Lately, I’ve been reading Cooked, book turned Netflix series, in which author Michael Pollan writes about the four natural elements: fire, water, air, and earth. He explains each element in their relationship to cooking and food very intricately and simultaneously finds a way to seamlessly weave them together to fit a colorful and elaborate food history mosaic.
In his water section, he explains how we have our five taste senses— sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami. He claims that most tastes are innate. We are hardwired to know when we taste something sour or sweet or salty or bitter, but umami is something that we have to obtain through eating different foods that offer this taste. He then goes on to say that different foods appeal to different taste buds and we can judge whether a particular dish is good based on how we remember it tasting like.
There is a Korean dish called yukgaejang, 육개장, which is also featured in the second season of Master of None when Aziz’s Asian friend’s dad’s Korean lady friend (one of them) made it for him (the Asian dad). It’s a stew made from simmered beef, chili oil, vegetables (taro roots, cabbage, onion), and sweet potato noodles. Served with a bowl of plain white rice and kimchi, this soup/stew is best when eaten right away.
When I was little, I would visit Korea every summer and stay at my aunt’s apartment where she had two kids. Both she and her husband worked, so they were unable to stay home and look after their two kids (aka my younger cousins). We lived on the 11th floor. On the 18th floor lived their babysitter who looked after them when school ended and cooked dinner for them and made sure they did their homework. And when I came during the summers, I went through this same regiment. The lady, despite being a horrible person, made great food—one of which was yukgaejang.
This was the first place I’ve ever had it. Salty, spicy, meaty—it’s a very umami packed dish. Since then, I’ve tried to find restaurants that could emulate her version of yukgaejang. Every stew I eat now, I compare it to hers. Every yukgaejang has become a metaphor; “this one is more like a tomato stew, it’s too thick” or “this tastes more like an ocean of salt with a bit of spiciness.” I’ve only eaten yukgaejang once at her house, but it was so good and honestly life-changing that I remember the exact taste and experience I had when I ate it.
I must have eaten over 20 dishes at her house, but this is the only one I remember. And it’s the only dish I continue to reminisce about. This was over 10 years ago, but the memory of my eating it is so vivid. I remember slurping down the noodles and asking for a second bowl of rice, something I never did as I had trouble eating when I was little.
Looking back, maybe it was one of the gate-way foods that has led me to love eating. Once you eat something that is truly delicious, it’s hard to find an equally great yukgaejang that is even comparable to that one.