I’m no Iron Chef, but I’m no slouch in the kitchen either. So when D., my boyfriend, challenged me to replicate the Korean barbecue he’d eaten at Green Pepper, I rose to the occasion. The fact that I hadn’t cooked meat in seven years (and wouldn’t be eating any of it myself) didn’t faze me for a second; cooking is an art, to be sure, but it’s also a science. If you follow instructions closely, you will usually get a recipe right the first time. Then you can start playing with it, tweaking spices and ingredients, etc. Easy peasy.
[I'll spare you the long, internal ethical debate I had with myself, as well as the guilt I felt about cooking meat, even after sincerely blessing the spirit of the cow that died for D.'s dinner. The things we do for love and science, eh?]
In a perfect world, I would’ve been able to take a class, or hang out in an experienced cook’s kitchen to learn first-hand. But with a deadline of one week, I would have to rely on my reference librarian skills and prior kitchen experience, and hope for the best. Luckily, copious searching of both catalog and web turned up a wealth of information that was tons of fun to winnow through in search of the perfect galbi recipe.* And by “perfect” I mean, of course, something from a source as close to authentic as I could find without actually boarding a plane to Seoul.
Requesting items from other libraries would take more time than I had, so just this once I decided to stick close to home.** There were fourteen Korean cookbooks on the shelf, and I flipped through all of them, comparing and contrasting ingredients and techniques. The one I eventually took home, however, was Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s Eating Korean. I chose it because it contains just as many essays as recipes, making it more of a cooking memoir than a conventional cookbook. Reading about Lee’s childhood and culinary adventures in Korea gave me a context I would never have been able to acquire simply by looking at a recipe; her stories about making kimchi, learning to fish, picnicking in the park, and other adventures both simple and ceremonial helped me understand and appreciate the richness and complexity of Korean culture.
The most disturbing and fascinating story for me was the tale of the day Lee first killed a chicken, which concludes like this:
Our meal was a simple country one with a few side dishes, rice, and the starting main course of chicken. I was as proud as a hunter who’d bagged a bear that morning, acting as if I had made the whole meal, while everyone raved about the delicious meat. As I enjoyed lunch, I almost forgot the insurmountable fear in my being as I faced the brown bird and the feeling of deep sadness as I watched the life leaving its body. I now had a deeper respect for the animals that had given their lives so that we could enjoy a wonderful meal. (174)
A conscious omnivore with a simple galbi recipe that called for ingredients I could easily find at both conventional and Korean grocers? Here was a cookbook I could definitely learn from. Besides the sections on beef, chicken and fish, there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options in the side dishes, or mit banchan, such as roasted seaweed sheets, simmered tofu, soy-seasoned potatoes, and seasoned black beans. If you’re looking to expand your culinary repetoire, you’ll find many dishes here to please all palates.
The verdict? Aside from using more soy sauce than the restaurant did, my galbi efforts were pronounced successful. Thanks Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee! As for me, I ate Gardein beefless tips, and loved them. While I won’t be apologizing to cows or killing chickens anytime soon, I had a blast learning about Korean cuisine and culture and actively exploring my own beliefs and limits. And, as ever, I enjoyed preparing food for somebody I care about and want to please. Because, at the end of the day, whatever we decide to cook and eat, we all hunger for the same thing: love.
(who is still up for that cooking lesson, if anybody’s offering)
*Galbi, sometimes transliterated kalbi, is different from bulgogi, another flame-broiled Korean specialty.
** Expanding your search countywide gives you more options, which I plan to explore ASAP.