Though I stuffed myself silly with delectable treats at every opportunity, my favorite food moments were at the hands of two of my aunts. The irreplaceable warmth of hospitality that accompanied their food is forever cast into my happy memories of Korea.
The last night of our stay in Yesan, my brother and I were invited over to Gye-yul Uncle and Aunt’s house for dinner. My aunt made dduk gook (rice cake soup) and jeon (pancake). The dduk had the perfect chewieness to them. The bowl of comforting soup, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day, was beautifully decorated with egg white and yolk diamonds. This type of decoration is usually done for special events, and only if you want to go the extra mile. The jeon was made with a medley of sliced vegetables, bound with a little egg, and fried into perfect coins.
Knowing how much I love to cook my aunt surprised me with a songpyun making session after dinner. I was elated and excited. Songpyun is a steamed rice cake that is most popularly filled with ground sesame seeds and sugar. The flour is made from water soaked rice, drained then ground. My aunt told me that the soaked and drained rice can be taken to the local dduk shop to be ground on their machine. Songpyun has always been my favorite dduk (rice cake) since I was a little girl. How did my aunt make the perfect choice? Three fillings were provided – beans, sesame sugar, roasted and ground chestnuts. Of course Grandmother stepped in showed us what was up.
Hot water was added to the flour then the mixture kneaded into a dough. We broke off little pieces of dough and rolled it into a ball, then pushed down the middle to make a well, using a gentle pinching to mold the wall. It was modestly stuffed with the filling of our choice then steamed. I don’t ever recall having freshly steamed and homemade dduk before. What a revelation. Soft, chewy, warm and slightly sweet from the filling. A perfect end to our stay in Yesan.
Wistfully, my brother and I left Yesan after a few days to head up to Seoul. It was sad to leave my grandmother crying at the train station. Various thoughts weighed on my mind as I took in the golden, autumnal scenery of the Korean countryside from the train window.
The second part of our trip was spent with O0-yul Uncle and Aunt, who live in Ilsan just outside of Seoul. We were greeted with happiness in the form of smiles and hugs and a feast of a meal, a contender for our first meal in Yesan. My aunt recollected that when she came to Yesan to marry my uncle, I, taken with her beauty, gifted her with a pack of gum. Minus one piece. Apparently it was too much of a sacrifice for me to hand over the entire pack. What a chuckle we had recounting the event. My uncle and aunt did everything from touring with us in Seoul, taking us out to eat, arranging meets with other relatives. The utmost hospitality. I almost felt a little bashful with the amount of spoilage that was raining down on my brother and me.
The last meal at their beautiful high-rise apartment was a thing of beauty. My aunt was holding a large food container which opened to reveal a heap (although I would like to imagine a mountain) of gae-jang, soy-cured crab. One of my favorite Korean dishes. What an awesome surprise. She had planned this dish upon hearing about our trip to Korea. She began the process ten days ahead of our arrival at their place. Soy sauce was boiled with ginger, apple, garlic, cooled, then poured over live kkot-gae, Korean crabs which were in season through autumn. The salt in the soy sauce cures the raw meat of the crabs. Every other day or so she poured out the sauce, reboiled it then poured it over the crab once more.
After checking to see that the crab was ready to eat, she pulled off the body shell, pulled out the gills, then cut the body into quarters. Being gung-ho with gae-jang, I took the shell and mashed warm rice in it with a tad bit more of the soy sauce. I scrape the corners of the shell getting all the goods mashed it out. I cleaned out two shells. This the best gae-jang I have ever had. This is one of my favorite Korean dishes ever so you can only imagine how happy I was.
Our aunts and uncles marveled at how much my brother and I ate, noting the giant American appetites we brought with us to Korea. They were happy we were such good eaters. And I, grateful for such gracious hosts who without even knowing presented me with my favorite dishes. Only someone who truly cares can do that. I hope that one day I can repay them with delicacies cooked with my own two hands.