Every year around this time, San Jose’s Peter Yi and his family gather around the breakfast table to share what is arguably the most important meal of the year for Koreans: Bowls of steaming hot tteok guk, a beef broth and rice cake soup, to mark the start of Seollal, or Korean Lunar New Year.
“By eating the rice cake soup you are considered to become a year older,” says Yi, who owns San Jose’s Omogari, known for bottomless banchan and sharp, expertly-fermented kimchi, with his parents, Myong and Hoo.
At home, Myong starts prepping days in advance for the holiday, which started Jan. 22. She chops the kimchi, garlic and onions that will go into the mandu dumplings her family likes to add to their clear broth and bobbing rice cakes, which resemble coins and symbolize prosperity.
Once the kids and friends arrive, everyone gathers around the table, filling and pinching wrappers, starting the year with conversation, laughter and connection. Peter says his Mom’s mandu are perfect, round and hat-shaped. His, not so much.
“Mine are flat and ugly,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what shape it is. It still tastes good in the soup.”
Tteok guk is just one part of this rich tradition that dates back centuries You can find it at numerous restaurants in the Bay Area, including Concord’s Korea House, Oakland’s Jong Ga House and Santa Clara’s Kami Korean Kitchen. Other cultural traditions include sebae, the ceremonial bow before elders, who give white-enveloped cash in return. Some families dress in colorful hanbok and play traditional games like yut. But food is always at the center.
The medley of bold, traditional Korean dishes depends on the family. Yi’s Seollal table always has galbi-jjim, the tender, braised beef short ribs coated with sticky, sweet, nutty sauce. New York Times food writer Eric Kim grew up with a variety of what he calls “peak party foods” for holidays and celebrations, including Seollal. There was the sweet potato noodle dish called japchae, bacon-fat kimchi jeon and beef bulgogi, which was beloved by the kids.
In his debut cookbook, “Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home” (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), Kim sets out to define what these and other dishes of his youth mean to him now as a 30-something Korean-American recipe developer and food writer. To do that, the New Yorker moved home to Atlanta, Georgia for a year to cook alongside his mother, Jean, sharpening his confidence in kimchi-making — the “Kimchi is a Verb” chapter offers 13 tantalizing recipes — and discovering what a two-finger pinch of salt, dried kelp “the size of your head” and other Mom-isms mean.
“Spending time with my mom and excavating the past, the book ended up really being about our family table,” says Kim, adding that many of these recipes, including the crustless kimchi sandwiches and mushroom-centric, sheet-pan japchae are unique to his family. You don’t need to email him saying they are not true Korean recipes.
“In order to expand our cuisine, we need to acknowledge that it will change and grow. My food is an evolution of my mom’s, just as hers was an evolution of her mother’s,” he says.
For instance, there’s a bulgogi recipe that is not the melt-in-your-mouth type of marinated, grilled beef you typically find in Korean homes and restaurants. This one, which is seared to a crisp and doused in a lemony shallot mixture, is a nod to Atlanta’s obsession with lemon-pepper seasoning. Kim makes his from scratch by mixing ground whole black peppercorns and dehydrated lemon zest, which he rubs on the thinly-sliced rib-eye before pan searing.
Like several of Kim’s recipes — hello, bibimbap and LA kalbi — he offers a sheet-pan version. He’s a big fan of the hands-off cooking method. He jokes that the one difference between his mother’s cooking and his own is the sheet pan.
“Growing up we used our oven as storage for pots and pans,” he says. “It wasn’t until I started roasting vegetables — from an Ina Garten recipe — that the oven came into our family’s cooking picture. The stovetop gives you control, but the oven gives you freedom and dry heat, which equals caramelization. Also, I like freedom when I cook to go and do other things.”
Amen. As much as “Korean American” is about developing one’s own style — fresh herbs aren’t common in Korean food, yet Kim presses parsley into his kimchi pancakes mid-fry for a pop of flavor and color — it is also about honoring the magic that comes with years of experience. In Korean, it is called sohn mat, the signature touch that is fully developed when your food is perfectly seasoned and effortlessly delicious.
“Sohn mat explains why it is so hard to replicate your own mother’s food, even when you follow her directions word for word… So much of a person’s sohn mat goes into the food they cook — their soul, their physicality and decades upon decades of personal experience,” Kim writes.
One thing Kim left out of his cookbook, though, was tteok guk. Instead, he filled the stew section with other delicacies, including a samgyetang-inspired Cornish Game Hen Soup with Fried Shallot Oil, because tteok guk wasn’t a big part of his family’s traditions. And he never cared for the version he grew up on.
“It came out of a giant stainless-steel church vat after mass in the morning,” he says. “We ate it and moved on with the new year.”
In a recent assignment for the New York Times, however, Kim reimagines the humble soup’s “clean-tasting blandness” and “flavorless rice cakes” as tteok mandu guk, made with generous amounts of gochugaru, the Korean red pepper powder, which he blooms in olive oil to create a “ludicrously crimson, aromatic oil.” He uses it both inside the dumplings and as a bold, finishing flourish that turns the otherwise colorless broth into a bright pool of light worthy of celebration.
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