The Love of Korean Cooking I Share With My White Mother
In her illness, Korean food was all my Polish-American mom from Jersey wanted to eat. It was all that she could bear.
This is Bad Kimchi, a monthly column by Noah Cho about how food and cooking can inform our identities and shape our most important relationships.
It was yukaejang he was eating, and this is not even the spiciest, Korean soup; it’s not as spicy as some versions of kimchijigae, redolent with over-ripened and powerfully vicious kimchi. Nor is it soondubu, extra spicy, from the local joint in Los Angeles that can pummel your hungover head back into alertness with its piquancy. This was perky yukgaejang, strong but not overwhelming. My mom had made it at my dad’s request, and he suffered through his enjoyment of it, savoring it as if it would be the last time he would eat it.
Months later, he was dead. Again my mother made us soups for us for the holidays: the annual turkey soup; split-pea in December, following our Christmas ham. Numb with grief, I remember I was determined to feel what my father had felt near the end, to eat the spicy foods he had craved—to push myself to try first Tabasco sauce, and later the jangs and pastes and powders and sauces to which I still turn today. I look to such foods when I desperately want to feel somethingwhile eating. When I want to remember my dad.
Earlier this year, my mom found out she had cancer. The news came almost twenty-five years after my dad passed away. Though their cancers are different, much of the pain I felt I had buried in my heart long ago came back, bubbling over the surface. I broke down a few times, on my own and in the presence of others. As always, I turned to comfort foods—to spicier than ever hot sauces—to distract me.
And then I cooked for my mom.
I’ve cooked for her a few times before, and she’s always enjoyed the things I’ve made her. But she had never asked me to make Korean food for her before. In her illness, to my surprise, Korean food was all she—the Polish-American girl from Jersey—wanted to eat. It was all that she could bear, somehow.
The first time I cooked for her after her diagnosis, I made her juk, the pan-Asian rice porridge that parents offer their sick children. I boiled half a chicken with rice, large chunks of garlic, and matchsticks of ginger. It was simple, but it came out nourishing and filling. I dribbled a bit of soy sauce on top, along with some fried shallots and garlic for texture. She ate the whole meal. It was the first bowl of food she’d been able to keep down in days.
A few months later, after I had driven down from Oakland to Orange County, she asked me again to make Korean food. By this point, her own chemotherapy treatment had begun, and she was like my father—weak, exhausted, without her hair—wanting yukgaejang.
We went to the Korean grocery store together and walked down the aisles, her frail arm wrapped around one of mine while I pushed the shopping cart around. We chatted and laughed at memories of years gone by, back when our house was full. All the ahjummas there stared—much as they always had—at the mystifying spectacle of a white woman and her East Asian son shopping together.
It was up to my white mom to introduce me to Korean food. From her I learned how powerful a good, hearty broth can be.
When we returned to my mother’s house, I began to cook while my mom rested. I soaked the gosari, stewed the brisket. I reconstituted the dried shiitake in hot water, and watched as the clear liquid turned caramel in color, releasing the flavor of the mushrooms back into the water. I started making the spice blend. “Mom, how spicy can you eat right now?” I asked. She’d always had a good tolerance for spicy foods after living with my father and my siblings and me, all of us spice hounds.
“Not so much, right now,” she said, almost wistfully.
I looked at the bottle of gochugaru, the red pepper powder that lends a crimson hue to so many Korean dishes. I thought about how much I normally use for yukgaejang, how much my father would have wanted, and how much my mother might need right now, and made my adjustments.
When the soup was done, my mother and I sat down to eat together. I had spooned the soup into a bowl for her, as she had done so many times in the past for me—on bad days and good, after celebrations, on holidays, in mourning, in joy. I gave her the same soup she’d given my father twenty-five years ago, the much-loved meal that made his scalp damp. She ate several spoonfuls, and then smiled.
“It’s delicious,” she said happily.
As I watched her eat, I felt a pride in my cooking that I had never felt before. She kept on eating, even as the sweat formed on her forehead and began to run down.
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.