Weekend: A Perfect Picnic and Lunch with 어머니

This semester I find myself doing all sorts of things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing had I been studying at McGill: weekend trips out of town, watching movies on weeknights, writing snail mail or even not using an alarm clock. I shamelessly admit that I have yet to set one all semester. And last Saturday, with the weather comfortably in the 20s, I hosted a picnic with some friends.

The theme was yet again, “Not Korean”. It’s nothing personal, but the purist in me dictates that sandwiches must not be paired with fermented side dishes of any kind. So to go with the BLTs, I made portable chocolate mousse cakes that were baked in empty jam jars. And red wine spritzer, with strawberries and lemon, as a cooler.  

Inevitably, I was so absorbed by my own oeuvres that I forgot to take pictures of anything else. So you’ll have to believe when I say that it was a stunning afternoon at Yeouido Park. There were plenty of other people enjoying picnics too, but I’m pretty sure we were the only ones not eating kimbab (Korean style maki rolls) or fried chicken.

On Sunday, we made out way south of the Han river to have lunch with S’ parents. His mom cleverly found out that the best way to see her son was via text messages to me, as unlike him, I would never dare to ignore or refuse her invitations. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely enjoy spending time with them. And given all the horror stories I’ve heard about Korean in-laws, both directly and indirectly, I feel blessed that his parents are actually excessively warm with me.

But the dynamics of a Korean household are a bit difficult for me to understand, and I can’t help but feel confused about what to do with myself when S and his dad are chatting on the couch, and his mom, a quintessential Korean housewife, is frantically racing to and from the kitchen to cover the dining table with unreasonable amounts of food and side dishes. And while she delights in seeing us overindulging in her cooking, she herself will only peck at the meal like a bird. Once we finish eating, she’ll be off again cleaning, absolutely refusing any kind of help.

Then, before we leave, his mother will pack an assortment of homemade, homegrown and handpicked foods that she will insist we take home. This time, we walked away with a bag of organic lettuce that they grow on their farming cooperative, a traditional fermented rice dessert, and marinated beef ribs. They will join our already sizable collection of honey that they gather themselves at bee farms in Thailand, brewed plum juice, kimchi and etc…

I don’t always like the stuff she has in store for us, but I suppose worse things have happened. For all these years of not being fed by own mother, or anyone else for that matter, it’s nothing short of wonderful to be on receiving end of some good old fashion TLC.

Update: This was tonight’s dinner with the food she gave us.

Lazy Dinner

I was in the mood for something sinful and most definitely not Korean for dinner. I was also not in the mood to go grocery shopping. So I came up with this combination of chocolate and banana French toast, topped with cinnamon, sugar and maple syrup.

It was magically delicious, but I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with guilt upon finishing this. Perhaps this recipe ought to be reserved for weekend brunches only…

Yonsei International Food Festival

I wasn’t in the mood for cooking much at home last week, after having spent two evenings baking up Mother’s Day cookies to ship out and then a whole day at the Yonsei International Food Festival (as part of the annual Akaraka School Spirit/Cheer Festival). I signed up for the event thinking I could make something French Canadian, but it turned out that every year, they only represent a handful of countries, so instead I joined the Saudi Arabian team. Our job was to cook and sell a Saudi dish outdoors during the festival, a fairly simple task I thought. But when most of your teammates are Korean guys who’ve never chopped onions or boiled rice, cooking can become quite a disheartening exercise of patience.

Thankfully, after two trial runs of making kabsa, the national rice dish, and a few frustrated barks on my end, I was pretty confident that we would be able to execute the day of. And we did. In fact, I think we had one of the better tables, despite not the teams to serve more popular cuisines (French, Mexican, Japanese, etc…) simple because we were organized and neat. We pre-cut all the essential ingredients, like onions, tomatoes and chicken, the day before and I made sure that the table was always wiped clean. Seems pretty obvious, but somehow it eluded people that having split crepe batter on your table can be a turn off. We also made the effort of contacting the not-so-busy Saudi Arabian embassy in Seoul, who generously lent us with decorations and traditional clothing, and supplied free Korans, and dates for us to give out. They even sent us a Saudi student to come help us out, and had one of the only Saudi restaurants in the city to deliver several servings of real kabsa.

All in all, it was really fun and festive day, and one that taught me a lot of about teamwork. Here are a few pictures of the event!

Baking Extravaganza (Take Two)

After last weekends mishap, I was determined to make it out to the Foreigner’s Flea Market today. Hosted by the Seoul Global Center, it was held this time in front of the Museum of History for Children’s Day.

Again, I spent Friday night baking up a storm. I remade the carrot cake and red velvet cupcakes. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that I missed the event last weekend, because I was able to tweak the recipes to get them right this time around.

And then I did something really brilliant. After Raphael cut out all his hearts, I was left with a pan of leftover brownie parts that I didn’t particularly want to eat, after having had way too many sweets during the week. So I came up with the idea of making them into lollipops. I figured, if you can make cake pops, there isn’t any reason why you couldn’t make brownies pops. In fact, its fudgyness actually makes them quite perfect to shape.

I was nervous about going to the event, afraid that nobody would buy my things. I comforted myself with the thought that most people there would probably be foreigners like me, and I could handle such shame. But it turned out that it was mostly Korean families spending the holiday outside! For the first time since I got here, I had people asking me: “얼마예요?” or “how much?”, and I had to answer in Korean. Imagine that……

And much to my surprise, my items were so well received that I pretty much sold out within an hour. I had three brownies pops that looked a little pathetic left towards the end so I gave them to the volunteers. The whole experience was rather exciting and S was particularly impressed by Koreans’ interest in baked goods.

Lessons learned from this ad hoc entrepreneurial adventure:

1) Image Matters: I think we all know this already, but it really helps to put every effort in making things pretty. I brought my own tablecloth, and a cooler packed with ice (to S’ dismay) in which I kept the brownies and cupcakes so they wouldn’t be damaged by the heat.

I think the image of the seller matters too. We realized early on that S’ presence (with his buzz cut and sunglasses) put people off, so he retired backstage.

2) Write out the Prices: Otherwise, younger people will be too shy to ask and older ladies will try to bargain, which, needless to say, is extremely awkward. Everybody just seems a lot more comfortable when the price is set, and it ends the haggling.

(I admit I could have done a better job with the signs, but by that time I was really in a hurry.)

3) Learn Korean… maybe: It certainly helps to know the basics to be able answer simple questions. At lot of people wanted to know if it was really handmade by me. At first, it was very overwhelming, but it seemed like they were charmed by the fact that I wasn’t Korean. Perhaps because it projected authenticity onto the foreign-looking things I was selling.

It was so much fun to see people getting excited over cake and brownies. What a great feeling to be able to share such things with people here. And the best part? Hearing them rave about the goodies afterwards!

Man-Made Brownies

I met Raphael, a Swiss exchange student, in my Chinese Politics Class during the first week of class. This was back in March, and over lunch, we quickly bonded over the simple fact that we were both foreigners with Korean significant others. He spoke about the personal sacrifices he was making to be with her and his struggle to learn Korean, and I commiserated. I could sense that it was going to be an easy friendship. But then I almost fell off my chair when he admitted that they had only been together some 40 days. 47, to be exact, and my sympathies momentarily evaporated.

Fortunately for them, everything is unfolding quite blissfully. And tomorrow, they will celebrate their first big milestone: their 백일 or 100th “day”nniversary. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Couples in Korea meticulously keep track of the number of days they’ve been in a relationship, and the 100th day is quite significant. Serious enthusiasts of this tradition will celebrate every 100th day after that. It seems quite daunting just to remember, but luckily there are apps for that. So if you ever happen to ask a Korean how long they’ve been in a relationship, it’s not uncommon for them to respond with the exact number of days. Romantic, right?

Well for their 백일, Raphael has quite the weekend planned. Details include 100 roses, dinner reservations and a trip out of town. Evidently, that wasn’t quite enough, which is why he approached me with a special request: to help him bake his girl something yummy for her tummy. With the thought of my oven being used for (even) greater good and the prospect of a protégé, I agreed on the condition I can blog about it.

The rule was that I could give him instructions, but he had to execute. We chose a brownie recipe that was both simple and included chocolate from his motherland. And despite all his lack of experience and dexterity, I think he did a fine job making these stunning heart-studded brownies.  

3 bars of Swiss chocolate, a pound of butter, 2 cups of sugar and immeasurable amounts of love… could there be a sweeter brownie recipe?