The ‘Joy’ Of Cooking A Korean Feast

When an aspiring Korean food traditionalist can’t take the heat in the kitchen, she ends up calling in backup.

By Serena Kim
Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi

In 48 hours, my newborn daughter Plum would turn 100 days old. Back in the day in Korea, infant mortality was so high that it was considered a great achievement for the baby to survive this long. My father and his wife were flying into Los Angeles all the way from Illinois for this “joyous occasion.”

I didn’t have a Baegil (100 days celebration) myself, but I wanted to have one for Plum because we had tried for so long to have a baby. Plum’s father is Filipino and Mexican so the culture of our home is mixed, but my mission was to throw a Baegil feast for Plum that adhered to the books as much as possible.

I envisioned myself gracefully preparing the traditional foods of the Baegil, like seaweed soup, jellyfish mustard salad, shikhye (sweet rice drink), and baeksolgi (the majestic steamed rice cakes specific to the event). My parents will be so proud, I thought, with a glazed look in my eyes, oblivious to the ridiculous amount of kitchen work that awaited me.

Admittedly, I was functioning on only a few hours of sleep because I had stayed out late attending a rap concert on Sunset Boulevard the night before for my job as a music critic. And I still had to haul ass to the market in Koreatown Galleria, buy all of the ingredients, chop great quantities of pungent ginger and garlic to marinate the meats, prepare beef stock out of brisket, and wash untold bunches of earthy green vegetables in several rinses of water. Time was running out.

The art of Korean cooking can be painful. Just making the side dish japchae requires the peeling and slicing of zucchini and carrots into perfectly uniformed slivers. Then you are supposed to cook the glass noodles, and the sliced ribeye steak separately, only to toss everything together at the end with sesame oil.

No wonder Korean women of my grandmother’s generation lived a life as sequestered and oppressed as that of many women in the Islamic world. My halmeoni’s entire existence took place in the kitchen, bless her soul. During her long life, she spent every waking moment either praying with her rosary beads or fermenting beans for stinky soybean paste. She usually had a simmering stockpot with dried anchovies going, too.

She didn’t have a career or any agenda for personal fulfillment. She didn’t need the “48 Laws of Power” or “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” to find her salvation; her only goal was making sure our stomachs were full. When I came home from school, she’d have salted egg-shaped rice balls sprinkled with sesame seeds waiting for me. I can still hear her continuous refrain: “Eat some rice, eat some rice.”

The kitchen was undeniably a Korean woman’s prison, but it was also the hearth where she raised and showed her bottomless love for her children. The Korean kitchen’s nourishment begins before birth. When I was pregnant, I frequently craved spicy, burbling clay pots of sundubu jjigae to the point of tearful desperation.

Then after Plum was born, I slurped miyeokguk in the delivery room at the hospital. Koreans believe that new mothers should eat lots of seaweed soup. You’re actually supposed to eat five bowls of it a day for 21 days. The seaweed is high in iron, which is essential for replenishing blood and effective in producing really great breast milk.

As my daughter starts eating solid foods, I plan on making her soothing rice porridge (juk) when she gets tummy aches and rewarding her with sweet rice treats and persimmon punch, like my halmeoniand mother would make for me. Maybe, when she’s all grown up, she might even pass these traditions on to her kids, too. For me, maintaining this Korean culinary heritage is critical in a time when store bought banchan and jjigae are sadly becoming the norm.

As a militant make-it-from-scratch foodie, I have been studying a cookbook called A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes by Chang Sun-Young (1997, Ewha University Press) with the zeal of a fundamentalist. Along with the English-language recipes and descriptive photos, she describes how she makes fresh homemade tofu out of soaked beans and fries fish fillets in egg batter to place on the offering table for her ancestor’s memorial rites. I took careful note when she said Koreans celebrated the Baegil with rice cakes made from pearly white grains donated by 100 houses.

I lovingly pored over all of the traditional recipes for fancy dishes like the “Nine-Section Dish” and “Stuffed Cucumbers” that I longed to try. The cookbook felt like a connection to all of my female ancestors and the things that mattered to them, like the freshness of pale daikon turnips for pickling.

My mother, who hails from the same Gaesung region as the author, prepares her dishes from rough measurements in her head — a pinch here, a handful there. Chang’s meticulous instructions were invaluable to me, because I was accustomed to cooking from recipes American style.

Thanks to the book, I had successfully recreated the homey Korean dishes I grew up eating, like a fiery beef stew called yukgyejang. Brazen with my newfound confidence, I felt ready for the Baegil challenge, like it was some kind of reality show. I had, however, glossed over the fact that preparing all those labor-intensive dishes in such massive quantities wasn’t going to be that interesting or stimulating. It was just plain old drudgery.

I guess when I was planning this Korean food feast, I had pictured a compound of hanbok-wearing women with leathery brown hands making a happy hum in the kitchen along with me. But there were nohalmeonis making doenjang from scratch. There were no aunts and neighbors pounding out steamed sweet rice to make ddeok. Nobody to soak the mountain roots and the fiddlehead ferns.

As my mom would say, making this stuff “requires many hands.”

And we didn’t have many hands. Just hers and mine.

My mother, Soraya, is a skilled Korean cook who still makes kimchi at home with salted Napa cabbage, flaming red pepper powder, and succulent oysters for that irresistible fishy taste.

As for the other hanbok-clad women of the family? No dice. Plum’s aunties were busy with their own distinctly modern lives. My sister Mirena, a fashion designer, was busy working out patterns for tunics and leggings in her downtown L.A. studio. My other sister Elaine, a mother of two, had prior commitments planning a fundraising event for her kids’ school.

This crazy Baegil feast was my idea, they reasoned. I made my bed, and now I had to get in it. My dad had already checked into the hotel near my apartment. There was no turning back.

Fortunately, my mom had the brilliant idea of mixing catered foods with a few homemade dishes. Like any snobby Korean food purist worth her roasted sea salt, I demurred at the suggestion. But the thought of frantically scrambling dozens of eggs and slicing them into paper-thin strips while a stove-top full of boiling pots screamed for my attention made me shudder. I relented and reached for the car keys and the credit card.

We spent the entire afternoon zipping around K-town, knocking items off my to-do list. My mom ordered a foot-tall baeksolgi from a ddeok store on Vermont Avenue and Seventh Street. It was a towering white cake, still warm from the steaming, topped with sweet, bloated raisins that spelled out “100 days” in Hangeul. We cruised by Gaesung Kimchi to score a few pounds of Korea’s national dish, made with the regional flavoring of my mother’s hometown. Our final stop was Nagwon Catering to order namul, a variety of vegetable dishes in three eye-popping colors, a giant jug of the shikhye, and a big aluminum tray of the ever-popular japchae.

Despite all of our flagrant cheating, I still had to make kalbi and bulgogi,miyeokguk, and vats of fluffy steamed white rice, the requisite grain for theBaegil, which was most definitely not going to be made from rice donated by 100 houses.

We set out the kimchi and red bean paste just in time for the guests who started to arrive at 5 p.m. They oohed and aahed over the various colorful dishes, lavishing me with undeserved praise. They downed bottles of Hite and gobbled up plates of piping hot pork bulgogi. They drank seaweed soup in porcelain bowls. We took pictures next to the baeksolgi. When the last of the shikhye had been consumed, I brought out the Asian pears, which I peeled and carved into boat-shaped wedges until my fingers curled up into little arthritic knots. Like a good Korean girl, I made sure to serve the elders first.

As you’d expect, the dishes I made from scratch tasted better to me than the catered ones. But after washing a pile of dishes higher than Pektu Mountain in a soju-induced stupor, not for one second did I regret mixing modern solutions with traditional culinary arts to survive Plum’s Baegil.

You see, it’s all about the mix.

Here’s my recipe for miyeokguk:


• 1/2 pound of beef brisket (the more sinews and ligaments, the better flavor stock you’ll get)

• 3 handfuls of dried seaweed (miyeok, which is a thicker, leafier kind of seaweed than the paper-thin nori which is used for sushi)

• sesame oil

• soy sauce (specifically guk ganjang for soup stock)

• black pepper

• garlic

• Making the beef stock is the most time consuming part. I make mine the night before. Boil the brisket in about 10 cups of water until it has reduced by half. Will take about two hours. Along the way, make sure you skim the foam off the top because those are the impurities that you don’t want to feed your kids. When the stock comes to room temperature, refrigerate it overnight. The next morning, skim the hardened fat off the top with a slotted spoon.

• Take out the beef and shred it with your hands into small bite size pieces. Then add one tablespoon of sesame oil, two tablespoons of soy sauce, two cloves of crushed garlic, and a few generous twists of freshly ground black powder. Massage thoroughly with your hands and set aside for a bit so the flavors can mingle.

• In the meantime, soak the seaweed in hot tap water for at least 10 minutes, though it can sit for longer. Once the seaweed is pliable and delicious, cut into one-inch bite size pieces. Kitchen shears make quick work of this task.

• Heat up a stockpot to medium-high heat. Sauté the beef with the seaweed until both are completely blended together and you can smell the garlic cooking. Then add your five cups of beef stock and boil for 10 minutes. Add more soy sauce and black pepper if it’s too bland.

• This is nice accompanied with white rice that has been steamed with a few green peas. The trick I discovered was to add the peas at the very end of the steaming process, rather than at the beginning of the cooking, so that they are perfectly green and al dente and not soggy and gray.