Last weekend, I traveled home for my mom's birthday. She described growing up in Pusan, eating live sea creatures straight out of the ocean. Sea women prepared them for her, slicing up every wriggling specimen and adding at most a dressing of hot red chili pepper paste and vinegar before she devoured them. For me, she made pajeon, a savory pancake, with fresh squid and buchu (Korean garlic chives). There was radish soup. Santa Maria barbecue. More sea creatures. We ate together, we cooked together.
All that time with family, over food, told me this: Food isn't about determining the boundaries of my own preferences. In fact, it's not about me at all. I can't put my finger on it. Sharing? Family? Or, that familiar term, culture?
A college nonfiction writing professor gave me this gift: Never say whether something is good or bad, but simply ask, "Does it work?" One is open-minded and constructive; the other is mere opinion. Indeed, there is little to no empirical "good" and "bad" in this world. Yes, I know this statement is vulnerable to healthy debate, but let's stick with one application of the theory: There is no good and bad in food; there is only your awareness of what you're eating, where it comes from, and the person with whom you're eating. Everythings stands in relation to something else.
It pains me to see someone turn up his or her nose at a dish offered by a host or discount the value of an entire cuisine. I'm no Emily Post, but my head nods vigorously in agreement with Anthony Bourdain’s Grandma rule, which is that you “should eat what's put on your fucking plate…That's called fucking manners.”
But this is so much more than etiquette. It’s about shedding the convenience and security of labels and actually being open to considering cultures, practices, and preferences besides our own, especially when they make us uncomfortable. It's about growing, not confining. By labeling a dish “good” or “bad,” we state opinion, which has little value and likely sits on shaky ground. I’m talking deceptively benign statements, like “Burgers are disgusting, but pizza is delicious.” “I would never eat food out of a can; that’s gross.” You get the idea. These statements are, at best, tedious and imprecise. At worst, they reveal a sense of cultural and class superiority. They seem so harmless; after all, it’s just your opinion! But sometimes, it's not about you. Would you tell a family at a soup kitchen that they should never eat food that comes in a can? Have you ever had someone tell you that the food you ate growing up was gross (I have)?
I’m a hypocrite. I commit the above offenses on a regular basis. I am doing my best to be more aware, but in order to really-truly-change, I have to do more than just bite my tongue. Changing the way I think about food, being more aware of the effect each word I say might have (even when no one is listening), believing that things outside my comfort and preference zone may not be all that bad. This is what I’m talking about.
I would like to live in a world where we do more than give lip service to acceptance. Some do, but many don't. I'll still keep trying.
I get it. What’s the relation to FOOD? I’m hungry!
In the theme of authenticity and having an open mind, I’m going to face some of my food fears this year. My goal is to rely less on my foolproof dishes (single-pot dishes, I’m looking at you) and to try my hand at things I love but have been intimidated to try.
Number 1: Korean food. Yes, today marks my first, official day of attempting to make Korean food, the way my mother makes it. I haven’t tried until now because I have been too afraid of failure. But the time to learn is now. I’ll be mining my mom for recipes, so stay tuned!
Number 2: Meats. I don’t really know how to prepare them (and seafood? Heaven forbid.).
Number 3: Pastries and breads. Enough with the cookies. It’s time to get serious.
Number 4: Cuisines that are not American, not Korean.
Let's start with Number 1. Below is my recipe for my mom's mooguk. Moo is the name for Korean white radish, similar to Japanese daikon. Guk means soup. Mooguk is delicious. It should have a subtle beef flavor, enriched with the faint sweetness of radish. The key is the umami flavor, and for that reason, it’s important to get the broth right. I've listed substitutions where appropriate, though to be frank, be careful of tweaking this recipe too much. With so few ingredients, it only takes a little adjustment to completely change the flavor of the soup. One of my all-time favorites, and it only gets better with each day. I would insert ten exclamation points here if I didn't think it would turn you away for good.
And sorry for the wonky photo lighting. I was in a rush to get this recipe to you!
Korean Mooguk (Radish Soup)
Serves: Your entire family, and then some
- Beef stew meat - or better, says Mom, beef with bone. I used beef brisket.
- Daepah (Korean leek) - Green onion works, but daepah tastes different and is milder. Use a lot.
- 1-2 onions, peeled but left whole
- Kelp - You could be like me and use hon-dashi (Japanese fish soup stock), or better yet, dried anchovies, which are featured in many Korean recipes
- Moo, aka Korean white radish, peeled and cut into small sections - Japanese daikon could work, too. Moo is shorter and stouter than daikon.
- Guk ganjang - Guk = soup, ganjang = soy sauce. Hence this is Korean soy sauce made especially for soup. Do not use regular soy sauce! They DO taste different.
- Garlic, several cloves minced or squeezed through a garlic press
- If you are using boneless beef, soak the meat in cold water for up to an hour to remove the blood. If you have meat with bones, boil it thoroughly to remove any off aromas, then discard the water and set the meat aside. This is a (mostly) clear soup.
- Add the beef to a large pot, along with the daepah, onion(s), salt, and hondashi (or kelp, or dried anchovies). Boil for about 20-25 minutes, until the meat is fully cooked.
- Remove the meat, then turn down the meat to medium or medium-low. Continue to boil the onion and daepah.
Cut the mu into thick slices, about half an inch thick.
Cut each round in half, then (not pictured) cut each half into three squat pieces by making two cuts.
- Slice the meat (I cut against the grain) or tear into shreds. Add the meat to the pot, along with the moo, garlic, salt, and a few tablespoons of guk ganjang. Don’t add too much soy sauce. The soup should remain clear.
- Boil for 25-30 minutes, or until the radish is soft to the bite. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
- Serve in bowls, along with rice. Enjoy.
- This soup doesn't rely on strict measurements, but if you are curious: I used 2 moo, 4-5 tablespoons of guk ganjang, 5 cloves of garlic, and several teaspoons of hondashi.
- I think using kelp or anchovies would give a more natural, and better flavor than hon-dashi, which tasted a little artificial to me. It's first two ingredients are salt and MSG.