I avoid Herald Square in New York City as much as possible. Packs of tourists swinging giant Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret bags while gazing at the Empire State Building, combined with the crush of annoyed commuters elbowing past to catch their bus at Penn Station, are enough to make me bypass the 34th Street subway station. Unless I am in the mood for Korean food.
The restaurants and grocery on 32nd Street may not be as good as their counterparts in Flushing or Palisades Park, but this is the best (and closest) place in my borough to get home-style Korean food. As an American-born daughter of Korean immigrants, it’s where I find the dishes I was raised eating but have a hard time replicating. I go to Koreatown whenever I feel under the weather (I order samgyetang) or nostalgic (I get kimchi jjigae with spam). It’s where I introduce friends and coworkers to their first Korean meal (BBQ kalbi, pajeon, and dolsot bibimbap are reliable gateway dishes). When I was pregnant and couldn’t stomach anything, the kimchi and sol lung tang from Gahm Mi Oak sustained me. After I gave birth, I bought two weeks’ worth of miyeok guk (seaweed soup) in plastic cartons from Woorijip after my mom’s supply ran out. Koreatown is a special place.
My son, who is half-Korean and half-Taiwanese, has a knowledge of his heritage that is (sadly) limited to food. Neither my husband nor I are fluent in our mother tongues, and the thought of teaching our preschooler two additional languages to speak to his grandparents is daunting. But we do the best we can to teach him where he comes from. We want to make sure his idea of comfort food is what we grew up eating. We want him to try (and hopefully love) naeng myun and doenjang jigae, gooey oyster omelet and lu rou fan, not just cheeseburgers and spaghetti.
Today, I’m taking my son to 32nd Street to eat, explore, and shop. Our first stop is Han Ah Reum, the one Korean supermarket in Manhattan. We head right to the wall of perfectly packaged banchan (side dishes to eat with rice and soup) and find a wide assortment of pickled, preserved, or stir-fried vegetables and dried seafood to choose from. My son loves the dried anchovies (myulchi bokkeum) and, since he likes calamari, I get ojingeochae bokkeum, sweet and spicy dried shredded squid. He points to kongjaban and asks what it is. I throw it in our cart and promise he will like it (the soy-braised black soybeans were a childhood favorite of mine, because they’re so sweet).
We head to the kimchi aisle and I’m excited to find chonggak kimchi, the whole radish, uncut. My son has never tried it before; it’s also less spicy than some of the cabbage kimchi he’s had and disliked. We also pick up some mujigae dduk (rainbow-colored rice cake) and boneless kalbi to marinate at home.
Next, we visit Woorijip, known for its take-out buffet and prepared foods. We get a container with several kinds of banchan (like spinach, shiitake mushrooms, and yellow soybean sprouts, sautéed in sesame oil), to be mixed at home with rice for DIY bibimbap, and kimchi pancakes.
At home, we make rice and I marinate the kalbi in soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and grated pear. My son forms a endearing expression on his plate with anchovy eyebrows, soybean eyes, and a crooked squid smile. I make banchan hair, kalbi eyebrows, and a big kimchi schnoz.
My kid only wants to eat the anchovies (“I can eat so many fish—thirty-one thousand!”), and shovels them into his mouth. I’m surprised, because I’ve never liked myulchi that much—the tiny dried fish eyes staring at me were too much. I coax him to try the soybeans, and he likes them. Why wouldn’t he? They’ve been steeped in sugary soy sauce. He says he does not want the kimchi. I tell him he can’t have any more of the fish unless he at least tastes the kimchi. I cut a small sliver for him, and he tolerates it. We graduate to small bites of the radish with rice, and the dried fish piled on top, and he gobbles it up. Turns out a spoonful of anchovies helps the kimchi go down.