Columnist Noah Cho on pandemic food cravings, home cooking adventures, and much-missed restaurants.
When I was just a young Noah, just as full of hair on my head but far shorter, I often looked forward to the end of the school day. Not because I didn’t like going to school, but because—at least for a time—whenever I’d get home from school, my mom would have a bowl of noodles ready for me.
Sometimes it was a piping hot bowl of shin ramyun or Nong Shim’s Bowl Noodle, kimchi flavor. Sometimes it was something even more comforting to me: jjajangmyeon. Ask most Koreans, and I think you’ll find they list jjajangmyeon pretty high on their list of favorite Korean comfort foods, right up there with kimchijigae or soondubu or naengmyeon. It’s more or less just a bowl of comforting noodles with a gravy-rich sauce made from black bean, pork, and onion. It’s easy to eat, and whenever I do, I feel like my troubles have melted away—at least for as long as it takes to slurp the last noodles up.
I’m not doing anything original, here, writing this column about Korean comfort food. The search for comfort, either delayed or immediate, has driven the food industry forever, and that was true even before the pandemic hit. Stuck at home, I’ve been mostly thinking about the foods I’d define as comfort foods and now whether I can actually make them, whether they’re worth getting takeout, or whether I will just have to long for them until this ends (if it ever does). One non-Korean dish I’ve longed for is pho—I’m not confident in my own ability to make it, and in my opinion it isn’t as satisfying once it’s picked up and brought back, reconstructed, and eaten at home. I miss going to Vietnamese restaurants and having the old aunties and uncles gruffly take my order, feeling a little unsure whether they’ve heard me but knowing at the same time that they probably did and my order will be right.
With Korean food, I think I can cook most dishes pretty well, and I’ve come to believe I can make even great versions of dishes like kimchijigae, buldak, or myriad savory pancakes. That doesn’t stop me from longing for the way others make them: my aunt’s rendition of bindaetteok, one of my favorites, which can only be eaten at her house in Houston. The braised short rib and spicy mackerel dishes at a homestyle place in LA’s Ktown. A ripping-hot, extra-spicy soondubu at one of my favorite local Bay area restaurants. I want all these dishes I no longer have access to.
All this led me to wonder if other Korean Americans were feeling the same way—what foods have they been longing for since the pandemic began? I asked a few of them, and they were kind enough to tell me what they’re missing right now, what their cravings have brought up for them, and how these foods connect to family and memory.
My first instinct was to ping Michelle Zauner (aka Japanese Breakfast). If you follow her on Instagram, you might have noticed that she launched into cooking Korean food as soon as shelter-in-place began, creating both more complicated Korean meals and smaller, snack-based foods. But as time has worn on, exactly what she’s craving has changed a bit.
“Lately I’ve been really craving some ahjussi anju,” she wrote, referring to the drinking snacks that older dudes—ahjussi, like me, I guess—like to eat while drinking soju and yelling about the injustices of the world.
“When I was a kid, my mom used to grill ojingo on a butane burner in the garage so it wouldn’t make the house smell,” she went on. Owning a butane burner (or three, in my case) is to Korean households as a pizza cutter is to Western households, though with more uses. “And my dad would tear it into leathery strips at the coffee table and we would all share it dipped in gochujang and mayonnaise, with bottles of light beer and peanuts and some myeongnangjut with sesame oil.”
She doesn’t outright say it, but that framing—something familiar; something downhome; something that connects back to a memory, a time, a place, a family member—was echoed by almost every person I spoke with about their comfort food cravings.
“Thus far I’ve made my go-tos, certainly: kimchi fried rice, dakdoritang, daeji bulgogi, and then I also make that leftover mandu filling stirfry, where you just fry up what doesn’t fit in the dumplings,” said novelist and writer Alexander Chee. I know exactly what he means—mandu filling on its own is so redolent of garlic and green onion that I’m surprise more trendy places haven’t made a burger out of it. “Dakdoritang is my favorite,” he continued, “or ddukbokki, but I have to order in some dduk so I can make ddukbokki. It’s not in the stores near me here in Vermont.
“These foods aren’t really nostalgic for me, exactly—I taught myself to make my favorites when I moved away from Korean restaurants. Also it was cheaper to make at home. I guess these foods now remind me I know how to take care of myself and give myself what I need.”
I have always made Korean food as a way of giving myself what I need, but I had never contextualized it as self-care—something I have found to be impossible at times—so this feels like a revelation to me. Like Alexander Chee, I have a white mom, and also taught myself how to make many Korean dishes in part to seek that connection and satisfy my own taste. Knowing why we do this always feels important, but especially in this time when access to stores and restaurants is limited, and we have to work a bit harder to scrounge together what we want or need.
The search for comfort, either delayed or immediate, has driven the food industry forever.
“God, I love Korean food,” wrote comedian and Seth Meyers writer Karen Chee. “I love the way it makes me feel heavy afterwards, like the physical manifestation of feeling grounded and rooted. You know what I mean?”
Karen Chee’s main comfort food connects to one of Alexander Chee’s: dumplings. Whereas Alexander has now almost altogether skipped wrapping them and gone straight to cooking the filling, Karen relies on frozen dumplings. I love frozen mandu, as well—they’re great for when you feel unable to cook anything else, and they’re quick and accessible. And like so much of Korean food for me, too, dumplings also connect her to her grandparents, who live in Korea.
“Because of the jet lag going from the US to South Korea, I always wake up around 2 or 3 am the first week I’m there. It’s still dark outside, the small apartment feels larger in its silence, and I have to be as quiet as possible when moving around, lest I wake up my grandparents,” she told me. “The best possible food to make silently is dumplings. I’m not sure when or how this started, but whenever I visit, in anticipation of my jet lag, my grandma puts a bag or two of dumplings in the freezer so I have something to eat in the early mornings before anyone wakes up.”
I think of my own journeys to Korea, the excited mornings of my first days there, where the pull of my father’s country pulsates so strongly that no matter tired I am I find myself greeting the early dawn. Karen Chee knows that feeling, too: “Those stretches of dawn, when everyone is still asleep, feels like I somehow got to take a big clock and stop the handles, so I could stay suspended in this timeless quiet joy for a few hours. And in that time, I always eat those dumplings.”
And that brought her to reflecting on the present moment. “Right now, I feel like time has also halted, in a very different, much less happy way,” she said. “I initially bought frozen dumplings because I wanted food that got made quickly, since I’m not a very good cook, but now I’m continuing to get them because they remind me of those other moments when I felt caught in time.”
Three different people I reached out connected foods they were craving with their moms. R. O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries, has found herself currently craving a dish she doesn’t normally: seolleongtang, which is a simmering pot of oxtail goodness. “Since the pandemic started, I’ve been eating so much seolleongtang,” she wrote to me. “I’m not much of a cook, but a San Francisco Korean restaurant, Daeho, makes a perfect seolleongtang I seem to need at least once a week. It’s not a food I’ve ever craved before, except in my mother’s house in L.A.—and, almost certainly, that’s why I’m hungry for it now, because it tastes like being with my family.”
For Business Insider’s Irene Kim, who is sheltering in place with her mom, her favorite Korean comfort dish, donkatsu—not so different than tonkatsu, the Japanese dish—has that same resonance. “Donktasu always reminds me of going to H Mart with my mom as a kid and eating at the food court—I’m pretty sure that’s where I tried it for the first time. And at those food courts they always serve giant platters of donkatsu. The ones I eat now are probably 1/4 the size of them . . . I feel like donkatsu is one of those foods that somehow always tastes the same, in a good way.”
Comedian Youngmi Mayer—who has an excellent podcast called Feeling Asian—said her “go-to Korean comfort food” is boribap. “[It’s] a cousin of bibimbap. The only difference being barley is used instead of rice, and the mix-ins are generally vegetarian,” she wrote. “I like the fancy homemade tofu/boribap restaurants at the entrance of Buddhist temples in Korea, but I also like how it’s the easiest thing to make if you have a Korean fridge/pantry. Boribap is literally steamed barley with leftover banchan and gochujang.
“It’s the meal I ate the most as a kid,” Mayer went on. “My mom would make variations including one with a can of tuna and sliced Serranos in it, and one where she would just steam bori and wrap it in steamed pumpkin leaves with doenjang . . . I like the acidity and the spiciness of it. Eating boribap reminds me of my mom in the hot endless afternoons eating out of a huge metal bowl together.”
All these foods remind us of simpler, happier times—of actually being able to see and hang out with our families, cook, and eat together. The bowls of goodness that feature broth or protein or grains and veggies always bring me back to those bowls of jjajangmyeon my mom had waiting for me at the end of the day.
LA-based artist and activist Ashley Lukashevsky—coincidentally, one of the last friends I managed to have a meal with before the pandemic shutdowns began—chatted with me on the phone. She told me excitedly that she had tuned into a seminar on fermentation as self-care, which made sense to me, too: just as many are making their own sourdough starters, it’s not surprising that others are making their own kimchi, though neither Lukashevsky nor I have made our first shelter-in-place batches yet.
All these foods remind us of simpler, happier times—of actually being able to see our families, cook, and eat together.
We talked about a shared comfort food, naengmyeon, the cold noodle dish that is one of the best salves you can find for an overheated summer palate. Eventually she started thinking about family, just like nearly everyone else I spoke with. Lukashevsky is from Hawaii, and when she goes home, her halmoni always greets her with a special treat.
“Every time I go home, my halmoni gives me this giant container of ssamjang that she seasons herself—she gives it to me every time, so I have so many containers of this sauce!” Just the excitement with which she talks about it makes me immediately crave it, even though I’ve never had her halmoni’s version. With that ssamjang, a paste made from combining both doenjang and gochujang, the two most common Korean cooking pastes, Lukashevsky has started cooking more dishes.
“I recently wanted to make doenjang jjigae with it . . . I had all the things I needed, so I looked up a Maangchi recipe, of course, and I made that and it tasted so perfect. I feel like in the past when I made it, I threw things in there without a lot of attention—but this time I wanted to make it right, and I did. It was so satisfying to feel like I got it right.
“You and I have talked about this before,” she continued, “feeling more connected and validated by your success at cooking this Korean meal.” It’s true for me, too; it’s why one of the first dishes I made during shelter in place was a big batch of my family’s bindaetteok recipe, the one that took years of time and practice and my family’s help to get right.
“I also put together some banchan and blanched spinach with salt and sesame oil and kimchi,” Lukashevsky said, “and it felt like I recreated my own little Korean restaurant experience.”
At that point, a light went off in my head. I’d been missing the whole Korean restaurant experience: the refilling of banchan. The gruff service. Ahjummas with scissors flying, cutting meat and kimchi. The carousing of drunken ahjussis in pink polo shirts, having returned from golf and now pounding the soju. My heart aching, I asked Lukashevsky if she missed the restaurants, too, and she said she did.
“My comfort food when I go out for Korean food is kalguksu or sujebi . . . I’ve gotten it delivered a few times from my favorite place, but it’s just not the same—for so many reasons,” she said. “You know when you get it you want it to be al dente and it’s hot and steaming and you burn your mouth on it? When you get it delivered, you don’t get that experience. I also miss the little things, like needing more water [but] everyone ignores you. You know how they have the containers full of ice and barley tea and you’re like, ‘mul juseyo,’ and no one responds? Please, ahjumma, I’m so thirsty! I miss that.”
The privilege of being ignored by a busy ahjumma—I miss that, too.
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.