Written and photographed by Karly Pierre
“My husband always tells me to stop working and relax,” says Mrs. Choi. “But I love my students and I love working.”
The woman confidently grips the steering wheel as she drives through a winding shortcut to the Chinese restaurant. Her husband smiles softly and nods.
Today is something of a reunion almost two years in the making. My husband and I were students in Mrs. Choi’s Korean class before we were married, and she witnessed our evolving relationship.
“It happened when they were taking my class,” Mrs. Choi proudly tells her husband, referring to our engagement.
Inside the restaurant, while the four of us sit at the restaurant table, Mrs. Choi adeptly ladles plump, sweet, and spicy fried shrimp into bowls and, like any attentive mother would, gives me and my husband the largest portions. She serves herself only two shrimp.
“I need to lose weight,” she says with a vibrant laugh. Her husband adamantly disagrees.
At 58, she still has a boundless energy and plucky optimism that is infectious. It’s not difficult to imagine her as the tomboy she claims to have been.
“I played with boys a lot, and my mother always said I was a sweet girl,” says Choi. “I would always win when we played ddakji (딱지, a Korean origami game), marbles, jegichagi (제기차기, hacky sack), jump rope, and …”
She doesn’t know the word in English, so she jumps up from the table to demonstrate. She laughs as she hops from one imaginary square to another with surprising agility.
“Hopscotch!” my husband yells out.
“I was the best,” she says, settling back into her chair. “Sometimes I would teach the girls how to beat the boys at games, too. In the past, classes were big – around 60 students. I was always the captain when I played with my group of friends.”
Choi grew up in downtown Gwangju as the only daughter of a middle school principal and a devoted housewife. As a child, she was a vegetarian.
“No one else in my family was vegetarian, and I’m not sure why, but I didn’t like meat when I was young,” says Choi. “I only ate kimchi, namul (나물, seasoned leaves or herbal dishes), and rice. My favorite food was any kind of namul. So I was very thin. My mother would often say, ‘Oh you are giving me a headache [because of your picky eating habits].’ I liked fish, too, so she would make a jjorim (braised) fish with potatoes and radish.”
Her mother began teaching her how to cook when she was about 11. Her first lesson was kimchi.
“My mother was a great cook,” says Choi. ”She made many kinds of jeon (전, Korean egg pancake), bulgogi (불고기, marinated beef or pork), vegetables, susu juk (수수죽, sorghum porridge), and dongji juk (동지죽, winter solstice red bean porridge).”
“On special holidays my mother, my brother’s wife, and I made food together in the kitchen. We would make more than ten dishes. I’m a very efficient cook, very quick. But my brother’s wife was a little slower, and my mother liked to stop and talk.” Choi laughs. “Anyway, those were good memories.”
Though she is modest about her cooking skills, her husband is effusive with praise.
“In Korea, we say a good cook like her has big hands… When I met her, I was really skinny, just 61 or 62 kilograms…”
Mrs. Choi interjects. “When my family saw him, they thought he was sick,” she jokes.
“Yes! But I gained ten kilograms in the first year after we married,” he says. “I love everything that she makes, especially her japchae (잡채, sweet potato noodles). It has a unique taste.”
As we prepare to leave the restaurant, a sadness passes over Mrs. Choi’s eyes. Talking about food reminds her of her mother, who died last year. In a way, the taste of the meals she prepares for her father, now in his 90’s, is a trace of her mother’s spirit.
“I remember my father would always laugh and smile when my mother cooked and say how delicious it was,” says Choi. “She cooked better than me, but as she got older, she couldn’t do it anymore… My father is very picky about food. Sometimes he complains, but he prefers my food to anyone else’s.”
When Mrs. Choi drops us off back at our apartment, she gets out of the car to give us a hug. So much time has passed since the four of us last met. But today has reminded me to always make time for good food and good people.
Sweet potato noodles (Japchae)
This is Mrs. Choi’s signature dish that she cooks for her family.
1 bag of sweet potato starch noodles, 1 yellow onion, 1 carrot, 200 grams of thinly cut pork strips, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of sugar, black pepper, salt, 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, 1 bunch of spinach
3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon crushed sesame seeds, 2 tablespoons green onion, 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Soak the sweet potato noodles in warm water for 2–3 hours.
- Put ½ tablespoon of minced garlic, soy sauce, sugar, black pepper, and pork into a bowl and mix. Marinade for at least 10 minutes, then pan fry the pork. Remove from pan and set aside.
- Thinly cut one onion and thinly julienne one carrot. Stir fry carrot and onion in oil, then remove from pan and set aside.
- Add salt to a pot of water, and bring to a boil. Lightly blanch the spinach, then rinse in cold water. Lightly squeeze out water. Place spinach in a bowl with ½ tablespoon of minced garlic, sesame oil, and a pinch of salt. Mix and set aside.
- Drain the potato starch noodles and pan fry the noodles on medium heat. Place the cooked noodles in a bowl. Mix sauce and pour the sauce on the noodles. Mix sauce into the noodles.
- Then add onions, carrots, pork, black pepper, and spinach, and continue mixing well.
- Garnish with more sesame seeds and green onions if you like.