When a war happens, the first thing to go is the food.
And that’s where the best cooking comes from: when you’re forced to turn something that is not normally delicious into something that’s extraordinary. It could be something as simple as a potato. I remember my mom’s mom cooking potatoes over the fire all the time. She would wrap them in foil and cook them, then put sugar on them. And that was her treat for herself and for her grandkids. I’d always be like, Why are we eating potatoes? But it was something that was always so meaningful to her: the way she would cut the potato, the way she would sprinkle the sugar on, the whole ritual of it. She was making them as delicious as possible. It had once been very rare for her to have a potato; it was still something very special.
The Korean War changed how everyone ate. My mom’s mom’s response to that was to show me all of the comforts that had been taken away from her. I would spend so much time with her; she used to carry me around on her back. She cooked a lot of dishes that involved the whole family getting together, like all her daughters making mandu or kimchi or stuff like that. I remember I was too young to make mandu by hand, so she bought me a plastic dumpling press.
My mom is not nearly the cook my grandmother was, which isn’t a surprise. She came to the U.S. when she was nineteen, and there was abundance here. She became a pack rat. When she buys cheese, she buys, like, seventeen blocks of cheese. She’ll freeze fifteen blocks, slice two, put them into deli containers, and then like two weeks later she’ll buy another seventeen blocks of cheese. It makes no sense whatsoever, until you think about where she comes from. I’m sure when she moved to this country, she was like, What is going on? They literally just sell beef in plastic wrap here?
My mom, anything that is protein is her bread and butter—because beef is in abundance here. My grandmother would make jook and lots of dumplings and potatoes and really peasant-y stuff. She rarely made beef dishes. She was a great cook because she had to be. She valued everything. And I’m not trying to make a generalization or blanket statement, because I’m sure there are a lot of people that were raised in war-torn Korea that didn’t care about making delicious food. It just so happens that this grandmother did.
And my other grandmother, my dad’s mom, did not. She grew up in northern Korea, where there wasn’t that much agriculture or food. I never liked her. She was mean—hitting me, always yelling. She was so small, always wearing a Korean hanbok around, and she smelled terrible. She smelled like an old person. I was always like, Why does she stay at our house? My dad has thirteen brothers and sisters—why can’t she stay with them?
She was an awful cook. I don’t remember what she made, exactly, but I remember being like, Oh God, no, please don’t make any food. She never made rice in a rice cooker; she would always make it in a pot. And any rice that was left over, she would save and put it out in the sun to dry. I never think I saw her ever use it again; maybe she put it in hot tea. I have no idea. But as a kid, I’d be like, What is going on? We have bags of rice. Why don’t you cook it in a rice cooker? What are you doing? This is the dumbest shit I’ve ever seen. I would make fun of her constantly. I was such a horrible kid.
Sometimes I would catch her washing dishes, and I would call my older brother downstairs. She would turn off the sink and drink water, and would wash the dishes by spitting it out of her mouth. She was literally a war-torn woman that had to raise thirteen kids without access to running water. So yes, I could laugh at it then, but now I see it’s pretty hardcore. I feel really bad for her. How else are you going to wash dishes if you’re living in the mountainous countryside with no running water?
Like my mom’s mom, food was central to her existence—but for her, it was about scavenging and preserving everything. This was the effect that deprivation had on her: she was trying to teach us how to survive. That’s it. It took me a long time to realize how much she loved us, that maybe she loved us even more than our other grandma. I never thought about why she would act that way. She was showing us how to get by.
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot: why does my smelly grandma make terrible food and the grandma that I like make amazing food? At the end of the day, you’re not born a great cook. It’s something you have to learn, and you need something to work with. My mom’s mom was well-off before the war came, and that got taken away from her; my dad’s mom didn’t have anything to be taken away. There’s a type of oral tradition that has to be passed down: this is what you do. It’s not that different from chimpanzees showing a young chimp how to eat ants with a stick; it’s the simple act of passing down knowledge, whether through instruction or osmosis.
My mom never taught me how to cook, but I watched her cook every single day. I’ve never made bindaedok (mung bean pancakes) in my life. Ever. But I know I could do it in my sleep. I’ve seen it a thousand times: soak the beans, make the purée, and add in anything you want. I’ve never made it, but I know I could.