(by Clara Park)
I was that weird kid who watched PBS cooking shows instead of playing outside. I got yelled at for sniffing the cottage cheese at the salad bar when I was eight. I used my parents’ credit card points for a subscription to Food and Wine before my 13th birthday. My parents entertained often, whether it was dinner for six or 100, and my mom was the reluctant cook who became a great one after years of less than constructive criticism from her husband. (He once exclaimed that people who ate frozen and reheated rice had “something wrong with them.”) So yes, food was and is very important to me and my family.
My mom came to America in the late 1970s as a nurse and met my dad here—highly unusual for Korean women of her era, who only moved to the States if they had a husband to follow there. It was unheard of to venture out alone. She was this fearless woman who just knew she wanted to build a life in America despite not really knowing any people, the English language, or how to drive. Although she is petite, she is a mighty woman. If she wanted to take me out for a walk around the block and there was a giant barking dog, she did not retreat. She simply grabbed a big stick and my hand, and we enjoyed the neighborhood walk as always. If the dog approached, she scared it away by feverishly jabbing with the stick and shouting. When an elite all-girls preparatory school tried to wait-list me for the second year in a row, she marched into the admissions department and demanded an explanation. They had assumed that we were poor immigrants and couldn’t afford to pay tuition. She coolly replied, “We’ll pay cash,” and I enrolled that fall.
After more than 40 years of marriage, Mom is now such a good cook that I can’t enjoy kimchi at restaurants. Really good kimchi is almost an exercise in alchemy. You are transforming a somewhat flavorless and watery vegetable into something savory, satisfying, and crave-able. Real kimchi takes days to prepare and days to ferment. Brining takes time; making the spicy filling and massaging it into the leaves takes time; letting the bacteria work its magic takes time. In the days before refrigeration, people would store kimchi in ceramic pots buried in the ground. It was a way to preserve the vegetables but also create something delicious.
For Koreans, no meal is complete without kimchi. It is always on the table, whether you’re enjoying a giant feast or a bowl of instant noodles. It’s difficult to explain to Americans. There is nothing equivalent that is always present on the table in American households. Kimchi is so much more than spicy fermented cabbage; it is the national dish of South Korea. There are literally hundreds of variations, spicy or not, with Napa cabbage, cucumber, daikon, scallion, and other vegetables.
I remember being a kid and having my white friends complain that my house smelled weird. “Why are there dead fish hanging from your deck rafters?” they’d ask, or “Everything is so spicy!” As adults, those same kids are rabid about Korean beef tacos or fried chicken wings. I read somewhere that the magic of the past is the common sense of the present. I’d add that the weird, stinky, ethnic food of the past is the Instagrammed food porn of the present.
While my mom is the undisputed kimchi master and I am merely the prep cook when I assist her (she only lets me peel vegetables and do knife work), there is one dish that she admits she cannot make as well as I can: spaghetti. Part of being a good chef is knowing your audience. My parents went to Europe with a Korean tour group a few years ago, and while in Italy, my mom proudly exclaimed, “My daughter makes better spaghetti than this!” Having been fortunate enough to travel to Italy, I can tell you that my pasta is good, but certainly not better than the pasta in Italy. But Italians love their pasta al dente, and Koreans love their pasta al mushy. My mom hated the firmness of all the pasta they tried because it wasn’t overcooked to her liking. Whenever I make pasta for my mom, I always give it an extra one or two minutes for that super soft texture. Even when I take shortcuts and use jarred sauces, my mom will still gleefully announce, “Soooo delicious!” Clearly, it’s not the level of care that went into the sauce but just the fact that I am cooking for her that delights her so.
I’ve been cooking professionally for almost 17 years now. I have been in magazines with Anthony Bourdain. I emerged victorious on The Food Network’s Chopped. I have created sauces so delicious, they have sales in the millions. I have cooked dinner for billionaires, celebrities, and world famous chefs. I can literally cook anything you can imagine, but whenever I ask my mom what she wants me to cook, she always answers: spaghetti.
With a side of kimchi, of course.
Quick Cucumber Kimchi
Adapted from Koreatown by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard
(Mama Park doesn’t use recipes)
1 1/4 lb. cucumbers, washed, trimmed and cut into 1/4-in. slices
1 1/2 t. kosher salt
1 1/2 t. sugar
1/2 c. grated Asian pear
1/3 c. kochugaru (Korean chili flake)
2 t. freshly grated ginger
1/4 c. fish sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. sugar
Toss together cucumbers, salt, and 1 1/2 t. sugar in a large bowl.
Let sit for 15 minutes.
Combine remaining ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Drain liquid from cucumbers.
Add marinade, and toss to coat, making sure each piece is covered.
Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.