Two weeks ago if someone had asked to play word association, starting with the word "Korea," I would have said: "Nuclear bomb." I know this isn't fair to almost all Koreans, who don't know squat about, and have no interest in, enriching uranium. So walking towards Korea House restaurant, on Congress Street two blocks from Longfellow Square, I was glad. Cooking with people from other countries (in this case chef-owners Mr. and Mrs. You from South Korea) always rights my world. Now, you say Korea and I say: amazing spicy fish dish with seaweed salad and secret hot sauce. Much better!
My news-induced nightmares were quickly overtaken by the image of a 109-year-old woman in Yeosu-si, South Korea, fermenting secret ingredients in 500 stoneware pots that have been producing her family's sauces for 700 years. This woman is Mrs. You's grandmother, the person who taught Mrs. You how to cook. Mrs. You remembers her first pot of rice, cooked on a wood fire, when she was about nine years old. The bottom was burned, the middle was watery, and the top not cooked at all. Grandma laughed and said, "You are a lady. You are supposed to know how to cook!"
FAMILY TRADITION Galchi jo rim with Chou Go Chou Jang and other side dishes.
"But Grandma," the girl said, "This is my first time!"
"Step by step," Grandma said, "you learn from me."
For a decade, she did. Then Mrs. You came to the US to go to college in San Jose, California, where she met her future husband and restaurant partner, who is also from South Korea. They cooked in Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants in Los Angeles, Anchorage, and Seattle before getting a call from Mr. You's sister, who was living in Portland, and running Sun Oriental Market, supplying Portland's estimated 1000 Koreans with their favorite ingredients from home. She told Mr. You essentially: The restaurant next door's for sale! You should buy it! In 2008, the Yous bought Happy Teriyaki, and earlier this month re-opened it as Korea House. For the first time in their lives, their restaurant's menu is entirely Korean.
So, if I may send a message in a bottle to Korea:
Grandma, good job teaching Mrs. You how to cook! She just taught me how to make Galchi jo rim.The galchi fish was strong, the sauce spicy hot, the braised daikon radish just delectable, and the jalapeno rounds really quite astonishing for their shock of spice amid the already spicy sauce. The fish had more bones in it than I was accustomed to. I know you won't believe this, but fishermen from Boston to Texas use galchi (called beltfish here) for bait! We're so intolerant of bones here. We eat too fast, too, so maybe this galchi fish might be just what we need to slow the heck down.
My favorite thing on the table was the slippery seaweed salad topped with Korean hot sauce, Chou Go Chou Jang. When I asked your granddaughter what's in it, I think you will be happy to know, she said "Big Sea Quid." I was thinking sea squid, some kind of sea creature, but no. She was saying, "Big Secret." 700 years old. Only given to family. Usually, I think secrets are up to no good. But this one I find beautiful, like a grandmother's ring passed down, something to be treasured, honored, and not flung into a crowd.