Written and photographed by Karly Pierre
Kim Yeonsim gives a nervous smile with each click of my camera. She adds rice to a pot of simmering broth and slides out of the camera’s view. Though she had anxiously rehearsed for the photo session a few days before with her husband, the presence of a curious stranger in her kitchen makes her blush.
Kim, 61, grew up in Sagok-myeon, Gwangyang County in Jeollanam-do in a large family with six siblings. During her childhood, Sagok-myeon was home to the second largest goldmine in the nation and was an important Japanese colonial interest.
“My maternal grandfather used to work at the mine. At that time, there was a mine in our neighborhood, although it is long gone now,” recalls Kim. “Now people consume pork to fight yellow dust, but back then, people in my village would eat pork to clean the dust from the mine out of their lungs. The mining company would offer a whole pig to its workers once a week. The pig was sliced and placed on a yellow paper that was distributed to each worker. This paper was also used to store cement. People would wrap the cement twice or three times in this paper… When my grandfather brought the meat home, we would eat pork soup. There were nine of us, so there was more water than meat.”
Her family would prepare the soup in a large aluminum sot (가마솥, pot). To the meat and water, they would add kimchi, radish, garlic, soy sauce, and salt.
“Although there were a lot of us, we all shared the soup together,” says Kim. “I guess I was always so hungry, which is why I was so happy when my grandfather brought some pork from the mine. As I grew older, I tried to make the soup with the same recipe, but I realized I couldn’t recreate that same taste from the past.”
Since Kim had several older sisters, most of the cooking duties in the household fell to them. Kim didn’t begin cooking until she was 18 and had moved away from home. At the age of 24, she married into a large family and began cooking in earnest. As a mother of three children, she called upon memories of her childhood meals to do more with less in the kitchen.
“I mostly prepared simple dishes,” says Kim. “When my children were born, we didn’t have much to eat. Sometimes we would just eat rice, a fried egg, and kkakdugi (깍두기, cubed radish kimchi). Sometimes I would also cook fried eggs with sausage. I learned how to make castella bread, so we had that, too. I was happy because my children ate happily. But I didn’t cook anything special. In the winter, I made kimchi rice soup. In the summer, I made kal-guksu (칼국수, wheat flour noodle soup). At that time, people ate kal-guksu to save as much rice as possible. Because of the lack of rice, the government at that time encouraged people to eat more flour-based dishes. But now the situation is very different.”
Kim ladles kimchi rice soup into my bowl. The table is set with slices of red and yellow bell pepper, pajeon (파전, green onion pancake), and blanched angelica roots with fish sauce.
“It’s good for your immune system,” she notes as I take a bite of the angelica roots.
Shocked and a little amused that I recognize the taste of fish sauce on the angelica roots, she encourages me to eat more. By the time I am on my way out the door, I am no longer a stranger. She hands me a paper bag loaded with fresh vegetables from her mother’s farm in Sagok-myeon. After so many years of making do with very little, she now has more than enough.
Kimchi Rice Soup 김치국밥
Kimchi rice soup was a typical dish that Kim ate growing up. “When I was young, because there were nine people in my family, there was only one bowl of rice left for lunch after we ate breakfast,” says Kim. “The portion was way too small, so we also ate sweet potatoes. We would make soup with the rice. In the winter, the rice soup would help us fight the cold and hunger. I always loved the memories of my family eating together, so I often made the soup for my children. The soup is made differently in every region. I make the broth using anchovies, while my mother-in-law made the broth using oysters, probably because they lived so close to the sea.”
1/8 of one well-fermented kimchi cabbage
2 strips of fresh seaweed cut into 13×30 cm pieces
30-40 anchovies (5-7 cm)
1 1/2 bowls of cold cooked rice
1 green onion
2 teaspoons of minced garlic
1 teaspoon of pickled shrimp
2 spicy green chilies (or to taste)
1 teaspoon of sesame oil
2 pieces of toasted seaweed cut into 20×25 cm pieces
- To make the broth, pour 1700 ml of water into a pot and add the anchovies and fresh seaweed. Boil for 5 minutes on high heat. Lower to medium heat and continue boiling for about 25-30 minutes. Remove the seaweed and anchovies.
- Cut the kimchi into approximately 2-cm pieces. Slice the green onion lengthwise and cut the chilies into thin pieces.
- Add the kimchi to the broth. Add the cold cooked rice and stir in evenly. Bring to a boil.
- After boiling for another 5 minutes, stir in the minced garlic, green onion, and chilies.
- Crack the egg and add to the broth. Don’t stir the egg in until it is done cooking.
- Add a teaspoon of pickled shrimp. (If you prefer your soup bland, you can skip this step.)
- Turn off the heat, and after 2-3 minutes add a teaspoon of sesame oil.
- Mix in some strips of toasted seaweed to the soup and use the rest for garnish.