(by Frances Park)
In the early years—the ’60s—my parents would drive all the way to a little grocer below street level in D.C.’s Chinatown, the only place to buy the makings for the likes of kimchi and mandu, dishes unheard of in a Virginia suburb with Mayberry airs. Tuna casserole, anyone? Meatloaf? Well, maybe my mom made those, too, but Betty Crocker recipes never made their way to my memory book. Meanwhile, a mere whiff of baechu (napa cabbage), and I’m right back in our sunny brick rambler, my parents just in the door.
Enlisting her daughters as helpers, my mom would show us the ropes, Sarge-style. Granted, sometimes she could be more military than maternal. As a girl, I had no idea she had been forced to leave her mother and a fabled life in the far reaches of northern Korea behind, had been captured by a Communist soldier, gun to her head. Sixteen, alone. The toll of war—three brothers dead, her mother’s fate unknown—left its mark. No wonder her mood could be distant. No wonder she hadn’t quite developed that lovin’ mom feeling.
“Do like this, I say.…”
Mother-daughter, her history between us.
If I was lucky, my kitchen contribution might be slicing little red radishes into thin coins for kimchi—a quick chore, and I was out the door. Better yet, occasionally stirring the galbijjim—braised short rib stew. Easy-peasy. Aromatic! But a mandu meal meant my whole afternoon was shot: Dip finger into egg wash, rim dumpling wrapper, drop small spoon of moist meat mixture into center, fold up into triangle, pinch closed. Ta-da! On floured wax paper, I’d assemble my mandu in perfect rows, waiting for a smile or nod that never came.
“Okay, you go now, Frances…”
Tteok was a rare affair. Background: My parents were part of a trickle of Korean academics and their wives to the U.S. in the 1950s, a good decade before the national quota system was revoked, resulting in a larger wave of Korean migration. That said, it wasn’t until the late ‘80s that rice cake shops popped up in our suburb, showcasing tteok—sticky yummies encasing sweet red bean paste. And here I’d been calling them “duck” my whole life. Maybe my ears were American, but not my taste buds. Twinkies, take a hike.
Tteok-making began with rice flour, beans, and sugar, and ended with my mom dropping our hand-molded creations into boiling water before draining each one in a slotted spoon and lowering it into a large glass bowl with the others. Oh, almost forgot the finishing touch: a drizzle of sesame oil. North Korean legend had it that the prettier they turned out, the prettier your future daughters. My mom’s tteok were like sculpted flowers, while mine were bona fide blobs. That always got her chuckling. And then, with proud carriage:
“My daughter all beautiful.”
To say she kept her family well-fed is an understatement—compared to my friends’ suppers, our portions were sumo-sized. She could also whip up continental feasts for the frequent dinner parties they held for my dad’s World Bank colleagues and their wives with an I-Dream-of-Jeannie blink. Later in life, I’d learn my mom’s secret, even if she wouldn’t recognize the French expression: mise en place. The vision of our long buffet table lined with beef stroganoff, vegetable tempura, mini egg rolls, and my favorite Korean food, chap chae, warming in silver chafing dishes was enough to keep me wide awake until the tea candles burned out and all the guests were gone. To my disappointment, no leftovers.
After my dad died—his life robbed by an untimely stroke in 1979—my mom began to spend less time in the kitchen. No husband, children bigger now. At 49, her role as the meal-maker came prematurely to an end.
“I’m mood for Victor’s.”
And off we’d go.
Pizza at Victor’s. Chinese at Tau Tau. Tacos at Taco Bueno. These were the offerings of the day, and to my mom, it was all good. Over a four-decade span, our suburb went from Mayberry to multicultural, and our dining options expanded. My mom wanted to explore them all, always carting home leftovers.
“No more cook!”
During our outings, she would talk about her idyllic childhood, humming Korean songs on the way home. It all felt healing, and in time I knew everything.
Yet even toward her last years, one constant remained: Every so often, I’d walk in the door of the house she shared with my sister’s family and find my mom hovered over a large skillet, her chopsticks going crazy, her face in fragrant steam. Oh, I knew what she was up to: preparing chop chae for me. Honestly, I wished she wouldn’t. Chop chae was not her favorite dish by a long shot, plus whenever she stood in one spot for long, the pain in her legs became unbearable, followed by searing night cramps. Her old recipe required washing a mountain of vegetables—carrots, scallions, onions, mushrooms, bok choy—sliced so sliver-thin, they got lost in the glassy cellophane noodles. Too much trouble.
Although I admit, a beautiful sight.
“All for you, Frances.”
Mother and daughter, our history between us.
Frances Park is a novelist, essayist, and author of award-winning children’s books who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. With her sister, she is the co-founder of the candy business Chocolate Chocolate in Washington, D.C., and co-author of an eponymous memoir. Her latest book, That Lonely Spell: Stories of Family, Friends & Love, was published in the spring of 2022, incorporating this story. She can be found at www.ParkSisters.com.
For the sauce:
3 1/2 T. soy sauce
1 T. packed brown sugar
2 T. sesame oil
2 t. minced garlic
1 T. roasted sesame seeds
black pepper to taste
1 large carrot
1 medium zucchini
1 red bell pepper
1 medium onion, preferably sweet variety
3 scallion stalks
12 oz. firm tofu
5 fresh shiitake mushrooms (or 4 - 5 dried shiitake, soaked until plump)
7 oz. Korean cellophane noodles
6 oz. fresh spinach (4 - 5 c.)
vegetable oil for stir-frying
salt, to taste
optional: 2 eggs
Combine all ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl, and mix well until sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
Cut carrot, zucchini, red bell pepper, and onion into julienne strips.
Split scallions by running a knife through the root ends lengthwise, and cut into 2-in. pieces.
Remove stems from mushrooms, and slice into 1/4-in. strips.
Cut tofu into cubes.
Bring a large pot half-filled with water to a boil, and cook the noodles until translucent and soft (approximately 6 - 8 minutes).
Drain in a colander, and rinse under cold water. Drain well.
Cut noodles with food shears into 8-in. lengths.
Transfer to a large bowl, and mix with 3 T. of the prepared sauce.
Add 1 T. oil to a large pan, and stir-fry the carrot and zucchini over medium high heat for 2 minutes, or until vegetables are half cooked.
Add tofu, onion, scallions, and mushrooms. Vegetables should remain crisp.
Add noodles, spinach, and remaining sauce, stirring to combine.
Optional egg garnish:
Heat a lightly oiled nonstick skillet over medium-low heat.
Beat 2 eggs, and pour into hot pan.
Cook on both sides, and fold over into an omelet.
Cool slightly, then thinly slice.
Sprinkle sliced egg over chop chae.