I’m recently back from NYC where I was honored to do a cooking demo at Tasting Table for Alaska Seafood (ASMI) along with the very kind and gentle Chef Anita Lo and Homer, Alaska Chef Mandy Dixon. Aside from many truly memorable meals (Santina, Prune, & ABC Kitchen among the best), I also had the privilege of going to a Moth-AKA performance where some lovely and brave women shared their stories….many about adoption, finding Korean birth families, dating as an Asian-American, etc. It reminded me of my own return journey to South Korea in 2008 and the stories of so many adoptees who shared their own stories with me as a result of my first book, “Trail of Crumbs.”
While in Seoul, I met Seung-Hee, a food lover who worked as my interpreter; she helped me navigate my birth country as well as guide me during the filming of a documentary about my return visit. She came to spend time with me recently in Anchorage where we cooked lots of Korean dishes with our own twists, informed by our individual journeys and stories along the way….This excerpt from my cookbook, “A Mouthful of Stars,” introduces Seung-Hee and how food bonded us:
One of my most memorable days was spent with Seung-Hee, an interpreter who works for the Seoul Government, and who will soon be heading to the U.S. to finish her Ph.D. in Nutrition at Johns Hopkins. She and I take a day to graze our way through the city. We start in my favorite neighborhood, Sam Saedong. I love the low and ancient houses filled with young designer ateliers, street food, family-style soup joints, and restaurants serving Royal Korean cuisine. We happily wait in line for flying pasta soup and Korean pancakes flecked with green onion and oyster. It’s warm out this early May, so we also try crushed ice mixed with tapioca and fresh fruit, which reminds me of sweet summertime New Orleans Sno-Balls, and I feel momentarily homesick. I suddenly long for Sundays with my family, when my grandfather would prepare a pot of crawfish bisque or gravy smothered pork chops stuffed with oyster dressing.
…After a bowl of sticky rice-stuffed chicken soup, Seung-Hee leads me to a pot of boiled silkworms, and sausages on a stick wrapped in seaweed. People stop to tell me they saw me on the KBS documentary and in the newspapers and want to know if anyone has claimed me as theirs. Did I take a DNA test? I don’t know what else to do but smile and defer to Seung-Hee.
“We have important things to do.” Seung-Hee, sensing my longing for impossible answers, changes the subject. “We are lucky to be here this time of year. It’s fresh preserved crab season. A true labor of love.” And she’s right. The freshest raw blue crabs are preserved in soy sauce and after three days, the shell stays firm but you suck out beautiful translucent lump crabmeat jelly. After one bite, I know I want this sea taste forever.
“Sometimes,” Seung-Hee warns with a smile, “they say, if you don’t know how to make it right, the bacteria can cause temporary neurological damage; make you forget things.”
We dig in for one more gorgeous ooze of crab knowing we are both thinking the same thing: Anything this good is worth a temporary lapse in memory.
Here in Alaska, I’ve made some life-long friends, including Carrie and Danny who happen to also be my neighbors. Last week, they appeared at my porch step to share a cooler full of fresh-caught Prince William Sound spot prawns. Seung-Hee, who was visiting from Atlanta, and I got to work, prepping them like the preserved crab we had in Korea seven years ago. Here’s our recipe.