. Even the 반찬, banchan, the little dishes of salty and spicy food that are scattered all over the table, are meant to be shared. You’re supposed to have variety, a little bit of a lot of different things, which is only really possible when you’re eating with other people. Over the years, I’ve gotten resourceful about using my freezer, but my favorite cabbage soup doesn’t freeze well, and by the third day of eating it, it is no longer my favorite soup.
So when I came back from Korea, I realized several things in my life had to change. I rearranged my cupboard, moving all my pasta, tomato paste, Aleppo pepper, and French green lentils to the top shelf, so I would have enough room for all the Korean rice, red beans, millet, dried anchovies, and crushed red pepper I needed. The soy sauce and sesame oil are now in closer reach than the sherry vinegar and olive oil. I’ve stopped cooking non-Korean food at home, other than the occasional breakfast burrito, because I feel like I need to be thinking and eating like my mother if I’m ever going to come close to cooking like her. And since I don’t have a family of four to feed everyday, as she did for so many years, I’m now hosting Korean Food Sundays, a Korean meal every Sunday night of this year.
It’s open to all my friends who came to Soup Night last year (the monthly pot-o-soup event I used to do) and any of their friends who are willing to eat experimental Korean food in Brooklyn. It’s a little nerve-wracking because I have to focus more on doing research than on being a good hostess. I’m going to cook dishes that I’m not sure non-Koreans will like, and I’m going to cook things I’ve never made before because I have to learn. I’ve warned all my friends that there may be emergency pizza nights, but the first night was a lot of disorganized fun.
It was low-key by Korean standards: 설렁탕, seolleong-tang, a milky-white oxbone-soup and 감자전, gamja-jeon, or Korean-style potato pancakes. Then a spread of banchan: two kinds of homemade kimchi, radish and cabbage; dried pollack braised in soy sauce; glazed lotus root; dried squid sautéed in sweet red pepper paste; pickled wild sesame leaves (also called perilla and a milder cousin to Japanese shiso); sweet soy sauce beans; fresh spicy radish strips; and bean sprouts seasoned with scallions and sesame oil. I can’t take credit for it all—my mom and I made a lot of the banchan before she left, as well as part of the stock for the seolleong-tang, simmering it for 8 hours one day. And I had to scratch pan-fried croaker fish off the menu when my potato pancakes started sticking to the pan and falling apart 45 minutes before people were supposed to arrive. (But I figured out what was wrong with the pancakes—it was the pan.) I spent most of Sunday cooking, which made it even more amazing that it’s the kind of meal my mom used to put on the table everyday.
I was nervous about the seolleong-tang, which is one of those Korean soups that is literally bland. You’re supposed to season it yourself at the table, with plenty of coarse sea salt, lots of chopped scallions and freshly ground pepper. It’s actually quite a good lesson in how salt brings food to life. You eat seolleong-tang for the subtle depth of its flavor, the bones that have been simmered for so long the marrow has completely leached out, rather than for any taste that’s going to knock you out. The milky-white color only appears if you’ve simmered it long enough, which is why dishonest restaurants will sometimes add milk to it. Seolleong-tang is also a good example of how Koreans seek balance in their table—given how salty and spicy so much of their food is, many of their soups are the milder, more soothing part of the meal. But people enjoyed it, and one friend ate two bowls, though then again, he always eats two bowls.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the dried squid and all the other funny-looking banchan got eaten up. And I was absolutely thrilled by how my new 10-cup Sanyo rice cooker performed. It is beautiful, it is perfect, and it is on sale on Amazon.
I miss the ease of Soup Night in a way. I was going to try to start a movement of Soup Night, people coming together for something as simple as a pot of chili, instead of just elaborate, semi-macho meals. I even got quoted in ReadyMade magazine, talking about the connection between Soup Night and M.F.K. Fisher. (Isn’t that so funny?) But I feel lucky to have so many friends who are willing to take a chance on my cooking, especially with a cuisine full of dried things from the sea.
Wouldn’t “Ten Pairs of Chopsticks” be a good name for a blog? Maybe next time.