Every Time I Smell Fresh Ginger, I Think of My Uncle Sam
I’d never seen a Korean man cook before Sam, and I was captivated.
This is , a monthly column by Noah Cho about how food and cooking can inform our identities.
My mom was the cook in my family, and an excellent one; my Korean grandma and my white grandma were both fantastic cooks as well. But I’d never seen a man cook before Sam, and I was captivated watching him. Sam’s knife work was impeccable—and incredibly fast. My mom would get upset because he would sharpen her knives a bit too much for her liking, and after he left she’d often wind up accidentally cutting her fingers.
The ingredient my uncle used most was ginger. Ginger feels like home.
My uncle’s palate was deep and impressive, and he could differentiate flavors with the best of them. The boldest were the ones that most appealed to him. Though he did not eat food as spicy as my father enjoyed, he still packed every dish with layered bouquets of tastes and fragrances. And the ingredient he used the most, during that summer he stayed with us, was ginger.
Perhaps I didn’t always appreciate ginger’s charms; its pungent embrace, its way of lingering on your palate. Once you start paying attention to the dishes that have ginger versus those that don’t, though, you realize its real power. Ginger is essential to so many great Asian continent cuisines, but it also exists in the Western mind as a comforting agent—something you might bake into a batch of cookies when you’re stress-baking after a shitty week, or perhaps add to a soothing cup of tea along with some lemon and honey. Ginger feels like home.
It’s added to a lot of Korean foods, but Sam put it in other dishes, too. He once made a dish of cold sesame noodles, garnished with thin slices of cucumber and green onion, made ever so slightly fiery with the taste of ginger—a subtle but noticeable heat. The noodles were refreshing, perfect on a hot summer day, with the ginger providing a snap of warmth and tang and sweetness.
Sam was also the first home cook I’d ever seen make soondubu. To this day, it is one of my comfort foods: a hot bowl of spice and soft tofu and bits of seafood and pork or beef, served bubbling over. Sam added ginger to his soondubu, which is not common, making it earthy and cooling at the same time. I’ve never had another soondubu like his.
Sam died last fall, around the same time as another uncle of mine, and these twin losses left our slowly shrinking Cho family even smaller and sadder. That Sam was separated from the rest of my family for so long, that there was never a chance for everyone to come together again after my father died—these things still haunt me.
I have one picture of my dad and his brothers together—perhaps the only one they took as adults, and certainly the last one before my father died. In it, my father is still upright, before cancer would rob him of his hair and his mobility. My uncles Song and Kenny are there, too, all of them presenting an impressive platter of those cold ginger sesame noodles. It’s hard for me to look at this picture now. Only Kenny remains; everyone else is gone.
I frequently use ginger in my own cooking. I recently made a marinade for kalbi, to which I usually add ginger. But I wasn’t cooking at home, and I forgot to buy and bring ginger along with me. Though the marinade came out fine, to me it felt like something was missing.
I thought of all of my family members—my dad, my uncles, my grandparents—who have passed on, whose absence I still feel. And I thought especially of my Uncle Sam, a man who was such a mystery to me, someone I wish I’d known better—now connected to me only by the scent of fresh ginger, and the memory of a smile on his face as he cooked.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.