Why I cook

May 5, 2008

My father was someone who ate to live.  He was appreciative of any food, from the humblest meal to a gourmet feast.  This gratitude, I am sure, was formed from experiencing a devastating war, loss of family, and near-starvation.  When I was a little girl, he once plucked a broad-leaf plantain, a common weed, from our lawn and informed me he survived on plants like that for three months while evading the Communists.  Naturally, he had little patience for picky eaters – we all learned to eat whatever was placed before us. 

My mother, on the other hand, did not view food in such black and white terms.  Yes, food is sustenance, which she learned in the same way my father did.   As a young teenager during the Korean War, she and her sister decided to sell strawberries to augment their modest and inconsistent income.  Unfortunately, their entrepreneurial skills could not withstand their grumbling tummies and their goods quickly disappeared, thus ending their very short-lived career as fruit sellers.  I wish I could have seen my mother and my aunt, sitting in a gray crumbling city as they sat giggling and licking their sticky red-stained fingers.  The strawberries’ sweetness,  while lingering on their tongues for a fleeting moment, meant more to them at that moment than making a few won to buy a necessary staple like rice.

Eventually, my mother become a very good cook, learning as many do not by reading cookbooks or using measuring spoons.  She was taught in that universal old world method – using a knuckle, a pinch, a fistful, all while tasting frequently until it’s just right.  I remember the first time my mother taught me how to cook rice, eschewing measuring cups for an imaginary line on the back of my hand when placed flat in the water on the uncooked rice.  And in a couple of years, I will teach my children the same way my antecedents have been making rice for time eternal.

The most important thing she taught me, however, was not methods or recipes.  It was never spoken, but it was seared into my person more permanently than if it had been.  It was something I gathered from years of observing my mother getting up at dawn meal to prepare a meal for a special guest.  I learned it from watching her take over the kitchen with bowls larger than some small cars to make kim chi.  I understood it from the countless hours she spent chopping, grinding, mixing, frying, boiling, and grilling. 

It was that food mattered.  Food was more than something that just powered you to get through the day or a thankless chore than simply needed to get done.  More specifically, it was that you mattered and that you were worth the time and effort to make something delicious and worthwhile.  Cooking is giving a piece of yourself, making yourself vulnerable, hoping that others will recognize that tiny particle of you in that meal.   And hopefully, they’ll love you for it. 


This photo was taken soon after my mother immigrated from South Korea to the United States.  She sent this picture to her sisters back in Korea to show how richly she was living.  Apparently, bananas were exorbitantly expensive in South Korea in the early 70s.  I guess no one told her bananas brown in the fridge.

5 Responses to “Why I cook”

  1. dhanggit Says:

    i could very well see my dad in yours..a great food lover 🙂 i agree with you about your insights on cooking. although some people may find it a household chore or a task for me it has always been a pleasure a moment to savor 🙂 no matter how fancy or simple the food i am cooking i also share piece of me in every dish that i make! brilliantly written post!!

  2. Lisa Says:

    I love finding beautiful and well written blogs to start following. The Asian flavor makes it even better. 🙂

    Isn’t Daring Bakers great?!

  3. Pam Says:

    i was also taught to measure the water for my rice that way.. and I still do it. I actually showed my husband that way as well and he is a damn good rice maker! LOL

  4. Angela R Kaley Says:

    i was lookin for a turkey/beef meatball recipe this morning and came accross yours and started to venture and i must say I enjoyed reading through your blog. Just wanted to say that you bring life to the words and your recipes are user friendly. My pops met my mother in Japan so that would make me Japerican (mixed with Puerto-Rican ; ) my mom tried to learn to cook american food and she was awful hehe so she started to cook her traditional Japanese style and was much better at that, she also eyeballed measurements and for the most part that is how I cook unless I have to look up a recipe for meatballs 🙂

    All the best,


  5. K. T. Says:

    I came across your site as i was looking for a mushroom risotto/fish recipe. (i was really in mood for the risotto today!) Not only I’ve found such a perfect recipe here but also i was so delighted to have found your beautiful site. I’m no gourmet cook, but I love to cook for my family and friends. Like you said, cooking is not just a chore. It’s a giving thing, a passion and a love.

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