I got home around 7:20 a.m. on Saturday morning. Fourteen hours from New York to Seoul. The moment I stepped in the door, I could smell the breakfast my mother had been cooking. There was my favorite Korean cabbage soup, with the deep, dark flavors of doenjang, a fermented bean paste like miso but much more aggressive. There was rice, of course, the way my family normally eats it, packed with a lot of dark-purple beans. And also two little filets of pan-fried hairtail fish, cucumber kimchi, cabbage kimchi, sautéed bean sprouts, sautéed spinach, spicy dried anchovies, beef patties, and the most adorable, golden and round beans made sweet and salty with soy sauce.
My mom was celebrating my return, but her decision to lay out that spread had nothing to do with the fact that it was dinner time in New York. Traditionally, there’s not such a demarcation between Korean dinner food and Korean breakfast food. I once knew a girl who worked in finance in New York, an obviously stressful existence even before the current melt-down. When she felt particularly bad, she would wake up early and make herself a full Korean breakfast, soup, rice and all, before going to work. You might not think fish in the morning would be so soothing, but it is.
Still, I’m not sure how many people here still eat that kind of breakfast. Modern Koreans facing a day at the office obviously don’t need as much food as people facing a day of work in the rice fields. You can get Frosted Flakes at every supermarket, and “bagels” (the quotes are extremely deliberate) are sold at upscale department stores. You can even get decent coffee in Seoul these days, in a country where coffee used to be indistinguishable from dark tea. Thank you, Starbucks!
Then there’s the awesome phenomenon of the Korean bakery. Most of the large chains have the word “Paris” or “patisserie” in them, and the owner of my favorite bakery, Kim Young Mo, has built a small empire around his mastery of French techniques. But when you’re making green tea buns and loaves stuffed with sticky rice cake and sweet beans, it’s not really French any more.
The breakfast bread nearly every Korean bakery makes is a super-soft, squishy white bread, like Wonder Bread made a hundred million times better. When you toast it, it takes on this incredibly thin crunchy crust that gives way to chewy softness at the center. A slice with a smear of peanut butter just melting at the edges—I like it almost better than cabbage soup for breakfast.
So even if eating blueberry bagels for breakfast is definitely a step down from kimchi and rice, I’m not too heartbroken about changes in Korean breakfast habits. We’ll end up with new foods that are uniquely Korean, and every once in awhile, we’ll remember how good it tastes to eat a nine-course meal before nine in the morning.