Soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, whole garlic, onions… If this new social distancing lifestyle has taught me anything, it’s that one should never run out of these ingredients. Few Korean dishes can be made without them—garlic, especially, is so important to us Koreans that our national founding myth is about a bear that became human after only eating garlic (and mugwort) for 100 days.
Either too busy or too lazy, I never took interest in learning Korean cuisine and didn’t know what I was missing.
I never really cooked before, mostly because I was never really home. I was at boarding school, then I was at uni, then I was spending entire days outside… I did know how to boil eggs, though, so when I was hungry alone at home I’d actually have 2 boiled eggs for dinner. Either too busy or too lazy, I never took interest in learning Korean cuisine and didn’t know what I was missing. Eventually, it took a global pandemic to make me stay at home long enough to start wandering around the kitchen. Boredom from self-isolating made me count the rice cakes in my delivery tteok-bokki (spicy stir-friend rice cakes)—counting led to savoring, which led to wondering. What actually is this that I’m eating?
Rice cake, chili paste, chili flakes, soy sauce, sugar, and green onion. Tteok-bokki. That’s what I was eating. Korea’s most popular food—it’s a piping hot slurp at food stands outside schools, it’s the national go-to comfort food that never failed to cheer up a sad Korean, and it’s rice cake, chili paste, chili flakes, soy sauce, sugar, and green onion. Learning to cook Korean food let me explore my home country from my kitchen at home.
Korea has been through a lot. It has many stories to tell—and its cuisine reflects this. The budae- jigae (a.k.a. “military stew”) is a stew with a spicy soup base, to which an odd mix of spam, baked beans, sausages, and cheese slices—ingredients which used to be found around American army camps during the Korean War—is added. Kimchi fried rice holds a special place in all Korean hearts, in that students or adulting beginners have resorted many a time to it, in fast-paced, economically troubled modern Korea. And it’s really, really yummy.
We Koreans love putting our tongues through a wild, insanely spicy adventure in order to relieve ourselves of the stress that the ultra-competitive social atmosphere of Korea tends to impose
It’s easy to forget about all this when you’re being served and eating, munching on the fried rice while you’re thinking about your next essay. When you’re the one cooking, though, chopping up the green onions, grabbing an actual bucket of minced garlic at the supermarket, pouring some sesame oil and heating the pan…you start caring and thinking. I’m not exaggerating when I say I started appreciating Korea’s de-stressing culture while chopping chili peppers: we Koreans love putting our tongues through a wild, insanely spicy adventure in order to relieve ourselves of the stress that the ultra-competitive social atmosphere of Korea tends to impose. (I seriously recommend making and trying out some spicy Korean “fire-chicken” to chase your fifth week blues away!)
Try this. 1) Stir-fry a 1/4 cup of chopped green onions in cooking oil for a few minutes. 2) Add some bacon or spam (1-2 strips or 1/5 of the tin) and fry till almost cooked. 3) Add 1/2 cup of chopped kimchi (easily obtained at Asian supermarkets) and 1/2 tbsp of chili flakes. 4) Stir for 1 minute, then put to one side. Pour 1 tbsp of soy sauce into the pan, wait until it starts to boil, then mix with the rest. 5) Add a pinch of sugar, then add a bowl of microwavable or cooked rice. Mix well and stir-fry. 6) Pour a little bit of sesame oil if you have some. 7) You have your kimchi rice!
This is an experience that thousands of Korean uni students have had and are having today, as they face another day of finding a way to cook an easy and affordable, yet delicious meal (as good as any difficult and unaffordable meal, honestly) all while at home doing some lockdown cooking after reading a (this) dubious recipe online…which is exactly what I did.
Image credit: ‘Korean Tteokbokki’ Popo le Chien