[one_half][I] viewed a lot of my world through the dusty window of a green, 1973 Chevy Impala. This was the first car I knew, and the one our family drove for almost ten years. I still remember those six, giant, rectangular brake lights. Parking whiskers that scraped the curb with a dull, grinding murmur. And that engine. A 350 small-block V-8. My sister and I recognized the sound of that engine from indoors. Hearing it approach, then halt, punctuated by the quick ratchet of the emergency brake, meant only one thing:
Mom and Dad home. Quick … Turn off the TV!
In addition to being a harbinger of parental authority, our car was a private boat in which we sailed off to exotic places through night and day. Places far beyond the sun-drenched concrete of Hawthorne, California. Hot Springs, where my mom sought relief for her arthritic joints. Sacramento, where we occasionally visited a family friend named Rena, whom I knew as “American Grandma.” And once in a long while, Oregon, where our cousins Ty and Trinda lived. It was on one of these trips that I first saw a deer and snow.
Dad was driving late into the night, and my sister and I tried to find comfortable ways to lie across the back seat without hitting our heads on the window crank. We were eating cold pieces of fried chicken fished from the darkness of a brown shopping bag, when Mom gasped. We all saw it, staring straight at us, like a ghost pausing in the middle of the road. The snowflakes outside were larger than I expected. Everything looked monochrome in our headlights. And a few seconds later, it was gone.
On all those trips, we ate the food that Mom packed. It was usually something relatively healthy, like kimbap, barley tea and fruit. It was food we were accustomed to. Comforting, perhaps, but sometimes flirting with boring. Above all, it was what we could afford. I would sometimes stare longingly at the fast food joints we passed on the road: Shakey’s Pizza, Carl’s Jr., Pioneer Chicken … These were the places my cousins and classmates would certainly stop for a meal, in their luxurious, wood-paneled station wagons.
As I grew older, the road trips got longer. Indiana. Illinois. Wisconsin. I was becoming more conscious of how modestly we lived, and understood that we regularly drove distances people would ordinarily fly. And I resented it. I grew tired of sticking out, living in our messy, half-unpacked house, being stuck for what seemed like forever in the backseat of that car, listening to my parents bicker in a language I only half-understood. I carried that with me for a long time. And when it came time to go away to school, I chose New York, the farthest away I could possibly be. My dad wanted to drive there with me. In a decision I regret to this day, I told him no. I wanted to fly. And I wanted to do it on my own.
As a parent, I can now begin to appreciate how my father must have felt. I’ve since gotten to know both of my parents as people; flawed, but human. And I’ve repeatedly wondered what it would have been like to be on the road for those few days, spending all my waking hours with my father, whom I was accustomed to seeing for maybe an hour a day. The old man’s still around, but he’s not one for long drives anymore. I wish we had taken that trip together. This is the food I would like to have made.
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SIGUMCHI NAMUL (Seasoned spinach)
This classic banchan (side dish) is always waiting for me at my parents’ dinner table in LA.
2 lbs spinach leaves, trimmed and cleaned
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp sugar
1 T distilled white vinegar
1 thinly sliced scallion
kochukaru (Korean red pepper flakes), to taste (opt.)
1 T toasted sesame seeds
In a large stockpot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and blanch spinach leaves until bright green, no longer than 10 seconds. Immediately shock the leaves in icewater, and drain. Squeeze out excess water, and blot with paper towels. It’s not necessary to get it completely dry, just not dripping wet. Mix soy sauce, salt, sugar and vinegar in a large bowl and toss with wilted spinach leaves (your hands are the best tools here). Add scallion, kochukaru and sesame seeds and toss once more. Optionally, you can chop the resulting mass of spinach into roughly bite sized chunks.
Notes. 2 lbs of raw spinach looks like a frighteningly large amount. Don’t worry. It will compact to the size of a softball with this recipe. You will, however, need a very large bowl for cleaning and shocking. To get the best color, it’s important not to overcook the leaves. Do this in batches, if necessary.
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Unquestionably, kimbap is the canonical Korean picnic food. Similar in form to futomaki, kimbap is served at room temperature, eaten with the hands, and, due the acidity of the rice, keeps for at least a day. I never tried Japanese sushi rolls until college, but I must have eaten hundreds of kimbap as a child. I filled these with spinach, takuan, fried egg, and Spam. Other typical fillings include bulgogi, kamaboko, sauteed carrots, and kimchi. Ideally, one wants fillings that complement one another in color, texture, and flavor.
On Spam. I see you non-Asians out there, raising your eyebrows at the choice of Spam. All I can say is that, in my experience, the people most vocal in their disgust for Spam have never actually tried it. Their loss. Suffice to say, Hawaiians know what they’re doing. Mark my words: Spam will be the next bacon. Whether you choose to face that reality is a decision only you can make. To address its possibly unappetizing texture or appearance, give the Spam a nice sear before deploying.
Adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen
2 1/2 cups high-quality (we like the Nishiki brand) short-grain white rice
4 T rice vinegar or distilled white vingear
1/2 T sugar
1 T rice wine or vermouth
1 T sesame oil
Cook the rice, preferably in a rice cooker. The rice is easier to work with if it’s overly not soft/mushy, so limit the amount of water added to about 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 times the volume of the dry rice. While the rice is cooking, combine vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt in a small saucepan. Briefly simmer under low heat until sugar and salt are dissolved. Allow the solution to cool, then add rice wine and sesame oil, mixing well.
When the rice has finished cooking, transfer to a large bowl and fluff the rice with a fork or rice paddle. Drizzle in seasoning and mix well. Keep the rice covered and work with it while slightly warm.
6 large eggs
Cover the bottom of a 10″ skillet with vegetable oil and place over medium heat. Beat 3 of the eggs until blended and add a pinch of salt and 1 – 2 turns of freshly cracked black pepper. When the pan is hot, add the eggs and cook, pancake-style, for about 2 minutes, moving the pan if necessary to heat evenly. Flip the pancake (you may need 2 spatulas to do this) and cook for another minute. Remove from heat and set egg pancake on a paper towel to cool and drain. Add a bit more oil and cook the other 3 eggs the same way. Cut into slices about 1/4″ wide. If they turn out too thin, you can always double them up when assembling your roll.
8 – 10 sheets of kim (also called nori, or laver), roughly 8 inches square
8 – 10 strips of takuan, about 8″ long and 1/4″ wide
1 can Spam, cut into 1/4″ wide strips and seared
highly recommended tool: a bamboo mat called a makisu or a pal.
There are many tutorials available online for rolling kimbap and maki rolls. I reviewed this one and this one before making mine. I also enjoyed watching this woman, a beast at the kimbap station who doesn’t even need a bamboo mat! My first kimbap always turn out a bit gnarly-looking, but as with any new technique, things gets better with practice. To fill each roll, I used one strip of takuan, two strips of egg ribbon, two strips of Spam (arranged end to end), and a small line of cut spinach.
Notes. I am often guilty of overstuffing rolled foods, so I make a conscious effort to start with less rice than I think I need, adjusting up if necessary. Keep a bowl of water handy to keep rice from sticking to your fingers. Brush the outside of the roll with sesame oil and cut into 1/2″ slices. Wipe down and wet your knife regularly.
* * * * *
JANG JORIM (soy sauce braised beef)
This side dish is a practical choice for packed lunches because it is essentially preserved, staying fresh for months in the refrigerator. The use of beef is auspicious, due to its historical scarcity. Small portions are advised due its intense flavor. A wonderful recipe can be found at my friend Amy’s website.
* * * * *
KONG NAMUL (seasoned soybean sprouts)
Soybean sprouts are ubiquitous in Korean cuisine, and this banchan is a another childhood favorite. A recipe can be found elsewhere on my website.
* * * * *
BORI CHA (roasted barley tea)
Adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen
Growing up, I was always offered my choice of beverage: water or barley tea.
1/2 C unhulled barley
1 quart water
If the barley has not already been roasted, you may pan-toast it for 3 minutes over medium-low heat, until fragrant. Add barley to water, bring to a boil (preferably in a ceramic or enamel-lined pan) and reduce to a simmer. Brew for 1 hour, and strain. Can be served hot or cold.
* * * * *
YAKBAP (sweet rice cake)
My mom likes to remind me that I was such a picky eater as a kid that I would mysteriously get a stomach ache every day at meal time. Which was miraculously cured when it was time for dessert. This homemade variation of dduk is another perennial picnic favorite. A fail-safe recipe, and by far the quickest you will find, is described in a separate post.
87 replies on “Retrospect”
the narrative quality of this post transported me to a dreamlike state- super solid writing. The imagery stunning, the food divine- all in all, tight post. you’re such a word ninja food rockstar.
WOW! This is impressive storytelling, Ben. Wonderfully done!
Coming from you, that is an enormous compliment. Thanks. 🙂
Ben, thank you for sharing your story. It’s only now that we are parents that we can see the error of our youth. We all have our regrets but this is also what has shaped us to the people that we know are, what helps us become better people and parents.Thanks for sharing this picnic 🙂
Thank you for your lovely comment, Sharlene.
This is such a beautiful post, Ben. Your stories are such a great part of PFB. You’ve definitely got my vote! 🙂
Absolutely INCREDIBLE writing and I love the grainy photos, which are just so perfect for that wonderfully nostalgic mood. I actually can’t decide if this post has beat out the Jacques Pepin one as my favorite now. 🙂
As for spam, I’m with you there. In Hong Kong, it’s the quintessential breakfast meat especially in the HK-style cafes. They put it on top of everything: a bowl of macaroni soup noodles, in egg sandwiches, etc. Mmm!
This brought back so many of my own memories – lying in the back of my mother’s old Pinto station wagon, listening to the sound of the tires on the road. I love the quality of your photos, and the way they hearken back to an earlier time and place. Lovely post.
What a totally wonderful post – the writing is beautiful. It made me smile and a little sad, all at once, and that is certainly a wonderful thing. You are so very deserving to be in this round of the competition and I am so glad to have found your blog through it.
Also, SPAM LOVE! I’m with you, my fellow-Asian friend. Good luck, not that I think you’ll need it!
This captured my attention so well that I had to go back and rre-read it and look at the delicious photos again and again. Everything you made in this post has just gone on my to make / eat list for the coming week (s). Great job! You have my vote (Tomorrow.)
The writing is delicious. Your pictures make my heart ache. I’ve read 2 amazing posts now and it makes me want to change everything about mine.
I think everyone should go read your post, Mariko. It’s wonderful.
I was really moved by the the lead-in narrative to your road trip. Lovely, honest and obviously heartfelt.
I love the story Ben. My family took many road trips by car as well. I completely agree with you that although our parents were once almighty parents to our young eyes, as adults we realize that they are human just like us and anyone else for that matter and flawed. Sad to realize but so true. Great post and I love all the Korean dishes you made. Voting (=
Gawd…this story was like an episode of “This is Your Life”. I got all misty eyed and then *bam*, you got me when you described your decision to fly to college. Ugh…that just totally hit home.
Oh man, and then the food…
I absolutely LOVE this post.
And “cheers!” to SPAM.
What a wonderful childhood story. I guess we all did things back then in an attempt to escape from we saw around us and what we perceived inadequate. And, when realization strikes, sometimes it’s too late. Nevertheless, we are all as much human as our parents:)
This lunch is a lovely gesture to reconnect!!! Thanks for sharing such traditional Korean recipes..
I’m new to your blog and am loving it. The story brought back many memories of driving around in our light blue station wagon we nicknamed The Blue Goose (I have no idea why). And Pioneer Chicken? One of my faves while growing up in Fremont.
Thanks for reading, Emily. We had a light blue Olds Cutlass wagon that caught on fire on its first two months. Then it was back to the Impala.
I love love love kimbap! I also loved your writing in this post. It was really heartfelt and I can feel the nostalgia coming through, definitely. Keep it up! :]
Thanks. You’ve got a very cool website there, Wei-Wei. Keep it up, yourself!
I could relate to your story in so many ways–from the green car, on. Maybe it’s the different story-telling style you used for this post; definitely reflective. We never flew to vacations either–we drove. I remember wanting to go as far as Australia to go to college. I appreciate so much more about family now that I didn’t back then. The vintage quality of your photos is a nice touch, too.
Nicely done again, Ben.
Oh, I forgot to say that I like Spam, too. I may only eat it once a year, if that, but I still eat it. Dry-fried first, always.
Thank you, Jean. Also, your use of the term “dry-fried” inspires me to cook Spam in the style the dry-fried chicken wings from San Tung. I think that just might make my head explode.
Your poignant story tugged at my heartstrings and reminded me so much of life growing up with parents I couldn’t understand nor understood me much. When I went away to college, it was to the opposite side of the world and I flew off alone, refusing any handholding. My mother packed me an “air trip” meal in my hand luggage in case I was hungry when I landed. It was nowhere as glorious as your road trip goodies, but it was as full of love.
Good luck in PFB, I’ve become a fan of your lovely site!
Superb post – reminds me of the lyrics – “don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…” The older I get the more I appreciate my parents (sounds like such a cliche, but really holds true for me) and I try to hold on to those moments that I know won’t last forever.
PS – Great padkos (Afrikaans, lit: road food) recipes too!
What a beautiful narrative. Taking us back to your childhood showed many similarities to mine. Gorgeous post! Beautifully written… perfect!
I remember being incredibly unforgiving of my parents, I hope my own child won’t be as tough as I was. Lovely story and recipes. Even though I grew up in Europe and only saw cars like that in movies, the way you write it – I can imagine it.
Ben, love this post. Great story and great writing!
Love the retro-70s feel of your photos… it makes me feel very nostalgic, even though my childhood road trips were more about mortadella sandwiches on white bread than they were about kimbap and barley tea. 🙂
Great job on this post. You’ve got my vote!
YUM. Love the retro photos. You have my vote.
Very sweet and nostalgic!
This is my favorite kind of food writing … where stories and food are woven together in an intricate web. Beautiful! So glad I clicked through from Food News Journal.
I adored the story and how well the pictures complemented the narrative. You have a vote from me. Good luck in this round!
such a heatrfelt and well written story
I always liked that egg-pancake thing in my sushi rolls – it was cheap and easy to come by when I was first learning to make sushi back in college. Thanks for a great story, you had me riveted. My family always drove, too, although I later learned that it was due to my mother’s intense fear of flying. Anyway, I’m definitely voting for you!
I love the nostalgic feeling that runs through this, visually and emotionally. GREG
Such an incredibly touching piece. Thank you for sharing. Best of luck, as always.
wow this was easily one of the best posts i’ve read. incredibly nostalgic and meaningful.
kimbap always seemed like the perfect road trip food, too. i always picked up some at a convenience store before a long bus ride/train when i was in korea.
really, a great post.
The story – moving, emotional, sad.
The photography – edgy, nostalgic, moody.
The food – intriguing, authentic, flavorful.
Fabulous entry, good luck!
Beautiful post. I was close to tears at one point! Thank you…
Great post! Very well written and heartfelt. And the food looks fantastic. I think we would all be happy to be invited along. nicely done. I voted for you yet again!
Good luck to you! Hope to see us both in round 7!!! =)
Again, such a wonderful post! beautifully written, truly a joy to read.
wonderful post. has me convinced my favorite “healthy japanese” cafe is really korean food with a japanese twist, as they serve this lunch and side dishes and barley tea (and they have bibimbap on the menu).
I think you might be on to something there, Rachel. 🙂 This reminds me of a Turkish place in the Sunset that markets itself as Greek so as not to freak everyone out. Thanks for reading, nice to hear from you.
Beautiful, captivating and heartfelt – you have a real storytelling talent. When are you publishing your memoirs? I want to be on the preorder list!
I’m getting more Korean-cuisine litterate thanks to you, just figured out that “bap” as in bibimbap (that I make so often) means “rice” – thanks to your Kimbap. I know, I’m so smart! 😉 Kimbap is intriguing – vermouth and spam in one futomaki-like portable bite! I will try them for sure.
I also love the vintage photo treatment, just perfect. I can’t wait until your next post.
I love what you did with the photos – and the memories. Great stuff, Ben.
This post brought tears to my eyes. I was my father’s ‘experimental’ child, being the eldest, no T.V, no junk food etc. We drove across the country three times when I was younger and I do so remember spending hours trying weasel myself into a Long John Silvers. Didn’t happen, I did get into a Wendy’s because somehow I had figured out there was a salad bar inside. No matter how much I felt unfairly deprived and unreasonably put upon, I am still so very grateful for those early denials and all the lessons that came with them.
This is such a beautiful post. The feeling from the writing and the photographs is just amazing – all at once nostaligic and current.
I too spent a good deal of time in the back seat of our family car on road trips, gazing out the window – thinking. It is completely safe to say the food we took with us was decidedly less delicious than what you’ve shared with us here.
Becoming a parent has provided me with a slightly different lens through which I now view my parents. Much softer. Like your photos.
A former co-worker, who was Korean, used to make us sushi and it was delicious but different than traditional sushi. Now i know what it was! Awesome!!
We also make a dish called hwe dup bap, which is equally awesome:
I love how you’ve weaved this story – poignant yet crisp, and kept your pictures and recipes in tune with it. Great job!
What a heartfelt post – well done! I remember as a kid we had a 1962 corvair growing up and I loved it since our short little legs could actually have a feet hit the ground in that low car. We too took road trips and you brought back memories of trying to lay down with my sister in the backseat too. Great recipes!!! Best of luck with the contest!!
A meal that looks fabulous and is fast moving – another amazing post…we also have also featured the same glass storage containers. Nicely done friend!
The gift of a good writer shows when the story resonates in readers. Our backgrounds could not be more different, but I lived through every word you wrote. With this post you told your dad everything you should have told him years ago.
That was one of the reasons I started my blog: to tell some people how much they mean to me, through my stories.
Next time I visit my daughter in Berkeley I’ll ask for your recommendations of good Korean restaurants in the area (before I delve into your recipes:)
Thank you, Ben, for sending that little dart of warning. I am dialing my mother on Skype as I write this.
What a beautiful written post to go along such an amazing meal, nicely done!
Truly inspiring. As a food writer-in-training, I admire your creativity and art form. This is what it’s all about, right? Sparking emotions within people to feel warmth, joy, excitement, and even sorrow.
And hunger. And that obsessive, “oh my god, I have to eat that right now or I’m going to die” feeling. I’m not alone on this, right? Hello…h-h-hello…?
Any who, you have my vote Ben! Go get ’em!
Great writing. Fabulous post. Going to buy Spam now.
Ben-your posts have been interesting to read but this one really got me. It was like reading the pages of my own childhood–except we had a Monte carlo and then the fancy Toyota Previa (which folks in MT in 1990 thought was from outerspace). Well done!
Any road trip that involves sushi is perfect by me!! Beautiful post!
That’s quite a trip you’ve brought us on Ben – I feel privileged to have been able to come along for the ride.
On a related note, you’ll be delighted to know that I now have Monty Python’s spam song playing my head 🙂
Brilliant narrative. Poignant and transporting. Voted!
What a totally gorgeous post — I LOVED your writing and background for this post. You have a vote from me!
For my entry, I wanted to create a road trip and picnic for my boyfriend, who had recently given me a “do over” of one of my childhood memories. I decided to give him his own “do over” — a special birthday picnic with a heart-themed meal. Come see if you’d like 🙂
I can’t believe I feel nostalgic about Spam. My mother would roll her kimbap extra small because it was easier to eat and she used to pack extra pieces of takuan in my dosirak when our class went on so poong. I used to love gnawing away on the entire roll (uncut). You need odeng gook in a thermos!
I did read about people eating the whole roll and was instantly jealous that I had never thought of that. Temaki format might be kinda cool, too. Odeng gook: solid.
I was recently looking back on some older posts and remember when you were my only commenter. Thanks for reading, and being OG Babychili. 🙂
You had me at kong namul guk 🙂
This dishes are as beautiful as the writing. Nick and I have talked about learning sushi rolling but this we may have to try first. I think we have a road trip coming up!
Thanks, Steph. Please send a picture! 🙂
I feel like I was riding along with you and your sister in the backseat. Thank you for sharing such vivid moments and gorgeous food.
I really love everything about this post Ben. Def. voting for team babychili 🙂
Ben, this was extremely touching, heartfelt and evocative. A post – and a road trip – that your father would surely be very proud of. And it surely goes without saying – I’m certain he’s very proud of you.
Continuing my support for team babychili. Prepared road trip food was unheard of for me growing up, my family took the fast food route. The only place where it really makes sense is California because there’s In-N-Out, anywhere else and I would take Korean comfort food.
And yet we both still turned out to be foodies. There’s hope for all!
Great story and the perfect meal to be taken outdoors, perhaps with a bottle of Makgeolli:-) Good luck!
I like the way you think. Take the edge off!
Your story had me in tears remembering my own family road-trips and boring healthy food packed by my mom. I too went to college as far away as I could. I hope when I take my daughters to college they let me drive them. Thanks for such a moving post and lovely recipes. I’ve newly discovered korean food and love it!
my friend said I had to vote for you. Now I see why. This post is awesome.
This is the most well written post I have read in this challenge. Truly beautifully written and emotional. It made me miss my parents. It even brought tears to my eyes. You would have my vote on writing alone, but I must say you’re food looks delicious as well! I wish I could give you two votes! Best of luck to you!
This was a fabulous post Ben. I also took many family roadtrips when I was a child, and your descriptions definitely took me back to those times when I was laying across the seat in the car eating my mom’s packed food. (I mean, it wasn’t Korean, but that description of ‘bordering on boring’ is definitely apt!) Great, great job on this challenge, and I would really love to try that kimbap. Voted, of course! 🙂
What a beautiful post. thank you.
[…] I was reading this weeks blog entries for Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog, two of my favorite blogs, You Feed a Baby Chili?!? And Korean American Mommy both had a recipe up for Korean Blanched Spinach or Sigumchi Namul. This […]
So poignant; your post really struck me at the end. The photos add the perfect mood to the post as well. And thank you for sharing these recipes…I love the dishes you’ve listed and can’t wait to try making them.
Powerful writing, augmented by your gorgeous photos. I’ve fallen off the PFB voting track for a bit, but I’m definitely back on it by voting for you!!
I’m a little late to have put in my vote, I was away last week and then returned to find voting is over.
You did well. This is nice.
And now, I know kimbap is a korean sushi. 🙂
[…] of You Fed a Baby Chili? tells a beautiful story in a Project Food Blog entry, complete with recipes for Korean picnic […]
I’ve just stumbled on your blog for the first time and wanted tell you how touched I am by this post. My brother died of cancer this past April and I will always remember the road trips we took with our father. We called our dad ‘The Pathfinder’ because he had this great way of getting lost, while always knowing the way home. When my brother got sick, he always talked about wanting to drive across the country with our dad, when he got better. He just never got better. But my dad and I will always have the memories of getting lost together as kids. Thank you for sharing your story. It did make me cry, but I’m also smiling remembering all those trips we were able to take.
[…] a lovely piece Ben wrote about his comforting food […]