Drawing the line

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During our time in Korea, Diane and I spent a few days with my mom and her great-aunt, who are both excellent home cooks.  And like most home cooks, they were mini-hurricanes in the kitchen, moving so quickly as they threw soy sauce and sesame oil around, Diane and I felt almost winded running between our cameras and our notebooks.  In one day, her great-aunt flew through:

  • 갈비찜, galbi-jjim (braised short ribs)
  • 너비아니, neobiani (marinated tenderloin, cooked in the palace-style)
  • 뚝배기 불고기, tteokbaegi bulgogi (braised bulgogi with glass noodles)
  • 구절판, gujulpan (egg crepes with 9 special fillings)
  • 두부찜, dubu-jjim (stuffed and braised tofu)
  • 해파리냉채, haepari-naengchae (jellyfish and vegetable salad), AND
  • 육개장, yukgaejang (spicy beef soup).

My mom, for her part, decided it was completely feasible to teach us five kinds of kimchi in one day—the same day she also taught us 매운탕, maeuntang (spicy fish soup); 된장찌개, doenjang-jjigae (soy bean paste stew); 떡볶이, tteokbokki (sautéed rice cakes); and two kinds of 묵무침, muk-muchim (acorn jelly salad).

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We didn’t come away with recipes with exact measurements, but we never intended to anyway.  We wanted more simply to soak up the almost incidental wisdom the best home cooks always have.  Like having my mother tell us that tossing the bellflower roots in its seasoning by hand before sautéing it deepens the flavor, or her great-aunt showing us how to chop pine nuts on a paper towel, which keeps the powdered pine nuts from sitting in their own oil.

But with both cooks, we were given tips that we wanted to resist.  My mother, in making 깍두기, kkakdugi, the bright-red radish cubes that constitute one of my favorite kinds of kimchi, has started using Splenda instead of sugar.  Almost all kimchi needs a bit of sweetness that both rounds out and brings out the tartness and sharpness of the pickled vegetables, but kkakdugi is one of the sweeter ones.  She said that she uses Splenda because it doesn’t make the radish cubes sticky, the way sugar does.  I nearly threw a fit.  I believed my mother, that Splenda could have a completely different effect on the kkakdugi than sugar.  But the thought of putting anything that chemical in my kimchi made me feel intensely rebellious and unfilial—no way.

Something similar happened with Diane’s great-aunt.  When she was showing us how she had prepped the short ribs for galbi-jjim, she told us she had used Coke (as in Coca-Cola) to soak the raw short ribs and draw out the blood.  I already knew most Korean recipes call for the meat to be soaked in cold water for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour, to “draw out the blood,” just as she said.  But Coke?  I believed she had to know better than me, after a lifetime of cooking and devotion to the best of Korean food traditions.  But I still felt stubborn inside, thinking, “There is no way I am including Coca-Cola in any recipe in this cookbook.”

I can’t say that my stand is really principled and consistent.  I have a general knee-jerk aversion to processed foods (except Cheetos!) that’s probably as much shaped by snobby elitism as by a Luddite wariness of anything grown in a test tube.  But I don’t think MSG is the devil incarnate.  I won’t include MSG in this cookbook either, because I think it’s too often a short-cut for building flavor the old-fashioned way, but I understand why it’s a standard ingredient for a lot of Asian cooks.  It replicates that umami flavor in a way that is near-miraculous.  Unless you have a specific allergy to MSG, it’s not any worse for you than salt. I don’t think a restaurant is lazy just because it uses a bit of it here and there any more than I think a restaurant is lazy for cooking with scads of butter.

I felt the same feeling of inconsistent rebellion when Diane’s great-aunt also recommended adding a touch of pureed kiwi to the galbi-jjim.  There’s nothing unnatural about kiwi.  It’s not an indigenous Korean ingredient, but then, neither were chile peppers when they came from the New World via Japan or even Napa cabbage, which came from China and became the most ubiquitous form of kimchi only as late as the 19th century.  I’m much warier of a slavish devotion to “authenticity” than I am of MSG, which is why Diane and I want to write recipes that are open to experimentation, especially for people who aren’t able to find certain ingredients.  The fact that food is a living, changing, participatory cultural experience is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by what people eat.  So why do I feel so uneasy about Korean recipes that use tropical fruits?

We’re still working through an articulate conception of what this cookbook will include and what it won’t, but where would you draw the line?

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6 Responses to “Drawing the line”

  1. angela Says:

    i’m guilty too~! i use pineapple or kiwi in my galbi…. !

  2. Grace Says:

    Okay, now I’m going to try it! Do you use Asian pear, too? I’ve been reading this cookbook written by a Korean-Australian, and he calls for maple syrup all over the place. Finally, I realized he was using it as a substitute for mulyeot, but doesn’t that sound really weird? Maple syrup has such a distinct flavor!

  3. Leslie Says:

    Grace, I feel the same way. Apparently lots of people use coke or sprite with kalbi. My friend marinated hers in sprite. And like the tropical fruit, I guess it the acids and sugars both tenderize and sweeten it the meat (never thought about it drawing out the blood…). I wouldn’t be against marinating in tropical fruit though. Maybe Asian pear would only have the sweetening effect.

  4. Grace Says:

    What’s interesting is that even Diane’s great-aunt said not to overdo the kiwi–just a smidgen. She said she used a lot once and it totally made the meat mush. This is what Harold McGee says: “Meat tenderizers are protein-digesting enzymes extracted from a number of plants, including papaya, pineapple, fig, kiwi, and ginger.” So makes sense that a lot of kiwi would turn it to mush! Apparently, the phosphoric acid in Coke works the same way. Asian pear, I think, also has enough acid to be a tenderizer, as would be the little bit of Korean cooking wine my mom puts in her galbi-jjim. Anyway, I’m willing to try the tropical fruits!

  5. CapetownHolidays Says:

    I was attracted to your interesting article by the beautiful picture of the Gujulpan. Since I discovered little known Royal appetizer in a local Korean restaurant, I was hooked. I have made this for friends to much acclaim each time, as it is such a fun and sociable way to eat. It took some years before I could obtain a genuine lacquered Korean 9 section serving dish but that now crowns our dining table.
    We have been making Kalbi using a citrus flavoured local soda for the marinade, together with a crispy Chinese pear and it works a treat.
    There are other uses for Coke, so one should not arbitrarily draw the line. Try Coke and honey mixed for basting a spit roast lamb!

  6. Grace Says:

    You’ve all convinced me! Good thing summer is here — a good time to experiment with different galbi marinades.

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