So I’ve been wrapped up in life and neglecting my poor blog here, but I’m jumping right back in.
Airports are exhausting, whether the flight is for an hour or eighteen. The whole process–checking in your bags, getting on the plane, getting off the plane, finding your stuff–makes for an obnoxious and excruciating ordeal. Especially security. My anxiety peaks, my palms cold and sweaty, and I’m missing the sweater and shoes they’ve made me take off. Worried over having left a liquid in my bag, just waiting for the personnel to find something threatening that had been planted, waiting to be carried away and placed in a cold room, again without my sweater and shoes, socks little protection from the icy floor, angry men barging into the room, their fists pounding on the desk before me, barking at me to tell them what in the hell the clear stuff is in the small bottle, and my usual nervous, stuttering, sputtering self making myself out to look so guilty… “It was p-p-planted, I swear!”
And then it just turns out to be a small bottle of facial toner lacking a plastic baggy.
So I get off the plane and expect to run into the arms of my teary-eyed parents, but they were no where to be found. I called and called and figured I had been forgotten when my phone finally rings. I find out they’re on the other side of the monstrous, concrete, circular maze that is LAX. So I enunciate as best I can which terminal I am in to two non-English speaking, hard-of-hearing elderly Koreans that I am at the Tom Bradley International terminal and that my airline is “Buh-jin” (Virgin, as pronounced in Korean).
Forty five minutes later, we’re in the car with my elderly, hard-of-hearing, semi-senile father insisting on driving. My mother says that every time she gets in a car with him behind the wheel, she tells herself that she’s lived long enough, that if she dies today, at least she saw it coming. She’s full of bright humor. The two of us, my mother and I, are clinging to our seats as he alternates between speeding on local streets and forgetting to accelerate at green lights… or forgetting to keep his foot on the gas at all. She said she’d prefer this potential death to the cancer she’s fighting, that it would definitely be “more suspenseful”.
But they want to treat me to a nice Korean dinner, and since my mother doesn’t have all that much energy to cook after the long walk, they decide to take me out. And here is what I ordered:
Barbecued short ribs (galbi) with a spicy, soft tofu stew with all the trimmings. A vision of comfort, perfect after a treacherous day of travel.
Korean barbecue is so delightfully sweet, tender and tangy. Sweet, rich, balanced, enveloping, awe-inspiring, eye-sparkingly good. It is the ultimate food for me, the stuff that makes my heart melt with nostalgia and love. I grew up being stuffed with beef on a regular basis as a child–not chicken, never pork, a decent amount of fish, my mother did even know people ate lambs, and no–I’ve never eaten a dog.
The meat is tenderized by some restaurants and households with kiwi. Something about its acidity breaks the protein down, and its flavor imparts a complex, tangy sweetness that is unique and characteristic of good Korean barbecue. My mother says it makes the meat too mushy if used in excess though, so it’s best to proceed with caution.
Then there’s the spicy tofu stew. Perfect for a cold day, the spicy soup contrasts so nicely with the extra soft tofu that melts in your mouth. There are peppers, onions, garlic, green onions, sometimes zucchini, often times seafood like whole small shrimps, clams. The seafood adds a layer of umami to the vegetarian version, but both are spectacular.
Rice with a few peas sprinkled on top for color and a splash of veggie sweet is super nice, very Korean. Kimchi in the background, our national pickle, storming the U.S. and captivating health nuts globally. It took so long for me to like kimchi, years upon years, well into my late teens, but now I find myself craving it with a nice piping hot bowl of white rice. And there are so many types of it too.
So here’s the recipe for Bulgogi, literally “fire beef”, which uses the same flavorings as the short ribs. The recipe is modified from a book called A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes, by Chang Sun-Young.