The weekend’s trek for inspiration and ingredients was one devised with relative spontaneity. No, this wasn’t a jaunt to the local chain grocery. This was a drive to another county, to explore a still relatively new location for the Korean shop, H Mart – a chain I had only otherwise visited on outings to its midtown Manhattan incarnation. (Fun fact: the “H” stands for the Korean expression, “Han Ah Reum,” which casually means, “one arm full of groceries.”)
The new shop presented a weirdly perfect trifecta: the chance for a date night with my boyfriend, a chance for him to get to know my mother, and a chance for my mom to scope out the new location of a place she already liked. Embracer of cultural enrichment and appreciator of the little things, my mother harbored sheer curiosity about the new store’s offerings but everything about H Mart was new for the guy in my life. For him, an outing that combined new food experiences with an opportunity to learn more about regional dishes close to my heart—thus, a little more about me—was like a relationship cheat sheet presented deliciously on a silver platter!
Just approaching the store’s front entrance, with notes of strikingly fresh garlic, uncommon spices galore, and the ever-slightest hint of fish all rushing out with the sliding of the automatic doors, was enough to re-open the door to entire weeks in summer from my childhood. Revealing that one’s parents enrolled them in a cultural camp isn’t exactly secret of the year material. Still, the summers my two brothers and I spent at an annual day camp were about more than just exposure to new activities or a globally informative experience. Because the three of us are adopted from South Korea—and, to answer the million-dollar question forthrightly: no, we aren’t biological siblings—and because our parents chose to emphasize our adoptions and place of birth as things worth embracing, exploring, and celebrating, Korean Culture Day Camp gave our whole family an annual event to do all of that. It also brought together a community of families who wanted to do the same. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for kids to meet other kids whose cases went through the same adoption agencies or whose parents might have helped another family arrange the adoption of a child now attending the camp. Ironically, as someone who didn’t do the kind of grandiose family reunions that involve multiple hotels, coordinated t-shirts, and a planned itinerary of activities, you could almost say Korean Culture Day Camp was like a “family reunion” for the adoption part of my family’s story. It’s not the easiest thing to explain but anyone who’s been in a fraternity, sorority, or a company in the armed forces, is likely to understand.
This recurring summer event bestowed upon myself and a plethora of other Korean kids of adopted families, several months’ worth of memories in a mere five days. Classes were geared toward igniting exhilaration around different facets of Korean culture and traditions, and varied in degree of formal “education.” Over the years, there were those classes that we kids perhaps walked just a bit slower to get to. Language class comes to mind, as I will forever recall a slightly musty but sharp damp scent—likely caused by moisture from the large air conditioner and old ducts of the local Korean-run Lutheran church hosting the camp—when thinking about the descent of a few stone steps to reach the room where we attempted to correctly pronounce a booklet full of common nouns, phrases, and family titles in traditional Hangul.
Other classes, however, led not to walks of deliberate delay, but ones of hyperactive haste. Cooking class was a unanimous favorite. After all, what was cooler as a kid than getting to use knives (they were plastic cutlery, don’t worry,) and getting to eat food the minute it’s finished cooking? As much fun as the class itself was, the mere anticipation surrounding cooking class led to kids in the morning sessions getting those scheduled for the afternoon sessions fired up in a frenzy over the day’s agenda. Oftentimes, internal excitement would start fomenting before any intel was ever passed aloud. A few of the common choices for dishes over the week would include jap chae [Jop-chAY] (sweet potato glass noodles mixed with stir fried ingredients like spinach, mushrooms, onions, peppers, and diced scrambled egg), mandu [mAHn-DOO] (Korean style dumplings), and bulgogi [bull-gohg-EE] (Thinly sliced, marinated pork or beef). A common denominator among all of these, but especially the latter two, was the use of various oils to fry and flavor the food. Thus, from the moment of the morning’s first culinary undertakings, every other class happening in the main hall would find themselves surrounded by enticing scents of slowly heating canola oil (who doesn’t love eau de fried food?), followed by the eventual blending of sweet and salty soy sauce, nutty sesame oil, piercing onion, and prominent but flowery garlic, as the smells floated out from the large serving window dividing the kitchen from the rest of the main space. This is to say nothing of the scented swirls spun together by all the specific ingredients that filled the mandu, or enhanced the grilled bulgogi.
Occasional announcements over H Mart’s PA system dissipated my nostalgic musings with the kind of abruptness felt at the splash of cold water on bare skin and the present day’s grocery escapades weaving through the aisles of the store continued alongside my olfactory hindsight. Having prepared many traditional Korean foods for my family at home, my mother is no stranger to the regional ingredients and stock of exported products lining the shelves and counters. After she zoomed off with a degree of unspoken familiarity to follow her own culinary interests, my boyfriend was all too delighted to slowly but excitedly take in every bit of newness and uniqueness that graced his senses; whether it be the sight of unfamiliar words, the feeling of the unfamiliar produce, or the taste of unexpectedly well-paired flavors like the briny but non-lingering taste of dried shrimp rice snacks. Packed to the last square inch with everything from food to traditional Korean housewares and cleaning products, the store can certainly feel like a sensory and cultural overload.
Still, as the retail tour continued, desire collided with inspiration in a completely harmonious way, at the very back corner of the shop. What we found was an island like those used in buffet style restaurants, sitting unencumbered by any other racks. However, instead of being filled with ready-to-eat food, it housed pans of raw beef and pork steeping in a variety of intoxicating marinades – the smell of which shot down the approaching aisle and grabbed our joint attention in much the same fashion as the kitchen at camp would cause heads to turn away from their arts and crafts, calligraphy, needlework, or painting. The decision was swift and mutual: we had a dinner date with some bulgogi and rice.
After suffering a little indecision over the specific marinade flavor, our shared pursuit and love of everything spicy led to hot chili and garlic beef being the selected winner. Carefully grasping and placing these strips of meat in a bag with nearby tongs, it was amusing to smell such a complete set of flavors but remember that the food was at that point, entirely inedible. In fact, the smell was so strong that it would flood the inside of the trunk it was placed in to greet anyone who lifted the door long after the trip was over.
Now it was past the fall of darkness. My boyfriend and I began organizing ingredients and preparing to be our own sous chefs, which caused thoughts of day camps past to morph into enjoyment of date night present. The direct onslaught of H Mart’s herb, sauce, seafood, meat, and fruit smells had diminished. Yet, with the crunch from the first incision of my mother’s go-to Chicago Cutlery Santoku knife into a large yellow onion, and the faintest of droplets spreading its painful, sob-inducing sting, emotionally contradicting excitement roared back up like the red-hot surface of the large skillet where the bulgogi was destined to cook.
Ingredients came together as we diced onion, smashed garlic cloves, crushed even more red chili peppers (couples that spice together, stay together), and stirred a gradually expanding pot of sticky Korean white rice. Though little sesame oil is needed because of the marinade and the meat’s natural fat marbling, my enthused boyfriend poured a moderate amount to shape the meat’s taste at the very end. For me, simply opening the bottle of sesame oil is worth relishing: the scent is so distinct, and the flavor so integral to those dishes I ravaged and loved as a kid, that I find no abnormality about sniffing it in the same way one contemplates perfume in the mall.
Perhaps most notably though, during our preparations, I found my mind not so wholly transported between the past and present as in the store. Rather like the marinated beef sizzling against the skillet and slowly becoming imbued with the flavors of everything in its pan-oriented orbit, thoughts of my summers at Korean Culture Day Camp stopped fighting for dominance over what I was doing in that moment. It became a merging of past, present, familiar and new—for myself, for my parents who raised me, and for my boyfriend who was only just getting acquainted with my family’s deep appreciation and nurturing of my biological culture.
And as we scooped out heaps of still-steaming rice onto large plates, decadently dressing these hills of snowy grains with now perfectly seared meat and caramelized sides, one would think my guy and I had finally reached the end objective. Yet, the moment we sat down at the dining table and took in that first delectable breath of a fully prepared meal, my immediate thought wasn’t of things being over, but of a long-awaited weekend dinner date just now beginning.
—About the Author—
Kira Grunenberg is a music journalist and the founder of Throw the Dice and Play Nice – a publication dedicated to under-appreciated facets of music and the performing arts. Her writing has been featured through the likes of DownBeat Magazine, No Depression, Off Your Radar, and countless music startups. Kira says switching to blindness via optic nerve atrophy can help you save 100% or more on your car insurance.