My Harabeoji Taught Me It’s Always Better to Add More Garlic
Harabeoji’s favorite thing to eat, and the thing to which he attributed his long life, was raw garlic.
This isBad Kimchi,a column by Noah Cho about how food and cooking can inform our identities.
In Korean, your grandfather on your father’s side is called harabeoji. My own harabeoji was a man who lived what seemed like several hundred lives in the space of ninety years, a survivor who twice faced forces that wanted to destroy him and failed. He was a painter, an author, a minister, a choir director, a doctor, the first licensed acupuncturist in California (he once treated Elvis, at least according to a weathered 1970s tabloid my mom saved).
He was also a slow eater, harabeoji; he contemplated every bite—a trait that became even more pronounced as he grew older and frailer due to Parkinson’s. I remember chopsticks and forks trembling in his hands as food made its way to his mouth. Harabeoji’s favorite thing to eat, and the thing to which he attributed his long life, was raw garlic. You could smell him coming before he entered the room; his morning routine, after washing up and dressing, concluded with two cloves of garlic, whole, chewed up in his mouth. My very earliest memories of harabeoji are not the distinct visions of him, strong but thin, with hands that seemed like they could bend steel—no, my memories of him consist of the pungent, visceral smell of raw garlic.
Koreans love garlic. Its fragrance, ripe with the promise of transforming your food into something better than it was, is intoxicating when cooked or roasted. The powdered form is one of the bestselling spices in the supermarket aisle, and there are few things more comforting to me than the smell of minced garlic, its membranes split and its essence mixing with fat in the pan. I know I can’t be the only home cook who, in the hours after cooking with garlic, will steal a perfunctory sniff of the fingers just to catch a whisper of the dish just prepared. “Don’t eat garlic on a date,” you often hear, but really—do you want to date someone who doesn’t eat and enjoy garlic? Buddhist cooks often eschew garlic for temple food, saying it causes heat and desire to bubble up within oneself, but I prefer to think of it as an expression of love—in part because the smell of garlic has wafted from the kitchens and fingers and breath of so many people I’ve loved in my life.
“Don’t eat garlic on a date,” you often hear, but really—do you want to date someone who doesn’t eat and enjoy garlic?
If you’ve gone to any Korean barbeque place worth its reputation, it’s more likely than not that one of the things placed in front of you, along with greens and panchan, was a small ramekin of raw garlic—sometimes in slivers, but also frequently whole. Most non-Koreans I bring assume it’s to grill, and it’s certainly fine to do that. But the real treat comes from taking a lettuce or rice wrapper with a bit of ssamjang and meat and putting one of those raw garlic slivers on top. Garlic eaten this way is powerful, forward, in your face. It’s also delicious, a crisp contrast to the soft meat and ssamjang paste. The bite of the garlic, spicy in a way that might tingle but not burn, adds earthy, electric notes to any Korean barbeque dish.
Garlic is humble but powerful; an unassuming, perhaps even ugly bulb of a root. When you get it from the store, it often still holds the remnants of its former life in the papers of its outer skin, dirt and stains from the group and the fingers of the person who picked it, the wind of transport perhaps still clinging a bit to its frame. It’s a pain to get apart, involving a lot of smacking, tearing, pulling. Its scent remains on anything that it touches, so powerful are its oils.
So it was with my harabeoji, a gifted and simple man with a simple love for the Divine and for healing others. The pain he carried with him, borne from the hands of Japanese guards and North Korean soldiers and the deaths of two of his children before him—that was internal. He had come far over the course of his life; initially rooted in Daegu, then to Pyongyang, then to Seoul, then to Jeju. After the Korean War ended and the country stood divided, all of his children drifted to the US, and so, too, did my grandparents. Harabeoji was at the mercy of the world as it stood from the 1930s through the late 1990s, when he passed away. It tore at him and tried to destroy him so many times. But the roots in his heart, his determination to survive—those persisted. Koreans are a people visited by incredible tragedy who have developed a deep pride in not only persisting, but also in rising again, over and over. And so it was with harabeoji, still facing each day with positivity no matter how dire the world was, still eating his two cloves of garlic every morning, still smelling of alliums and hope.
Harabeoji, despite his many talents, was not a cook. Still, I know how much he would puzzle over Western cookbooks and how little garlic their recipes seemed to call for. How many times have you looked at a recipe for a dish that only calls for two to three cloves of garlic? That, I tell myself, is what breakfast was to harabeoji. I double or triple the garlic in just about every recipe—it’s always better with more garlic, you know?
Koreans have developed a deep pride in persisting and rising again. So it was with harabeoji, facing each day with positivity, eating his cloves of garlic every morning, smelling of alliums and hope.
Harabeoji was over ninety when he finally died, a lifetime of garlic behind him. My aunt maintains it was my father dying that finally pushed harabeoji too far, finally wore him down after a lifetime of searching for something that could calm the heart of the world. Garlic, they say, is good for your heart, and that is why harabeoji ate it every day. But I think in the end, all the garlic in the world couldn’t calm the pain in his heart after my father’s death.
I remember harabeoji every time I eat garlic, my own breath smelling like his. It has a way of lingering, like a treasured memory; you can brush twenty times and still the spicy, sticky oils of garlic remain on your tongue, coating your mouth. Even after all these years, whenever I break open a new clove on my wooden cutting board, I think of harabeoji—his breath drawing in this world no more, but still persisting, a lingering fragrance in my memory.
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.