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Memories of Korean Cooking

An interview with my mother who grew up in Seoul, South Korea:

Who did most of the cooking in your family?
My mother did all of the cooking for our family.  My grandmother was also an excellent cook.

What did you eat most often at home?
We often ate rice-based dishes like fried rice and omurice (omelet with fried rice).

What was your favorite dish as a child?
I always loved dwaeji bulgogi.

What did you pack for lunch when going to school?
We brought rice, kimchi, omurice, and different types of banchan (side dishes).  I remember school started early in the morning, so most students wouldn't eat breakfast.  By the time it was 10 o'clock, we got hungry and would already have eaten most of our lunches, which made the classroom smell like kimchi.  The teacher would get angry and demand that we confess who had eaten their lunches and made the classroom smell.  When no one spoke up, the teacher sometimes inspected our lunch boxes to see whose were empty and punish those students by making them stay after school to do chores.  There were some mean teachers in Korea.

What kinds of street food did you eat growing up?
I loved eating hotteok (pancake filled with brown sugar) as a child.  We also ate bungeoppang (fish-shaped bread filled with red bean paste), tteokbokki, and bbopki (crystallized sugar).  I remember we kids would try to eat the bbopki as carefully as possible, licking around the stamped design, because the bbopki man would give another piece for free to anyone who could eat around the design.  It was always very difficult though because the design was quite detailed.

What surprised you most about the food when you came to the U.S.?
I remember I came to the U.S. in April, and I was really surprised by the abundance and size of oranges.  In Korea, all we have are tangerines, which are small and come out only in the wintertime.  In America, oranges were huge, and they were available even in the spring.

What was the biggest difference between eating in Korea and eating in the U.S.?
I was really surprised by the sheer amount of meat that Americans ate.  In Korea, meat was expensive, so we weren't able to eat meat very often.

What is your most vivid childhood memory related to food?
I remember saving up money as a little girl so I could buy some breads and pastries from the bakery.  When I had finally saved up enough money, my three younger siblings and I marched to the bakery, and I remember being so proud that I could buy bread for them.  I decided to buy just one bread at first, a salad bbang (sandwich bread filled with Korean potato salad).  Korean bakeries don't list the prices on the bread, so you never know how much it costs until you're at the cashier.  When it was time to pay, I was shocked by the price, but luckily, I had just enough money to buy one salad bbang.  It would have been so embarrassing if I were unable to afford even a single bread in front of my three younger siblings!  To this day, I always remember this incident when I buy a salad bbang from a Korean bakery.

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Grace Kim
18 May 2009
An interview with my father who grew up in Busan, South Korea:

What was your favorite food as a child?

My favorite dish was kalbi.  Meat was expensive, so I always looked forward to eating beef.

What did you eat for lunch at school?
The usual: rice, kimchi, banchan (side dishes), egg, and sometimes meat.  In Korea, white rice used to be hard to come by, so students weren't allowed to eat just plain white rice.  We always had to bring a mixture of white rice and some other grain, like barley.  The teachers would inspect everybody's lunch boxes once a week to make sure that no student was eating 100% white rice.  I remember on inspection days, those students who had forgotten and brought only white rice would beg their fellow students to give them some grain, which they spread over their white rice to hide it or tried to mix with their white rice.  The mean teachers would even use chopsticks to dig around in the students' rice to make sure that there wasn't just white rice underneath.

What is one memorable food that you ate when you first came to the U.S.?
When I came to the U.S., my brother and I went to an ice cream store, and the first flavor I tried was pistachio ice cream.  To this day, whenever I get ice cream, I always choose pistachio for memory's sake.

What food did you like least when you came to the U.S.?
Believe it or not, I didn't like American cakes.  They were just too sweet compared to Korean cakes.  In Korea, cakes have a mildly sweet taste, and the frosting is very light, nothing like the heavy butter frostings used here in the U.S.

What kinds of snacks did you eat growing up?
I ate hobbang (bread filled with red bean paste), odeng (fish cake), jwipo (dried fish), and beondegi (cooked silk worms).  I remember the kids who were too poor to afford odeng would just drink the soup that it was boiled in.  The street vendors got annoyed because all their soup disappeared, but the odeng itself wasn't selling.

What surprised you most about the food when you came to the U.S.?
When I first came to the U.S., I was really surprised by the large portion sizes.  In comparison, Koreans eat much less at every meal.  Even at restaurants the portions are huge, and Americans still seem to order a "large" for everything.  I remember staring in awe at a fast food restaurant as one man finished off a large pizza with a large Coke all by himself!

What is your most vivid childhood memory related to food?
When I was a little boy, my father would take me to the bath house once a week.  Like all little boys, I hated taking baths, but I always went along because there was this bakery right next to the bath house.  As we were leaving the bath house, sometimes my father would ask me whether I wanted to eat a pastry from the bakery.  But other times he forgot to ask, and I could never bring myself to ask my father directly to buy me a pastry.  Back then in Korean culture children didn't directly ask for things from their parents because that was considered disrespectful.  So every week as we left the bath house, I would hold my breathe as we walked past the bakery and silently will my father to ask me whether I wanted a pastry.  On those days that he didn't, I would look back over my shoulder at the bakery so longingly.  I don't think my father even realized that I wanted a pastry so much and that I went to the bath house with him just because there was a chance that I could eat one.  I'm sure if he knew, my father would've bought one for me every time, but I could never bring myself to tell him.