Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Original Origins... and a New Beginning

I have always had a love affair with food.

The quivering beginnings of this torrid romance can be traced back to my mother's almost uncanny wizardry in the kitchen. From typical American fare to more exotic Korean cuisine, my mother could do no wrong. Somehow, her broad repertoire of dishes was always perfectly executed: crisp sweet potato fries that somehow tasted light and airy instead of greasy, my mother's unique spin on sweet and sour beef without the syrupy-sweet orange sauce, pseudo-Japanese bento boxes with delicately seasoned beef katsu cutlets...I could go on...and...on...and on...

On the rare occasions when we would get tired of my mother's menu rotation (what ungrateful brats!) and crave something different, she would not disappoint. When we craved chopped barbecue sandwiches from Luther's (a Houston barbecue staple) instead of packing us into the car, my mother replicated the sandwiches herself- the only difference being that her version always tasted better.

Of course, where my mother (a new immigrant to this country at the age of 31) shined was in the execution of her native Korean cuisine.

I am convinced that it is not my Korean bloodline that dictates my unwavering love for Korean food, but, instead, my exposure in my early childhood years to some of the best dishes that have ever graced my taste buds. From spicy Korean stews that permeated our home with pungent yet enticing aromas to delicious kim-bap (Korean maki filled with sliced egg omelets, daikon, spinach, carrot and choice of meat...yes, even spam!) that my mother somehow always managed to roll into perfectly symmetrical seaweed-covered cylinders, the dishes my mother created broadened the scope of my palate at a very young age.

My childhood friends were often lucky enough to be at the receiving end of my mother's culinary artistry and generosity. At my birthday parties, my invitees never received the typical American fare of hot dogs and hamburgers. Instead, they were treated to a sophisticated spread of Korean cuisine, all displayed proudly underneath a huge South Korean flag (emphasis on the South) tacked up to the dining room wall, of course. One birthday meal (maybe my eighth?) which stands out in my mind was a three course meal of short ribs, sticky Korean rice, savory clam and seaweed soup, and, of course, kimchi!

My mother's innovation with humble ingredients also dazzled me at a young age. She could take pop-up biscuit dough from a can and make delectable, sugary, cinnamon doughnut holes that would lure the neighborhood kids to our home with their sweet aroma. The imaginative meals (omelets, maki, etc) my mother could whip up with a deceptively common slab of SPAM were legendary.

You would think that having such a gifted cook for a mother would have spurred in me an aspiration for similar culinary mastery. Not so. Sadly, I think that growing up in an environment where great food was as readily available as a glass of tepid tap water, I just assumed (no matter how irrational it sounds) that it would always be there. I never really expressed a desire to learn how to cook and my mother, not being the pushy type, never forced me to learn. So, when I suddenly found myself in my mid-twenties, I realized that although I had just graduated with a law degree, I somehow had never even learned how to boil an egg. Needless to say, my culinary skills were woefully lacking.

My mother has always insisted that she did not know how to cook when she married my father and that she learned her culinary skills through trial and error. These apparent tall tales, most likely fabricated to make me feel better about my complete ineptness in the kitchen, did, nonetheless, make me hopeful for a brighter future. I had somehow convinced myself that the Martha Stewart/Nigella Lawson in me had just been in an extended hibernation for the first two and a half decades of my life and would only need a little prodding to emerge with graceful artistry.

Well, the prodding arrived in the form of a marriage and a move that transplanted my husband and me far, far away from the warm comforts of my mother's cooking. What would we do without my mother's naeng-myun (cold buckwheat noodles with pickled radishes in vinegary broth) or nakji bokum (stir-fried spicy octopus)? I do not doubt that premonitions of eating ramen surprise for the rest of his adult life probably danced ominously in my husband's head. But my husband, more than anyone else, believed my mother's words and encouraged me to try to cook. I think he was simply clinging to the hope that any daughter of my mother's HAD to have inherited the cooking gene. The fact that I had such huge shoes to fill, however, was daunting.

I'm happy to say that putting hundreds of miles between my mother and me was just the impetus I needed to push me into the realm of novice culinary worker bee. I have far to go before I attain queen status.

Now that we have started a new chapter in our lives by moving from Houston to the fine-dining mecca of Chicago, I feel that I have to really sip and savor my way through this city. I am not only eager to explore all the amazing restaurants this city has to offer, but also excited at the prospect of teaching myself how to REALLY cook through the trial and error process that my mother supposedly struggled through to earn her stripes in the kitchen. My inner domestic goddess has been in hibernation too long and is now ready to shine.

I want to savor meals from all of Chicago's eclectic array of restaurants and make delicious meals that people will...well, savor!

Hopefully by sharing my cooking and eating escapades in my new hometown of Chicago I can offer some insight into all the culinary adventures this city has to offer.

Stay tuned...