In my early twenties, I was famous for my cooking. Famous for instant mashed potatoes that doubled as an industrial-strength adhesive. Famous for bacon that did the dead man’s float (I though I’d boil, rather than fry, the strips.) And famous for the dish that I never failed to serve guests: spaghetti with ranch. No, not the fancy bottled kind. We’re talking powder and milk.
“It’s delicious! It’s just like alfredo!” I’d insist each time my sister, a professional chef, declined my dinner invitation.
“Why don’t we just go out?” she’d offer, her voice full of hope and fear.
But something changed when I turned 25. Freshly graduated and completely debt-ridden, I signed up for a one-year gig teaching English as a Second Language in South Korea. I knew nothing about the local politics, language, or food. All I knew was that my employers would pay for my flight and housing. So off I went, suitcases crammed with a stockpile of shelf-stable American comfort foods, from granola bars to mac & cheese. I was prepared.
Or not. My first day in Korea, I was invited to lunch with three ajumas (“married ladies”) who studied at my school, and our table was soon covered with a dozen tiny bowls of appetizers in a fluorescent red sauce. Kimchi, the ajumas explained, was Korea’s national food: fermented veggies (mostly cabbage) swimming in a fiery pepper paste.
Now, my reputation for epic food fails was trumped only by my intolerance for spice. But the ajumas smiled so warmly and expectantly, I dug in with my thin metal chopsticks and wondered how I’d survive the meal, much less a year.
Then the ajumas taught me to cook.
My first lesson was Chapchae 101, in which I learned to make this staple of Korean family gatherings. In her tiny kitchen, Mrs. Kim explained that every ingredient should be cooked separately to preserve each unique flavor. First she boiled noodles and set them aside. Then she sautéed onions and, again, set them aside. She blanched some spinach—and set it aside. Next came carrots, peppers, mushrooms, and chives, all cooked individually, all set aside. The process took forever, and I got antsy. Would it kill her to just toss everything into the wok?
But when we finally sat down to eat, I tasted the zing of spinach, the sweetness of the carrots, the woodsiness of the mushrooms—and I understood. This food wasn’t about filling up; it was about patience, pleasure, and ceremony.
This was an act of love.
When I returned to the States, I moved to remote Boulder, Utah, where my sister had just opened the organic farm-to-table Hell’s Backbone Grill—and needed help. I quickly signed on, waiting tables, collecting eggs, and eventually writing the restaurant’s cookbook. Then one autumn evening she invited me to make the staff meal. Nervous but excited, I started with kimchi—somehow I’d learned to love and master it—then went on to prepare nand entire Korean feast that disappeared faster than… well, any pasta ranch-fredo ever had.
If I hadn’t studied with the ajumas, would I still be living off all things instant? Hard to say. But I can tell you this: There’s nothing like leaving your comfort zone—even your comfort-food zone—to make life more delicious.
Ahoy, Food Lovers!
San Francisco Magazine
Food for Life
Retreat & Reinvigorate
Where bubbly sparkles all the time
Salute the Sun
Feed Your Body Well
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