From all of my friends that are second generation foreigners or even third or fourth I’ve noticed that the taste buds for your cultural food are the last to go. I am certainly no exception. Being Korean American and growing up with Korean native parents we had a plethora of Korean food weekly. We ate everything with rice, steak, meatloaf, sauerkraut and sausage, everything. It seems odd to Americans but to other Korean Americans I know it is pretty normal.
I can’t talk for other cultures but in Korea there are special foods for special occasions and seasonal foods that I crave. My mom diligently observed these food traditions so that now as an adult living and cooking on my own I crave and do my best to observe the same traditions.
Sam gye tang: Korean Cornish Hen Soup with Ginseng
This is a soup my mom would serve when one of us was feeling under the weather and it is a refreshing soup for summer because it restores nutrients that you lose when sweating. Essentially it is an entire Cornish hen stuffed with dates, ginseng, garlic, sweet rice and chestnuts that is simmered in a stock broth for an hour. When you eat it you keep a small dish of salt with sesame seeds and some pepper mixed together. As you pick off the chicken you dip the pieces into the dry salt mixture to add some flavor. This keeps the broth pure and refreshing.
Miyeok Guk: Seawood Soup
This is a celebration soup or birthday soup. It is traditionally something you would cook or give to someone you love for their birthday. It is also eaten on New Year’s day in celebration of good health and birth of the new year. This is made with stock broth, seaweed (kelp pieces) and my mom puts in some chicken for flavoring. Very simple and warming soup. I always like to keep a bowl of rice next to it so I can take a spoon of rice and dip it into the broth to eat together.
Bi Bam Nangmyeon and Mul Nangmyeon:
Cold Buckwheat Noodle Soup
This soup is best enjoyed in the hot summer. It has a beef broth with boiled egg, pear or apple, buckwheat noodles, ice cubes and you can add gochu jang (hot red pepper paste), mustard and vinegar for your desired flavor. It might seem like a odd combination but it is the best thing to quench the summer heat.
Dduk: Rice Cake
This comes in all assortments of forms, sizes and shapes. As a dessert with sweet red bean paste inside it is like an Korean version of a cookie. Towers and spreads of this treat in different colors are the traditional equivalent to western cakes for special occasions.
Zha Zhang Myun: Brown Black Bean Sauce and Noodles
Perhaps not a special occasion dish but something my friends and younger Korean culture feels akin to is eating these on what is known as Black day. Black is basically an Anti-valentine day holiday where you can wallow in being single on April 14th. A dish that is arguably Korean or Chinese as it was made from a mixture of both cultures. This dish generally has some seafood or beef bits in the sauce to give it more flavor and it is a thick sauce that is normally served to the side of the thick noodles with shredded cucumber on top and a side of Daikwon (yellow pickled radish). With this dish you want to cut the noodles first then add the Zha Zhang sauce on top and mix it in so it keeps the noodles from getting bloated. The Daikwon is like a palette cleanser since the noodles and the sauce have a heavy taste. Another side you can commonly find to cleanse, is raw bite size slices of onion in vinegar.
These are the dishes that I most commonly gravitate towards when I think of special occasion or seasonal foods. There is one more celebratory food but it’s too vile for me to even consider ever trying which is Bo shin tang or dog meat stew. Sorry but if I’ve kept it as a pet I’m not about to try eating it.
These foods are by no means eaten on a daily basis or as renowned as Korean BBQ like Galbi and Bulgogi but if you are in the mood for something different with a little historical background then these are great to try out.