Balms Not Bombs
My mom is pining for Rice Cake Soup, which we traditionally eat on New Year’s Day on both cycles of the year, Roman and Lunar. I can taste it before I start cooking. The slightly springy texture of the rice cakes, the perfect imperfection of handmade noodles, the rich briny broth, the silky texture of the most delicately poached egg. My personal sense of renewal seems more to coincide with the Lunar New Year—something about not being committed to the same date each year feels right to my sensibilities. It is the Year of the Ox and it lumbers in slowly and cautiously after the dynamic expressiveness of 2020. Collectively, we are weary and worn.
The year before, I rang in the Lunar New Year at a Tibetan monastery high up in the Catskill Mountains. I was probably very satisfied with myself for my spiritual accomplishments—although being at the monastery was more like a privilege or a gift. Lucky me, able to breathe fresh mountain air, to pray, and to sit in spaces dedicated to worship. Some of the newly initiated monks were originally from China and they were unable to return home as the COVID virus emerged as a real threat in the East. I began to sense the magnitude of the time we were about to enter.
I had been watching a historical drama set in ancient Korea. In the show, there was a smallpox outbreak. Part of the resolution was the discovery and use of vaccination techniques that were innovated in the West. My only resounding thought: “We’ve been through this before. So many times.” In our collective psyche, we have been confronted by this same omnipotent force that can take away everything that we hold dear in a snap of a finger. We’re going to go through it again. And again.
Sometimes, it feels like bombs were dropped everywhere. That road that connected you to your family, friends, and your job is now washed out and impassable. An atomic bomb was detonated in our collective unconscious.
My antidote is to create. I want to fulfill my mother’s desire—almost her obligation—to have that soup. Moreover, I want to taste all of the hopeful thoughts that come with the dawning of a new year. Making the soup will fulfill an unspoken promise I’ve made with myself. The act of service is my way of expressing my inherent love for and appreciation of a blessed life.
I start by cleaning a few bulbous scallions that I want to use as a garnish. The outer leaves are wilting but still pungent, and I strip them from the stalk along with any yellowing leaves. I boil them and some vegetable scraps in a few cups of water. Within five minutes, the water is light green with a mild, savory flavor. There’s a small amount of ground beef from my favorite butcher upstate, which I marinate with some soy sauce, crushed garlic, white pepper, and sesame oil. I strain out the broth and proceed to sauté the beef mixture in the stockpot until the meat is cooked. I pour in the light green broth and combine it with some broth my mother has made with daikon and dried anchovies. It tastes like the ocean: surf and turf. When the water starts to boil, I add more soy sauce and salt, adjusting to taste. It should have the same impact as when you first dive into the sea; the salty shock of the minerals in the water. Once the flavor is right, I add the rice cakes and some handmade noodles. It takes another five minutes for the starches to cook. By then, I have lightly scrambled a bright orange egg. I’ll throw this in last as I’m turning off the heat and sealing the flavors with a lid. The latent heat should gently cook the egg proteins, forming ribbons of yellow that enrich the broth and add another layer of texture. The scallion wants to be sliced thinly as a garnish for the soup. It will also elevate the flavors, adding contrast.
I serve it to my mom and myself. We always eat together. Occasionally, she’ll compliment me and say that it tastes like it came from a restaurant. It’s amusing—this praise—since what I’m really going for is a dish that feels like home. A simple peasant dish, made with intention, meant to evoke the feeling of being where you feel safe, loved, and held. Each spoonful is a balm.
Korean Rice Cake & Noodle Soup
Ingredients & Method
● 2 scallions
● ¼ lb. ground beef
● 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
● 1 ½ tbsp good quality soy sauce/tamari
● ½ tsp salt
● ¼ tsp ground pepper
● 1 tbsp sesame oil
● 4 cups stock, made from scraps of scallion, carrot, onion, daikon, garlic peels, leeks cooked in water for about 10 minutes
● 1 egg (optional)
>>> Clean off any vegetables and boil with water to make a very simple stock or savory flavored water. In the meantime, sauté ground beef with sesame oil, garlic, and ½ tbsp of the soy sauce until cooked. Strain stock water and use as broth for the soup. On high heat, bring to a boil. Add salt and soy sauce in increments to taste.
● 1 cup rice cakes (found in Korean/Asian supermarkets), rinsed in water
● ½ lb. fresh wheat noodles (found in Korean/Asian supermarkets)
>>> Reduce heat to medium. Add rice cakes and bring to a boil again. Add noodles. Reduce heat and simmer for an additional five minutes. In the meantime, scramble the egg with a pinch of salt. Also, prepare the garnish by slicing scallions into small pieces. When the texture of the noodles is to your liking, throw in the egg, then turn off heat. Cover the soup for 2–3 minutes while the egg sets. Do not stir.
>>> Serve in large bowls. Add noodles and rice cakes first, then ladle in the broth. Finish with garnish of scallion. Serve immediately.
My father was the handsomest of men. His square jawline, symmetrical face, and high cheekbones provided a pleasing landscape for his steady eyes. He had an air of innate confidence. It sometimes appeared as if nothing could shake him, although in reality he had a quick temper. His generous and kind nature tempered this raw, untamed part of him. This contrast was the part that enchanted me the most about him. He was able to delicately balance this refinement against the part that sprang from the dank, volcanic Korean soil. He was a noble savage, beautiful and poised.
My understanding of my father came from observing him at the dinner table. He had a definitive framework for engaging in the primal act of eating. One rule was to never take food before my mother. No matter how emotional or vicious a disagreement might get, he would not pick up the chopsticks without my mother’s presence at the table. Our family didn’t say grace, but when confronted with a table laden with food, it was customary to begin the meal by blessing the food and ourselves. “Jalmeoggesseubnida” is an expression of gratitude and intention. “I will eat well the food I am to receive.”
Once the meal started, my father ate his food mindfully and deliberately, making a ritual of chewing each bite of food. He didn’t chat during the meal. Instead, he focused completely on the privileged act of taking in nourishment. He gave this same level of attention to everything he did. One of the few stories he told from his youth was from the Korean War. Although my father’s family was moderately prosperous, there was a consistent lack of food. He recounted the shame of retrieving food from the garbage heaps of US Army mess halls—flavorless foreign fuel seasoned with cigarette ashes.
Perhaps nothing illustrated the beautiful paradox of his character—his primitive refinement—more than when my father was eating crab. The crab itself is such an odd creature—almost wholly alien. We can’t recognize ourselves in their form. Their eyes pop out like antennae. They have gills on the outside of their bodies and their stomachs are full of teeth. Yet crabs are feisty and clever, a hard-shelled survivor of evolution’s ancient conflicts. And they are filled with the sweetest flesh. Whenever I want to remember my father—say on the anniversary of his birth, his death, or his marriage—I honor his memory by eating crab. In one of my kitchen jobs, I had to make crab cakes using tubs of crabmeat. My father would have considered such tubs pure folly: surely half the fun and flavor was in doing the work yourself.
In the summer we would head to some murky shoreline with several aluminum traps. The cooler would be full of raw chicken and the Oldsmobile station wagon would be full of children. We favored the heavy males that were dense with flesh and ready to molt. Once in a while, we would catch a female with eggs along her belly. Although transferring them from trap to cooler was a serious task, he seemed like a child again as he playfully and skillfully sorted them without getting pinched or the crabs scurrying away. We would come back feeling rich and accomplished.
We ate them in various incarnations: in fiery Korean stews or steamed in the new American style with a little Old Bay seasoning. However, his favorite way to eat crab was in a raw, marinated dish called geh-jang. Geh means crab; jang refers to the centuries-old technique of using salt as a preservative. The crab is cleaned—sometimes quartered—and then marinated in a concoction of sweetened soy sauce, chili, and garlic until every crack and crevice is saturated with the riotous mix of savory flavors.
As a child, I didn’t take to this dish much. The taste of the sea was too real and the shell was too formidable. As there was no other recourse but to use one’s hands while eating crabs, the smell on my fingers would haunt me for hours, days. The odor from this alien animal was both compelling and revolting. My father, however, reveled in the task of extracting the tender flesh from its armor. He would work methodically. He’d tear the skinny legs from the body, sometimes producing a succulent jewel of marinated meat from the first rip. The first bite shocks the taste receptors. He would then clamp the leg between his straight, fine teeth, working along the length, squeezing and coaxing out the flesh along with every last drop of juice. After carefully dispensing with the legs, he would reserve the claws for last as a reward for his diligence.
Sometimes he would load a spoonful of white rice into the natural bowl-shape of the crab’s shell along with the juice of the marinade and the mustard-colored delicacy from the digestive tract. He would mix it all into a sweet and briny treat. The bounty was in the torso, where a generous amount of meat awaited. It was best to crack the body in half and then work on the individual chambers, each separated by thin cartilage. There were many corners to pick clean. When eating crabs, we’d have newspapers lying around the periphery of the low table. Father’s pile was always curiously neat. Wrapping up the shell for disposal took some forethought. Like I said, the odor could haunt you.
I do not know what thoughts my father entertained in these quiet moments of introspection at the table. I sensed that he felt great satisfaction in eating right from the ocean. Something was awakened in him. Perhaps the pure sensuality of the experience helped him remember a wild part of himself. Perhaps he recognized some quality in this particular creature—its resilience; its strength. Crab King, sitting regally in his water-worn throne of coral, taking satisfaction from his adamantine army of soldiers. Controlled and hard on the outside, yet so tender and sweet on the inside.
Soy Sauce Marinated Raw Crab
The most challenging task for this dish is cleaning live crab. Place fresh crab in the freezer for 1–2 hours. This time frame will suppress the movements of these coldblooded creatures without freezing or degrading the flesh. In simplistic terms the preparation involves separating the shell from the body, discarding non-edible internal organs like the gills and mandibles, rinsing the inside body, and reassembling into its distinctive crab-shape. Another option is to separate the body which will be easier to marinate and eat but makes less of an impactful presentation.
Ingredients & Method
● 5–6 medium fresh blue crabs
For the brine:
● 2 cups soy sauce
● 1/2 cup rice wine or mirin
● 6 cups water
● 1/2 medium onion, roughly sliced
● 5–6 garlic cloves
● 5–6 slices of ginger
● 1 apple, cut into slices (this is to add sweetness to the brine)
● 2 to 3 small chili peppers, whole
>>>> Clean and prep crab as per above suggestion. If needed, refer to video tutorials, as watching the process will be the most informed way to deal with this task especially as a novice.
>>>> Prepare the brine by taking all the ingredients and simmering over low heat for 15 minutes. Let cool completely.
>>>> Once the crab is cleaned, pour brine over the crab. Make sure the meat is completely submerged. Use a plate or rock to weigh down any part of the crab into the liquid.
>>>> Refrigerate immediately. Eat within 3–5 days.
>>>> Freeze any leftovers with some of the brine. Defrost overnight in the fridge when you are ready to eat again.
Sung Uni Lee
After Sung Uni Lee's first job at age twelve as a busy worker bee for her family’s dry-cleaning business, she’s since had gigs as a graphic designer, DJ, musician, photographer, illustrator, line cook, executive chef, health coach, recipe developer, culinary educator, kitchen designer, performance artist, healer, AirBnB host, writer, and so on. This affirmation from The Medicine Woman Inner Guidebook, Sung’s favorite tarot deck, is how she chooses to live her life: “I surrender to the greater good. Great spirit and I are one. The beauty I see, I will bring through me.”