something for sunday

food, travel, and identity from a Minnesotan living in Seoul

Month: September, 2012

parallel places

I can count the places I feel most at ease on one hand: behind a book, in a swimming pool, in front of the stove, or across from another person, just one person, when the dialogue is fluid. I used to find solace in front of a piano, but I haven’t played in so long that I’m almost scared to try again. I worry I might decide to quit everything, hole up in the woods somewhere, and focus solely on what I left behind for more dependable distractions, things that could keep me nice and sedated while I held a storm at bay as best I could. This storm had been brewing for years, and eventually it hit shore with such a vengeance, I really did come within an angel’s eyelash of moving to that aforementioned log cabin in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a band of squirrels and birds with which to volley conversation.

The funny thing about innate interests, abilities, or whatever you want to call them, is that they’ll surface eventually. Soon there will be nothing you can do to stop the thoughts of these interests. It feels as though you’ve left something behind. Do you know it? Since a piano is not exactly portable, I have to put these thoughts on a shelf next to those of a working food processor, a few favorite books and photos, and the people I care about who live across an ocean.

When I was thirteen, I started to cook. We had one cookbook in our kitchen, a bright orange Betty Crocker binder with pages that had yellowed with age, yet still managed to look untouched. Betty Crocker was my Julia Child. I looked forward to making dinners from it. A sense of normalcy, of family, came from the act of producing a meal from those pages, even when it was just my brother and me at the table. The book was published in the eighties, I’m almost positive, so you can imagine the sort of dishes that resulted. There was meatloaf, beef stroganoff, tuna noodle casserole, and chicken with cream of mushroom soup. There were canned peas and green beans from a stash in our pantry that always smelled of paper grocery bags. It was the Midwest, it was the nineties, and back then, I thought Betty Crocker was real.

I remember vowing to check off every recipe from the book. I didn’t reach the goal, but I’m sure the binder is still tucked away somewhere in my dad’s house, right along with his mother’s set of mustard-colored pots that still smelled like the inside of her house years after they had been moved. I hope so, anyway.

Lately, while in the kitchen, I’ve begun to lean less on recipes and more on instinct. (Strangely, the kitchen is about the only place where I use a road map). Maybe it’s because we have fewer choices here. You can find much more if you search hard enough, but most of the time, I can do perfectly fine with what’s available at our neighborhood markets. To cook for less than you’d pay to eat out is a challenge in Seoul, but it’s a challenge I like, especially when it comes with a budding self confidence in the kitchen. Before this week, I’d never mixed a sauce for stir fry without a recipe. Correction. Before this week, I’d never mixed a sauce for stir fry without a recipe that didn’t taste like a cup of water from the Dead Sea. Totally salty, without any other distinctive flavors to balance it.

Something happened on Tuesday. I needed a sauce to coat a quick stir fry of mushrooms, cucumber, and red chili pepper. As I whisked a shy drizzle of sesame oil into a base of soy sauce, honey, rice vinegar, all flecked with grated ginger and garlic, I started testing it for the right harmony of salty, sweet, and acidic. I knew what I was looking for, and I knew how to get there.

Last night, it happened again. I put on a soundtrack, and I made dinner. I heated a swirl of olive oil in a pan before adding a minced clove of garlic. After thirty seconds, I added half a red chili pepper, also minced, the leftover stems of a head of broccoli, chopped, and a spot of salt. Is this the beginning of a sofrito, what I’m making? I wondered as a I kept the contents of the pan moving around, frying gently, infusing the oil. (It wasn’t, after some research to confirm, but it did make a nice base to pep up some limp leftover lentils cooked for a soup I’d made earlier in the week). 

When the lentils had warmed and reawakened in the pan, I folded in a cup of shredded swiss chard until it was barely softened. The chard curled around the lentils like Brunswick Green ribbons. More salt, some dried cayenne, a squeeze of lemon, and dinner was done. It wasn’t over-the-top delicious, but it was pretty damn good. I washed the dishes and felt a feeling of victory, similar to how I had felt years ago after I’d reshelve the old orange binder. But better, still.

A Gangnam Souvenir

I live north of the Han Gang, a big ugly river that bisects the city. Usually, I stay on the North side because it’s easier and I like it. Apparently there are expats who boast that in all the years they’ve lived in Seoul, they’ve been able to mostly avoid crossing to the other side. I am highly suspicious of such human beings. For one, you miss a hell of a lot of beautiful surprises when you keep yourself confined this way. It’s like living in New York and refusing to cross the Hudson. If I had adopted that attitude a few years ago, I would have never uncovered such an affection for Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Ham sandwiches, or the multi-sensory experience of a taxi commute to the Newark Airport. I consider these to be some of the finer attributes of a four-year existence on the East Coast.

Though truthfully, when you live on one side of the Han, the last thing you want to do is cross to the other side while everyone is trying to do the same. Yet I keep making follow-up eye surgery appointments that require an hour-long commute, three transfers, and a lot of undesirable skin-to-skin contact during the midst of weekday rush hour. Half the time, I nearly get on the wrong train. I wonder how many people can understand me when I swear as I realize what’s happened?

Today I walked up the steps from Gangnam station, and two American or Canadian tourists, presumably, were taking their photo in front of the entrance sign. PSY for President t-shirts next? Awhile later, I walked back through the station and followed my nose to a waffle kiosk. In a year of living in a land obsessed with coffee and waffles, I had indulged heavily in the former, zilch in the latter. I didn’t get it. They were everywhere, like cupcakes and cockroaches, and I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth anyway. I think it was one of the first things I noticed about Seoul, actually. Everywhere, people were eating fucking waffles. But as with other commodities I swear off for no reason other than the fact that everyone else is doing it and I feel more original if I don’t, I turned up my nose whenever a tortuous whiff floated by it. Oh boy, was I a fool. (In case you’re wondering, I’m sick to death of the song, but I love the video. Him, too).

My neck stretched to view a metal rack of a freshly fried batch, and I smelled the unmistakable combination of sugar, butter, and dough.

“Waffle bant hana, juseyo.” I nearly slurred. One plain waffle, please.

Cradled in parchment paper, it stood warm against my palm. Brushed with liquid sugar, it gleamed shamelessly in the cool iridescent lighting, the type of lighting that is brutally unforgiving to all things living and nonliving, except, apparently, to waffles. I wish I could tell you about each individual bite, but there were only three of them, possibly two and a half, and they all blended together. I stole the first corner hungrily, and the outer edge barely crunched before giving way to a sweet and pillowy interior. The tiniest bit of butter and sweet syrup greased the surface, my tongue, and the corners of my mouth. I dodged foot traffic, barely glancing down at the thing, and when it was over, all too quickly, I wanted more.

This, I decided, would become a ritual whenever I made the journey across the river. Whenever I headed to Gangnam, a waffle would be my souvenir.

Over the weekend

Beyond where to look for it on a map, I don’t know much about Bulgaria, though after last night, I also know that it has good Merlot. (Beyond the assertion that I like it, I also don’t know much about wine).

Over the weekend, I flirted with Bulgaria twice without intention. Last night I tasted its food in Itaewon, a district in Seoul that is equally loved and hated by Koreans and foreigners. Regardless of which camp you belong to, there’s no denying that Itaewon boasts a handful of damn good restaurants. It was Mike’s birthday, and we were celebrating. We ate a stack of cold, sliced zucchini that had been sautéed and coated with dill-flecked sour yogurt, red-centered beef tenderloin dressed up with a thin spread of mint jelly, pork meatballs and potatoes deliciously, unapologetically baked with enough cheese to make a grown man cry, and chicken filled with bacon, bathed in a bright tomato sauce, and affectionately named ‘The Pile Princess.’ We drank a fruity, dry red wine from Bulgaria, one of the only products that the restaurant imports from its birth country, and we didn’t leave until well after we realized that we were the only guests still there.

Today I heard music from a Bulgarian symphony with my friend, Helen. The men wore black, the women wore stage make-up, and the maestro expertly guided the visiting orchestra through a short list of classics while the spotlight made his bald patch even shinier. Bows danced across strings and fingers fluttered over keys as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. How many hours of collective practice were sitting up on that stage, I wondered. Enough to round out each individual sound into one perfectly functioning unit. Music, in the flesh, is as gratifying as a home cooked meal. And everything is better with wine.


I sent a letter to my fifteen-year-old niece, Sarah, this week. What do you write to a teenager? It was hard for me to know. We live over six thousand miles apart, and we aren’t that close, yet she’s on my mind a lot. Coincidentally, on the day after I sent it, I came across Emily Freeman’s blog, her new book to young women, and her invitation for readers to write letters to themselves as teenagers. I loved the idea, so I wrote another letter, first to put myself back in the mindset of a young adult in order to better relate to Sarah, but also to see what would surface when I revisited such a pivotal point in time. Here’s a bit of what I found. I have a feeling that the next time I write to Sarah, I’ll find it easier to be more natural. Especially if I revisit this photo before I start:

Dear Jacqueline,

Since I’m using your given name, I know I’ve got your full attention. I know this because I am you at (nearly) twice your age. Surprise! Also, I’m not quite sure which spelling of your short name to use. You see, in an unfledged attempt to assert your independence as a college freshman, you announced that you would henceforth be known as ‘Jacqui‘ instead of ‘Jackie.‘ Our dad is the only person who still spells it the old way. I know! I thought you might find that interesting. And yes, of course I still love you. 

I am writing this letter because I think we both could have used it at your age. You resent when people think they know how you feel, but bear with me. I remember. I was there. I’ll tell you just enough to offer you encouragement and comfort without giving too much away. 

Certain days as a teenager can feel like the textbook definition of hell. People blame it on hormones and confusion, mainly. The fact is, you’ve dealt with some real life stuff without the emotional intelligence to sort it all out. And that can feel pretty heavy. Believe me when I say that everything will become more manageable, which is just a more realistic way of saying it’ll get better. Not easier. But better, because with time, you will come to understand the value of life and the very relationships that you are struggling to sort out at such a fragile age. 

“Will I ever feel comfortable in my own skin?” you wonder. Nobody feels comfortable in her own skin at your age, and if she says otherwise, she’s lying. Awkward appearances (and peculiar upbringings) can be painful, but they can also build character. Two things on appearance before we move on: 1) You’ll get that unibrow in ship-shape before you graduate, without the need to over-tweeze (see the photo above as proof – you were seventeen there). 2) In a decade, you’ll miss the days when you didn’t need a bra, so put away the padding and embrace what you’ve got, girl!  

On our dad: One day soon, you will appreciate his austere, erratic method of parenting and his mysterious sense of style (yes, even the hair pick he keeps in his back pocket to periodically tease his perm). In fact, you might even come to view him as eccentric, which is a hell of a lot more exciting than average. When it feels like you two will never see eye to eye, have faith. You will grow up, he will grow older, and eventually you’ll be able to have a beer together. 

On our mom: The memories are going to fade, but hold tight to what you can recall. I know that the loss feels huge right now. Especially during a time when you probably need her the most. In a few years, you’ll start to meet other people who have also lost a parent, and this commonality will create bonds quicker than you can imagine. The true healing process begins when you decide that you’re ready. And you will.

On John, our younger brother: Be kind to him. Chill out on the criticism. You both wonder how you could possibly be related when you seem so fundamentally different, but you have a lot more in common than you think. Though you probably won’t ever miss sharing a bathroom with him, you’re going to miss other things. Trust me. He’s using your overpriced shampoo even when you hide it because he’s your younger brother, and that’s part of his job. (Why are you spending so much money on shampoo, anyway? Buy a book!) As adults, you’ll live in different states, then in different countries, but even across the miles, you’ll be relieved that John shares your memories, good and bad, and you’ll have a hilarious time recalling many of these memories with him. 

On family: There is no such thing as perfection. Yours is pretty great, in all of their dysfunction, and they do love you. You love them, too. Tell them. 

On friends: Your friends are also your family, and the good ones you have now will stick by you through thick and thin, even when you pick fights for trivial reasons. Hold tight to the time you have. These days are like gold, and so are these friends. 

On quitting: You will regret the decision to quit music, but you’ll never regret the decision to give up smoking. About this, our dad was right.  

On college and careers: Your path will look like a checkerboard. The rest is a surprise. My only advice is to carve out more time for creativity. You will feel much more like yourself.

On the opposite sex: At fifteen, you’re spending a lot of time wishing boys would notice you. When one finally does, it will terrify you, and you’ll spend the next several years guarding your heart with your life. Part of me wants to tell you to let go, to take a chance, but another big part of me is glad that you were defensive. Don’t worry too much. You’ll put down the defenses when the time is right. 

On you: You are gifted, sensitive, and smart. Resist the temptation to compare. It’s a killjoy! The world has room for all of us, and you have a divine responsibility to be exactly the way you are. 

Wear sunscreen. Study abroad. Ask for help sooner. And stay curious.



something’s underfoot

Something’s underfoot, but I can’t quite name it. Call it a yearning, one that’s lit from within, the kind that I know well enough by now not to ignore. These yearnings have come before, at different degrees. Some I’ve followed, some I’ve waited out. Some have materialized while others have led the way to something unrelated, at least to the naked eye. Sometimes I’m tired of the soul searching, yet sometimes I feel that this the beginning of acceptance – an acceptance of perpetual motion, of a rod forever casting out and reeling in its line. A big challenge, I think, is to find contentment with life as it is, while at the same time following the instinct to either adjust, replenish, or get the hell out of dodge.

The problem with the Internet is that it allows anyone to publish anything. In my own case, this problem has been a good one, for without it, I might not have started writing. My family and close friends read this, and so I hold myself accountable. I have a responsibility to be honest and to follow through with what goes up here. I don’t take the opportunity lightly.

Perpetual motion. I believe in it. I believe in constantly moving forward, regardless of how small the steps. To get out of bed in the morning is to move forward. Offering a kind word to someone you’d rather ignore – moving forward. Deciding that the people who piss you off the most are probably going to do you the most good, maybe not directly, but maybe by causing you to stop and think about your own contribution to the relationship, and to other relationships, too – that’s moving forward. Knowing when to give up, let go, quit – however you prefer – is usually a sign of progression. Asking for help can be a challenge, but in the name of forward motion, that’s exactly what I’m gearing up to do.

I want to find a mentor, a professional mentor with writing experience. This post is more of a declaration so that I am held accountable for reaching out to people, asking for help, and admitting that yes, I do want to write. I hope that by the end of the year, I’ll have met someone. By that time, I hope that you’ll have met at least one person who inspires you, too.

My Mama Said : Carrots are Good for Your Eyes

I just finished a book that’s had me thinking about choice, and why some choices are as easy as deciding between hot or cold coffee, while others are labored over with such intensity, you’d think the fate of man was at stake. When I give it some thought, my methods for making choices seem scattered, disproportionate, arbitrary. Sometimes it will take me a full day to decide what to make for dinner, or a couple of weeks to decide whether or not to cut my hair. Yet I chose to move to Seoul in a matter of minutes. I don’t mean to negate the privilege that comes with choice. But I am trying to understand the cycle that occurs whenever it comes time for me to make a decision.

For years, I considered corrective eye surgery. I’ve worn glasses since the fourth grade, and contact lenses since the seventh, and if I didn’t set my glasses on the nightstand before going to bed, I’d spend a few minutes each morning looking for them with outstretched arms. The cost of LASIK in the U.S. had never been worth it to me, despite the fact that numerous people I know have had it done with terrific results.

I’d heard cosmetic surgery in South Korea was cheap compared to elsewhere in the world, and I wondered if it might be the same with eye surgery. It was. Armed with a recommendation for a popular clinic in Seoul, I made the decision without a second thought. No shopping around, no price comparison, and as a result, no additional stress.

The consultation was thorough. The optometrist and nurses were personable, professional, funny, and kind. The waiting room included a cafe with free espresso. My initial impression of Dream Eye Center in Gangnam was so good, I felt like I was missing something. When I met the doctor who would be performing the surgery, he was patient and precise. I left my first appointment feeling confident in his recommendation for LASEK over LASIK.

A month passed, and the date of the surgery drew closer. I began to get cold feet. Did I really want to go through with this? Wearing contacts wasn’t that bad, I reasoned. Am I tempting fate by messing with something as precious as my sight? On it went until I almost talked myself out of it completely. I became anxious, maybe more so because I felt unprepared. When the day arrived, I may as well have elected for an organ transplant. My friend, Paolo, was kind enough to come along.

I waited outside of the operating room with a nurse named Sunny. In a gesture that distinguishes a great nurse from a good one, she asked me if I wanted her to hold my hand during the procedure. While a big part of my inner child wanted to say yes, I laughed it off, thanked her, and told her I would be okay.

The door slid open, and I slipped off my shoes and into a pair of socks covered in cartoon characters. Another nurse tilted my head back and squeezed drops into my eyes to numb them. She rubbed orange disinfectant on my face and gave me gentle but clear instructions to keep my hands off. My contacts weren’t in, my glasses weren’t on, and everything was a blurry haze. I heard the low hum of a big machine in the center of the dimly lit room, hushed voices of professionals on a mission, and the beat of my heart as if it had swapped positions with my brain.

“Okay! We’re ready,” the nurse said. I shuffled to the table, laid down, and laughed. I didn’t want to cry, so I did the other thing I do when I’m really nervous. There’s always a modicum of time between the tidal wave of anticipation and the actual kickoff when I imagine turning back, changing my mind, returning to the safety zone. It’s the sense that things are just about to change to some degree, that I am only a small part of the equation, and that sometimes the most difficult part of it all is simply showing up.

I heard the doctor’s voice, his softly-spoken directions in a language I can minimally comprehend. He had actually showed up to this engagement. The window of opportunity to double back was narrowing by the nanosecond. His head appeared above my own, and he asked me how I was feeling.

Out of habit leftover from a Catholic childhood, I hoped a confession would mollify my nerves.

“I’m nervous,” I answered, and then I made a joke that didn’t seem to translate. When he laughed anyway, I was slightly relieved. But then he told me not to worry, and these are words that never succeed in what they set out to do. I would have kissed the man for a good dose of laughing gas.

Suddenly, I wished I’d taken Sunny up on her offer. My clammy hands were stiffly at my sides. My left eye was covered, awaiting its fate while my right eye fixed squarely on the green light that glowed from above, like I’d been instructed. The doctor began to make commands to the nurses. He explained what he was doing every step of the way, using descriptions that sounded as if Google had done the translations. My part in the whole play was rather menial, so I attempted to make it more interesting by pretending the red and green lasers above were coming from the stage at a psychedelic dance party. I was in a warehouse, not in an operating room, and the pounding of my heart was actually a drum and bass beat, a genre of music that wouldn’t normally appear in my fantasies. The images morphed across my vision as he power washed my eyeball, loosened the outer layer of the cornea with alcohol, and slid it out of the way using a skinny metal instrument. I imagined it resembled a miniature sterling silver fork, the kind often accompanying a crystal dish of cornichons.

Beats, beats, beats. The music was generous, and my heart kept the party going.

“It’s time for laser!” the doctor said, with more cheer than I expected to hear. “Keep your eye on the green light.”

Laser?!” I thought. “But we’ve got all the lasers we need!”

He, of course, meant the laser that would rectify my vision.

There it came, and the red and green images morphed into unrecognizable shapes and patterns. It was the apex of the whole procedure, the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks show. I tried to hold my breath to keep out the scent of burning hair, but morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I snuck short draws of it against my better judgement.

“Laser is complete!” said the doctor with as much enthusiasm as before. He washed my eye again after warning me that it’d be cold, and he placed a contact lens over my eye to protect it. Then he covered it with a patch. When I realized we were halfway there, I instantly felt my muscles relax and my heart rate drop to a more leisurely pace. The operation was all of the things my friends and family members had assured it would be: easy, quick, and painless.

I stood up from the operating table a little dizzier than usual. Those tears I had earlier exchanged for a laugh came tumbling through; I could already see much better than without my contacts. It was over. I had made it. And I couldn’t be happier with my choice.

Sometimes the best decisions are those that come with little to no scrutinization. The next time someone offers to hold my hand, I hope I say yes if I need it. Two weeks later, my vision is better than 20/20, and I actually look forward to my follow-up appointments. That’s something.

My Mama Said Carrots are Good for Your Eyes: A Soup (inspired by this recipe).

4 carrots, scrubbed and roughly chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 T grated ginger

1 can coconut milk

1 cup water

1/4 cup orange juice

1 T coconut oil (or olive – whatever you have on hand)

salt and pepper

toasted cumin, toasted almonds, and sour yogurt to finish

In a big pot, heat the tablespoon of oil. Stir in the onion and sauté for a minute or two. Add the carrot, ginger, and a good pinch of salt to the pot. Let cook for about ten minutes, and try to avoid the temptation to mix around the pot too often. The point is to let the carrots and onions caramelize. Pour in coconut milk, water, and orange juice, and bring the pot to a simmer. Let it all cook away until the carrots are tender, about twenty minutes. Add more salt to taste. When the carrots are soft, remove them from the heat and let them cool a bit. Purée to a smooth consistency (if you’ve got an immersion blender, this step is a breeze – otherwise, puree in batches in a blender or food processor, or, like me, with a Magic Bullet).

Toast cumin and almonds separately by adding them each to a dry pan over low heat, tossing frequently. They toast quickly so watch them closely. If they burn, which they easily do, toss them into the trash, curse with vigor, and try again.

Finish with a stream of sour yogurt under a sprinkling of toasted cumin and a few toasted almonds.