Friday, October 22, 2010

Living With a Korean Family

I have lived with my husband's family for a little over two years now. The experience is much like being a foreign exchange student. Korean is the language spoken in this house. We eat Korean food and do things in traditional Korean ways. Shoes are never worn in the house. When someone leaves or comes home, everyone in the family goes to the door to bow to them.

I never know what kind of intriguing situation I'm going to wake up to or come home to in this house. My mother-in-law is an expert in the old ways of making pickled, dried, and fermented foods. She always has some project going on around the house, and she usually works on such projects in the early morning hours, before everyone else is awake. Typical things include: Wild plants spread out flat to dry in the living room. Long strands of kelp, picked from the coast, hanging to dry on racks in the back yard. The scents of sesame oil and fish broth wafting upstairs from the kitchen. Collanders filled with herbs placed over heater vents to aid in dehydration. Giant metal bowls for making kimchee on the kitchen floor.

Koreans often sit on a large cloth spread out on the kitchen floor to prepare large batches of food. This was surprising for me at first, coming from a background where food is prepared only on the countertop. But now I see the logic. There is just so much more SPACE on the floor! And those kimchee bowls are big enough to bathe children in!

Here is a photo of a typical Korean breakfast. At each place setting is a bowl of rice and a dish of soup made from radish greens, miso paste, and wild sesame seed (perilla) powder, one of my favorite Korean soups. In the communal center are the usual plethora of side dishes. (I always tell my mother-in-law that every Korean meal seems like Thanksgiving... Doing the dishes feels like doing Thanksgiving dishes, too!) The side dishes seen here are as follows, from top left to bottom right. Row one: Raw carrots and cabbage pieces to dip in sauce. Peanuts sauteed in soy sauce and sweet rice syrup. Radish kimchee. A dipping sauce made from soy sauce and red chili. Row two: Two types of seaweed salad, one made with kelp and cucumbers, the other made with a seaplant I don't know the name of and Korean radish strips. A dish of cucumber kimchee. Row three: A fish cake side dish and a mini-anchovy side dish, made from dried anchovies. A side dish made from the stems of some kind of plant that has horribly bitter leaves, but wonderfully tender and NON-bitter stems. (The stems are boiled and then covered in a sauce made with wild sesame powder. It is AMAZING.) Boiled and chilled kelp to be dipped in the soy sauce-chili mix:

Some kind of small ocean fish drying outside. This will probably be rehydrated throughout the winter for soups or side dishes:

Korean chives in my father-in-law's garden:

In the old days, Koreans buried kimchee jars underground to keep the kimchee cool and crisp after it had fermented. Now they have special kimchee refrigerators, like this one. The refrigerators keep kimchee at the most perfect temperature. I don't know how to explain the effect, but when kimchee is first taken out of the kimchee refrigerator, it has a perfect crispness that is so wonderful I want to roll in it! If a small dish of that same kimchee is placed in the regular refrigerator, it's just not the same:

A type of plant that we eat chopped up raw in summertime cold noodle dishes. I don't know what it is called in English. In Korean, it is called "minari". It is much like parsley or cilantro... very strong flavored and used primarily as a garnish:

I have no idea what this plant is called in English or Korean. It is a kind of sea plant, and when you bite into it, it is very salty. My mother-in-law says it has medicinal properties, but I'm not clear on what those are. She picked a ton of this stuff over the summer and spread it out to dry around the house. Once it was dry, she ground it up into a powder that she mixes with smoothies or a type of powdered drink mix made from bean powder:

Close-up of the seaplant:

Jars containing homemade fermented soybean paste, soy sauce, and chili paste. These are left outside in a cool spot year round. The more they ferment, the better they taste. On sunny days, their lids are removed so that the cloths under the lids can be exposed to the sun's UV rays. This kills any mold that might start to grow on the cloths:

WIld sesame (perilla) from the garden. The first time I tried the leaves of this plant, I was entirely unprepared for their strong flavor. To me, they tasted soapy, and I thought I hated them at first. Now I LOVE them! They are eaten raw with Korean barbecue, steamed with rice, or pickled:

Wild sesame leaves, pickled in a soy sauce mix. This jar is currently sitting outside our back door. I'm not sure how long it will be left there, but I do know that once these leaves are pickled, they last for at least a year, maybe longer:

You know fall has come to a Korean household when persimmons start being served. This is now my favorite fruit in the world. It has a different taste and texture at every stage of ripeness, each wonderful in its own way:

Dried fiddlehead fern shoots being rehydrated. My mother-in-law picks them in the spring and dries them all over the house on sheets of newspaper. She uses them throughout the year in a WONDERFUL spicy beef soup called Yook Gae Jang, which can also be ordered at many Korean restaurants:

One of the most fascinating things about living with people of a different culture is seeing how everyday things get used in different and often surprising ways. This goes for household objects and food ingredients. I've watched my husband dip spicy kimchee into a bowl of oatmeal. I've seen peanut butter paired with American cheese and tomatoes. His family has watched me dip rice cakes that are never supposed to be sweet into honey. We never fail to make each other's jaws drop.

Recently, my father-in-law made a fascinating contraption from an old cat litter bucket. I giggled when I saw it, because for me this was a very surprising use of something that once held cat litter:

What is that contraption? Why it's a Bean Sprouter! Small holes have been drilled into the bottom of the cat litter bucket. Yellow soy beans are placed inside. Water is poured over them several times per day. Excess water drains out the holes and into the tub below. The black cloth on top keeps light out. After several days, the beans sprout and are used in salads, soups, and side dishes. I eat them and giggle, thinking, "This came from a cat litter bucket!"


  1. This is so fascinating! Are you involved in the preparation process at all? It seems like it would be really useful to know how to dry and pickle things, especially if you had your own garden. It's such a great contrast to the side of Korean culture that sets out to own two hundred Coach purses. The way you describe it here, with so many herbs and jars and powders on the floor, it sounds like you live in a witch's cottage by the sea!

  2. This makes me want to go back to Korea SO BAD!

  3. Stories of food preparation like this make me think of the weight of history behind them. Imagine the first people to try pickling food and the complicated series of events that led them to the attempt. Imagine the failures that resulted before actual "pickling" was discovered. Somehow I think of an ancient "county fair" kind of situation in which families compete to see who can make the best tasting garnishes, year after year for hundreds if not thousands of years. On that anime series, "Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture", they described a method of making sake in which you chew up mouthfuls of rice and spit the chewed rice in to a pot, then leave the mixture to ferment. Imagine the first person to try that.

  4. Wow David, you just gave me food for thought for a few days, seriously no pun intended!

    And Sandman, I will always remember taking you to Kamei in San Francisco. Kamei is an Asian restaurant supply store with all sorts of unusual and unexpected items that I was trying to figure out. Sandman went up and down each and every row with me, patiently explaining what went where and how things were used in response to my millions of questions. And she knew every answer!

    At one point I looked around for the most obscure, confusing object I could find to stump her, but when I presented the small metallic tool I found she just took a breath and began, "You see, Koreans make an acorn jelly and so..."

    F***ing brilliant.

  5. Wow, making food is so damned *complicated*... but the end result looks totally worth it.

    I remember all the food-related posts you had on your other blog. Koreans definitely appreciate a good meal, don't they? (Well, since they clearly work hard to make it...)