This is the fourth Thanksgiving week I’ve spent away from home. Once in Scotland. Once in North Carolina. Once in Italy. And now, once in Korea. Every time, though, I’ve managed to be a part of a binge-worthy meal. In Scotland, we spent all day cooking in a small University kitchen, and for good worth. The turkey and endless sides were enjoyed for hours on end in the soggy air. The Southern Feast was everything you think it would be: a decorated dining room table filled with home-cooked sides and a twelve-pound turkey for six and couches close by. Italy was a meal started after classes, at 4, and not eaten until midnight, but enough wine to keep us content until the fennel, potatoes, and turkey came out of the oven.
And now Korea. Now I know Thanksgiving isn’t for a few days, but since I’m so far removed from Western foods, I need a week to prepare. I need each and every day to figure out what I’ll be cooking. This process is a lot more complicated than you might think. I want to cook: green beans! Yes! That’ll be easy! But then finding green beans is almost impossible. I think: mashed potatoes! Easy! Yes, but finding reasonably priced butter is almost out of the question. And rolls? Well, those I can find, but the flour over here is just a little off, that those dinner rolls just won’t be the same as grandma’s.
So where does that leave me? Am I going to cook Korean food, just in excess, on Thanksgiving? Well, I have a solution to that whole “traditional foods” quandary, but it’s still nice to explore options. Today’s exploration? The traditional Korean food: dwenjang jjigae (된장찌개).
This food is ubiquitous. It is a hearty, rich, deep, and earthy soup that has tangy hints of fish and green onions laid over a spicy kick from green hot peppers all brought together around a potato. It is the soup that people get cravings for and walk into restaurants and before they even sit down, they’ve ordered the jjigae. Before they’ve taken off their coats or gotten water, the boiling soup is on it’s way over surrounded by four plates of banchan. It’s the soup that you think of when you think of wintery Seoul.
Really, it’s a shame that I haven’t tried to make it before. For one reason or another, I thought it would be too hard to make. Flan, crème brulee, cheesecake, baklava: those are all boringly easy. But a soup, dear lord. Don’t bring that round me.
Making the soup was anything but difficult. After a quick jaunt down to the grocery store about ten blocks from my apartment, I popped off my shoes and started chopping the ingredients. The recipe called for me to “cut up all the vegetables, put them in the pot, cover with water, bring water to a boil, add dwenjang paste, stir.” That’s it. Boom done.
Now, I was a little unconventional, though. The vegetables that were supposed to find their way into that pot were: zucchini, potatoes, hot peppers, onions, and green onions. Add a few sardines, some tofu, and the paste, and you’ve got your ingredients. What did I do?
Well you, by now, must know that I don’t like to follow recipes (or rules) all that well. So my soup has a few additions and omissions: zucchini, potatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplant, onions, hot peppers, some dwenjang paste and a few dried mushrooms. No sardines (sorry, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy them). My tofu had recently decided to keep going to fermentationville, and thus was unusable. And green onions were ridiculously expensive. Come on Seoul, get it together.
And now, sitting in my golden pot on the stove, glistening in the early-winter sun, is a delicious soup that marks the first Korean thing I’ve made. Will it make it’s way into the Thanksgiving mix? We’ll just have to see.