Mom and Dad home. Quick … Turn off the TV!
In addition to being a harbinger of parental authority, our car was a private boat in which we sailed off to exotic places through night and day. Places far beyond the sun-drenched concrete of Hawthorne, California. Hot Springs, where my mom sought relief for her arthritic joints. Sacramento, where we occasionally visited a family friend named Rena, whom I knew as “American Grandma.” And once in a long while, Oregon, where our cousins Ty and Trinda lived. It was on one of these trips that I first saw a deer and snow.
Dad was driving late into the night, and my sister and I tried to find comfortable ways to lie across the back seat without hitting our heads on the window crank. We were eating cold pieces of fried chicken fished from the darkness of a brown shopping bag, when Mom gasped. We all saw it, staring straight at us, like a ghost pausing in the middle of the road. The snowflakes outside were larger than I expected. Everything looked monochrome in our headlights. And a few seconds later, it was gone.
On all those trips, we ate the food that Mom packed. It was usually something relatively healthy, like kimbap, barley tea and fruit. It was food we were accustomed to. Comforting, perhaps, but sometimes flirting with boring. Above all, it was what we could afford. I would sometimes stare longingly at the fast food joints we passed on the road: Shakey’s Pizza, Carl’s Jr., Pioneer Chicken … These were the places my cousins and classmates would certainly stop for a meal, in their luxurious, wood-paneled station wagons.
As I grew older, the road trips got longer. Indiana. Illinois. Wisconsin. I was becoming more conscious of how modestly we lived, and understood that we regularly drove distances people would ordinarily fly. And I resented it. I grew tired of sticking out, living in our messy, half-unpacked house, being stuck for what seemed like forever in the backseat of that car, listening to my parents bicker in a language I only half-understood. I carried that with me for a long time. And when it came time to go away to school, I chose New York, the farthest away I could possibly be. My dad wanted to drive there with me. In a decision I regret to this day, I told him no. I wanted to fly. And I wanted to do it on my own.
As a parent, I can now begin to appreciate how my father must have felt. I’ve since gotten to know both of my parents as people; flawed, but human. And I’ve repeatedly wondered what it would have been like to be on the road for those few days, spending all my waking hours with my father, whom I was accustomed to seeing for maybe an hour a day. The old man’s still around, but he’s not one for long drives anymore. I wish we had taken that trip together. This is the food I would like to have made.
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SIGUMCHI NAMUL (Seasoned spinach)
This classic banchan (side dish) is always waiting for me at my parents’ dinner table in LA.
2 lbs spinach leaves, trimmed and cleaned
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp sugar
1 T distilled white vinegar
1 thinly sliced scallion
kochukaru (Korean red pepper flakes), to taste (opt.)
1 T toasted sesame seeds
In a large stockpot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and blanch spinach leaves until bright green, no longer than 10 seconds. Immediately shock the leaves in icewater, and drain. Squeeze out excess water, and blot with paper towels. It’s not necessary to get it completely dry, just not dripping wet. Mix soy sauce, salt, sugar and vinegar in a large bowl and toss with wilted spinach leaves (your hands are the best tools here). Add scallion, kochukaru and sesame seeds and toss once more. Optionally, you can chop the resulting mass of spinach into roughly bite sized chunks.
Notes. 2 lbs of raw spinach looks like a frighteningly large amount. Don’t worry. It will compact to the size of a softball with this recipe. You will, however, need a very large bowl for cleaning and shocking. To get the best color, it’s important not to overcook the leaves. Do this in batches, if necessary.
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Unquestionably, kimbap is the canonical Korean picnic food. Similar in form to futomaki, kimbap is served at room temperature, eaten with the hands, and, due the acidity of the rice, keeps for at least a day. I never tried Japanese sushi rolls until college, but I must have eaten hundreds of kimbap as a child. I filled these with spinach, takuan, fried egg, and Spam. Other typical fillings include bulgogi, kamaboko, sauteed carrots, and kimchi. Ideally, one wants fillings that complement one another in color, texture, and flavor.
On Spam. I see you non-Asians out there, raising your eyebrows at the choice of Spam. All I can say is that, in my experience, the people most vocal in their disgust for Spam have never actually tried it. Their loss. Suffice to say, Hawaiians know what they’re doing. Mark my words: Spam will be the next bacon. Whether you choose to face that reality is a decision only you can make. To address its possibly unappetizing texture or appearance, give the Spam a nice sear before deploying.
Adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen
2 1/2 cups high-quality (we like the Nishiki brand) short-grain white rice
4 T rice vinegar or distilled white vingear
1/2 T sugar
1 T rice wine or vermouth
1 T sesame oil
Cook the rice, preferably in a rice cooker. The rice is easier to work with if it’s overly not soft/mushy, so limit the amount of water added to about 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 times the volume of the dry rice. While the rice is cooking, combine vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt in a small saucepan. Briefly simmer under low heat until sugar and salt are dissolved. Allow the solution to cool, then add rice wine and sesame oil, mixing well.
When the rice has finished cooking, transfer to a large bowl and fluff the rice with a fork or rice paddle. Drizzle in seasoning and mix well. Keep the rice covered and work with it while slightly warm.
6 large eggs
Cover the bottom of a 10″ skillet with vegetable oil and place over medium heat. Beat 3 of the eggs until blended and add a pinch of salt and 1 – 2 turns of freshly cracked black pepper. When the pan is hot, add the eggs and cook, pancake-style, for about 2 minutes, moving the pan if necessary to heat evenly. Flip the pancake (you may need 2 spatulas to do this) and cook for another minute. Remove from heat and set egg pancake on a paper towel to cool and drain. Add a bit more oil and cook the other 3 eggs the same way. Cut into slices about 1/4″ wide. If they turn out too thin, you can always double them up when assembling your roll.
8 – 10 sheets of kim (also called nori, or laver), roughly 8 inches square
8 – 10 strips of takuan, about 8″ long and 1/4″ wide
1 can Spam, cut into 1/4″ wide strips and seared
highly recommended tool: a bamboo mat called a makisu or a pal.
There are many tutorials available online for rolling kimbap and maki rolls. I reviewed this one and this one before making mine. I also enjoyed watching this woman, a beast at the kimbap station who doesn’t even need a bamboo mat! My first kimbap always turn out a bit gnarly-looking, but as with any new technique, things gets better with practice. To fill each roll, I used one strip of takuan, two strips of egg ribbon, two strips of Spam (arranged end to end), and a small line of cut spinach.
Notes. I am often guilty of overstuffing rolled foods, so I make a conscious effort to start with less rice than I think I need, adjusting up if necessary. Keep a bowl of water handy to keep rice from sticking to your fingers. Brush the outside of the roll with sesame oil and cut into 1/2″ slices. Wipe down and wet your knife regularly.
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JANG JORIM (soy sauce braised beef)
This side dish is a practical choice for packed lunches because it is essentially preserved, staying fresh for months in the refrigerator. The use of beef is auspicious, due to its historical scarcity. Small portions are advised due its intense flavor. A wonderful recipe can be found at my friend Amy’s website.
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KONG NAMUL (seasoned soybean sprouts)
Soybean sprouts are ubiquitous in Korean cuisine, and this banchan is a another childhood favorite. A recipe can be found elsewhere on my website.
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BORI CHA (roasted barley tea)
Adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen
Growing up, I was always offered my choice of beverage: water or barley tea.
1/2 C unhulled barley
1 quart water
If the barley has not already been roasted, you may pan-toast it for 3 minutes over medium-low heat, until fragrant. Add barley to water, bring to a boil (preferably in a ceramic or enamel-lined pan) and reduce to a simmer. Brew for 1 hour, and strain. Can be served hot or cold.
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YAKBAP (sweet rice cake)
My mom likes to remind me that I was such a picky eater as a kid that I would mysteriously get a stomach ache every day at meal time. Which was miraculously cured when it was time for dessert. This homemade variation of dduk is another perennial picnic favorite. A fail-safe recipe, and by far the quickest you will find, is described in a separate post.