Since my first brief visit to Korea, my cooking has never been quite the same.
In the beginning, it was things like adding sesame oil and gochujang red pepper paste), bought from one of the Korean supermarkets in central London to all of my random concoctions. Soups, stews and stir-fries all began to taste vaguely Korean, but certainly not like anything you’d find on a Korean dinner table.
Then, after longer visits where I was able to learn some proper recipes from my hosts and my friends’ mums, I was starting to make side dishes the likes of which you might find stored in your average family fridge. Of course, they wouldn’t have been as delicious as those made by my teachers — my attempts were usually either too salty or too bland — but they were starting to resemble the kinds of thing my Korean friends actually ate.
As time went on, I learned to put together a range of different recipes. When I had people over for dinner parties back home in London, I would make huge pots of budaejigae “troops stew,” a big mix of sausage, ham, instant noodles, baked beans and veggies in a spicy broth, or ttokpokki rice cake cooked in a sweet red pepper sauce. For one birthday party, I grilled pork belly on a tiny barbeque in our tiny back garden. It was a lot more difficult than expected because the pork belly cuts on sale in English supermarkets are cut much thicker. I had to cut them two ways. A load of my friends had come to celebrate my birthday, but I ended up toiling over the grill all evening and barely talking to my guests.
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Then when I first moved to Seoul, I stayed for a while with a Korean friend, a school teacher who had just spent two years living in the U.K. Although she was always busy and said she rarely ate at home, she made me all kinds of delicious meals with ingredients from the small family farm on which she had grown up. There was always plenty of gim roasted and seasoned sheets of seaweed, usually cut into conveniently sized pieces, which was a specialty product of her hometown. There was also always a range of side-dishes in the fridge, often things sent over by her sister-in-law, who is the most amazing cook.
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Then, when I moved into a shared flat, I lived with another language student who would find it amusing when I microwaved a little tub of instant rice and laid out the side dishes I had, a mixture of my attempts at cooking and things that friends’ mums would send me home with whenever I visited. Later on, a Korean friend came to live in the flat and she got regular parcels from her parents, polystyrene boxes filled with carefully packed pouches of kimchi, made Daegu-style, that were so strong and spicy I couldn’t eat them at first. Before long, though, I was frying it up with onions and a little bit of honey, adding in rice and an egg and enjoying some seriously delicious fried rice.
Now, living with my husband, we get parcels filled with side dishes from my mother-in-law, who still makes her own gochujang red pepper paste, doenjang fermented soybean paste, and kimchi that tastes different every time. My husband’s specialty is actually different variations on miso soup, kept simple with whatever veg we’ve got in the fridge, but he’s getting better and better at making proper doenjang stew. I’m pretty sure he can now make it much better than I can.
We usually eat Korea-style at home with rice, soup and side dishes, but every now and again, I feel like making something a bit different. I can’t make an “English dish” because I’m not even sure what that would mean anymore, and even if I find recipes online or search my memory for all the things my parents used to make for me, the ingredients on sale in supermarkets here just aren’t the same. So there ends up being some pretty odd stuff on our table sometimes. Boiled potatoes mixed with fried onions, chopped kimchi and melted cheese, salads of every vegetable in the house, usually courgette, carrot, perilla leaf, spring onion and cabbage, shredded and dressed with a mix of mustard and oil and soy sauce and honey and curry powder, beef stew with potatoes and red wine, gochujang red pepper paste and jujubes. It feels almost embarrassing owning up to my makeshift dishes, but they usually turn out quite edible and get finished quickly enough.
An interesting development is that, now, when I go back to London, I can be way more adventurous with my culinary experiments. Following the year-on-year inflation in food prices in Korea, fresh ingredients are much cheaper in the U.K., so I can try frying pork ribs in a sweet and spicy ginger sauce or make a thicker bean paste stew with fifteen kinds of vegetables, or make my weird potato dish in the oven with blue cheese and red onions, minus the kimchi, sadly. Of course, when I’m back where I grew up, I can go out and savor all the things I used to eat as a matter of habit — fried breakfasts and South Asian curries and sausage and mash and bagels with smoked salmon — but if it’s me doing the cooking, it seems there’s no going back. Whatever the dish, I’ll inevitably start by crushing some garlic, chopping an onion and reaching for the chili powder.
Sophie Bowman did an M.A. in Korean literature at Ewha Women’s University. She has been working as a translator of Korean literature.