Written and photographed by Karly Pierre
She was a bully.
“Museowoyo!” she tells me. “Scary!”
She scrunches her face and juts two fingers into the air beside her temples like devil’s horns. In no small feat of flexibility, she kicks her leg up, snarls, then laughs wildly. I like this lady.
“I can’t go to my class reunions because I was so mean to my classmates,” says Choi Seon-hee (최선희). “I’m afraid they might want revenge.”
The 62-year-old mother of two, and grandmother, still exhibits that same fiery, independent, and mischievous spirit that colors so many of the stories she recalls from her youth.
“At 13, I sold my family’s valuable brass for a 2,000-won ticket to Seoul,” says Choi. “A friend of mine whose father was a government official moved there, and I wanted to see her. So I snuck off with six girlfriends from our small hometown of Yeosu. It was a big adventure. People in Seoul thought my accent was rough… We all went to a skating rink and wanted to skate, but we didn’t have skates. So we pushed people down, hit them, and took their skates and mufflers… When I got home, my dad beat the people who bought our family brass from me, then gave me 60 lashes on the bottom of my feet. But all of my classmates wanted to know what Seoul was like. They were really curious. I taught them dirty words I had learned in Seoul and started a trend.”
She was scrappy because she had to be. When she was young, most people were struggling just to eat and stay alive. Outside of special occasions such as ancestral rites (jesa, 제사) or the birthday of an elder family member, the family only ate rice and side dishes. No meat.
“However, my father loved to drink, especially in the winter,” says Choi. “He would often stay out late drinking with his friends, and he had a particular habit when he arrived home. Even in the wee hours of the morning, he would wake up the entire family and have my mother cook up two or three large chickens. He would lovingly encourage us children to eat. Even though it was the middle of the night and we were half asleep, I still remember how delicious those chickens were.”
Her mother taught her to cook sole (seodae, 서대) – Yeosu’s most famous fish – when she was 18 years old.
“I learned how to make braised sole (seodae-jjim, 서대찜), grilled sole (seodae-gui, 서대구이), and sole soup (seodae-tang, 서대탕),” says Choi. “I will never forget being in the kitchen together with my mother and older sisters as they scolded me while I learned how to cook sole. Then the whole family would sit down together to eat.”
Now, Choi owns a restaurant called Han Baeng Nyeon (한백년) near Damyang on the road to the May 18th National Cemetery. A small paper sign on the restaurant wall tells the special of the day: braised cutlass fish (galchi-jorim, 갈치조림). Against another wall are two large refrigerators stocked with homemade food and health tonics that she also sells on the Home Shopping Channel. Behind her restaurant are rows of large, earthenware pots (onggi, 옹기) and an impressive warehouse where she packages her patented creations with the help of her daughter, Kim Ji-hye (김지혜).
Choi offers me a cup of one of her concoctions – a thick, sweet, creamy smoothie.
“There are 17 medicinal plants in there,” she says. “Do you see the mulberries inside? I once worked on a silkworm farm. For 20 days, I could only sleep for two or three hours because I had to constantly feed mulberries to the silkworms. But after that, I began to love mulberries. I make tea with the leaves, too.”
She stops the car as I begin to drive away. “Come back soon,” she says, handing me a handful of fresh wild mint from the front yard of her restaurant. She jokingly snarls at me again and waves goodbye. I bury my nose in the fragrant mint. She’s not so scary.
Braised Radish 무김찜
Choi chose this dish because, when growing up, her mother would make this dish frequently, and she has never seen this dish anywhere else.
“My mother was very concerned with the health of our family whenever she was choosing ingredients,” says Choi. “She also loved radish, especially in the winter when the radish’s natural sweetness is at its peak. Because it was healthier for our bodies than medicine, and it helped to protect against colds, she made it for us almost every day… My mother died several years ago, but I still miss her all the time. She was the only person I know of who made this dish, and the taste recalls wonderful memories of my dear mother. Whenever I eat it, I feel like she is still with me.”
Ingredients:1 large radish 1 strip laver, (맨김) not roasted (broken into 3 pieces)
Sauce:5 chives1 dried red pepper 3 tablespoons of soy sauce3 cloves of crushed garlic1 tablespoon of red pepper powder2 tablespoons of plum syrup1 tablespoon of sesame seeds1 tablespoon of sesame oilCheongju wine (clear, refined rice wine)
Ingredients for stock: 1 onion Anchovies, Kombu (다시마)
- Cut the radish into 1 cm-thick circles.
- Soak the radish in a mixture of vinegar water for 10 minutes (ratio of water to vinegar should be 9:1).Take out the radish from the vinegar water and rinse it twice using cold water, and then dry it.
- Put the radish into a steamer for 15–20 minutes.
- Make stock from the onion, anchovies, and kombu (use about 200 ml of water). Cook the stock well, then remove the onion, anchovies, and kombu from the broth.
- To make the sauce, add soy sauce, red pepper powder, sesame seeds, sesame oil, plum syrup, and garlic to the stock. Cut the chives into 3 mm pieces. Lastly, tear the dried seaweed using your hands and mix it well.
- Put the steamed radish evenly in a plate and spread the sauce on the top. Make 3 layers (steamed radish >> sauce, repeat three times). Julienne (cut) the dried red pepper and garnish.