We had travelled home on New Year’s Eve, so our first dinner back was even more special of a home coming meal. On top of that, dinner was going to be for 6 people, which is unusual at my parent’s house. I don’t come home all that often, and the fact that my sister, her fiance, and my wife were also there made this dinner all the more rare.
We had decided to stay at home for dinner because we thought it might be either too difficult or too hectic to try and find a last-minute dinner reservation for 6 on new year’s eve. This was more than fine by me. Many of my favorite foods to eat in New Jersey are the foods that my mom makes.
To prepare for dinner, my mother started making the Kimchi Jun. Kimchi is the ubiquitous pickled cabbage side dish of Korean food. Jun (also spelled jeon, for some reason) translates to fried pancake. Jun is one of Sarah’s favorite Korean dishes. Before we even met, she and her cousin would go out to eat Haemul (seafood) Pa (onion/scallion) Jun (fried pancake).
I love my mom’s kimchi jun. Sarah loves it too. The secret ingredient is finely diced pork. Sarah never believes me when I tell her this.
To make it, you chop up pork, kimchi, and dump it in to a mysterious batter that you then fry up like pancakes. I have seen my mother make this batter for years. This time, I actually investigated as to what went into it. My sister told me that it was just seasoned flour mixed with water. I looked at the bag of mix that my mom gets from the Korean grocery store. The ingredients were flour, baking soda and “Buchim mix”. This was frustrating and comical, like looking at a Bisquick box and finding that the main ingredient is pancake mix.
Also with dinner, we had two cuts of beef. The first was finely sliced brisket. The second was skirt steak. My sister seasoned these with salt and pepper and cooked them in my mom’s wok. As I took this photo, my mom remarked that my sister had been cooking much more frequently as of late and that I should too.
My dad and I began getting all the banchan (side dish condiments) in order to attempt to put them on some nice plates. Although this only required us to simply take the various store-bought side dishes and empty them on to some plates, this turned out to be logistically complicated. For some reason, my dad has thrown away a large number of plates at his house. Presumably, he has been watching Hoarders.
After we did the math and figured out what could fit where, we put some red leaf lettuce and gohchoo on a plate together. The red leaf lettuce is used like a wrap. You put some rice, some beef, some scallions, and some gohchoo jang (red pepper sauce) inside the leaf and fold it over like a burrito. Then you stuff the whole thing in your mouth. It is a lot of food at once. When you eat it, it makes you look like someone just bet you that you couldn’t fit the whole thing in your face. For such a demur culture, Koreans have some very ironic eating habits. See also, Mr. Baseball.
Gohchoos look and smell like really long jalapeno peppers. But they are not spicy at all. You eat them by dipping them in gohchoo (pepper) jang (sauce) (remember Cha Jang Myun?). Whenever I eat them with my mom these days, she always laughs. Apparently, as a child, I would frequently mis-hear gohchoo (pepper) as kohchoo (penis).
“I don’t want to eat penis,” I would tell my mom in Korean.
Also with dinner, we had a sushi platter that my dad had picked up earlier in the day. The sushi was from a place called Marathon Sushi. My dad knows the owners of this place. He and I ran a marathon with one of the owners in Baltimore, of all places.
The dinner platter had some sushi rolls, which were exceptionally good. But after having lived in Chicago, I am tired of sushi rolls. The tuna and the snapper sushi were quite wonderful, though. I don’t think I let anyone else have any.
With the lettuce wraps, we had the brisket and the skirt steak that I mentioned earlier. And, because my parents no longer have plates, the two meats shared a dish. The skirt steak, you could put directly into your lettuce wraps, which are called Kaen Nip (I am not sure as to whether that refers to the leaves or to the process of lettuce balling). With the brisket slices, however, you could also exercise the option of also dipping the meat into a mixture of sesame oil and salt, akin to olive oil and parmesan for dipping bread. It is quite tasty to do this. Toasted sesame oil is a key component of Korean cooking. Much of Korean foods savoriness comes from this ingredient.
If eating the lettuce wraps is too intimidating, you could eat all the same ingredients of the lettuce wraps without using the lettuce wrap method. This is what I typically do. But I do the lettuce ball thing, too. And I also eat the gohchoo now, which I never did when I was younger. However, I still do not eat penis.
Other banchan that we had with our meal was picked bean sprouts, picked spinach, chap chae (think Korean chop suey), and kimchi.
We also, of course, had Korean white rice. Korean white rice is sticky, almost like a dry risotto but bland. To this day, rice that is not-sticky confounds me. Because you cannot eat not-sticky rice with chopsticks.
The dinner was nice. The kimchi jun was cooked marvelously. Salty, spicy, crispy, and tasted like home.