My parents were party fanatics. Whenever there was a holiday, the celebration was at our house. A birthday? A promotion? A new car? Any excuse to throw a party, and our doors were wide open.
I always thought my mom was the instigator, but in retrospect, my dad was happiest with a drink in his hand, sitting at the head of a table full of his friends and family. I remember when I was about 11 or 12, we had an impromptu New Year's Eve bash. At 6 o'clock, my dad called from work with this crazy idea to have a party (or chanchi ) that night. By 10 o'clock, our house was brimming with dozens of people.
Many weekends of my childhood were filled with smiling faces, loud chatter, days in the kitchen and piles and piles of food. Cooking for 40, 50 or even 60 people wasn't so much a chore as it was a habit.
And don't even tell me about the dishes. We were crying with joy the day we moved into a house with a built-in dishwasher, especially my brother. He had never forgiven me for convincing my parents that he should help with the household chores, even if he was a boy. In fact, my siblings and I used to say that my parents only had us because they needed caterers for their parties.
I remember when I left for college and my parents were seeing me off. When my mom noticed the tears welling up in my dad's eyes, she asked him if he was sad because he was losing his little girl. No, he was losing his cook.
Weekend after weekend, it was work, work, work for us kids.
The excitement would start early. By the time I rolled out of bed and made it down to the kitchen, my mom and her friends would already be cooking. All day long, the troops would arrive, one by one. Grabbing another apron off the wall hook, they would tie it around their waist, wash their hands and start working, not breaking the flow of the conversation they began when they took their shoes off at the door.
I loved to hear about how things were in Korea when they were growing up, funny anecdotes about some dumb relative or even exaggerated tales of their adventures. Still, the best ones were those about my mom and dad, pre-children, pre-marriage. It was like hearing about someone I didn't know. As a girl, or even as a teenager, I couldn't imagine that my parents had a life before the family.
More often than not, there would be several conversations going on at once. Every once in a while, I'd catch some juicy bit of information about my parents 20 or 30 years ago and look over at my sister, who would exchange a surprised look with me.
We'd slice, dice, fry, boil, mince, crush, chop and mix for hours until the tables were overflowing with a fabulous feast.
My major responsibility was to make the chon . Chon is a generic word loosely used to describe such foods as flat cakes, battered fish, vegetables stuffed with meat and basically all foods cooked on a flat frying surface.
I would stake out my territory in a corner by laying out a bunch of newspapers in anticipation of splattering grease, plugging in my electric frying pan and getting a seat cushion for my tender bum. Armed with pair of a chopsticks in one hand and a spatula in the other, I would be prepared for many hours of uninterrupted labor--it would take quite some force to dislodge me from my station.
I would be bombarded with a constant stream of food that needed to be prepared. Sometimes it would be fish that needed to be dipped in flour, then in egg batter and prepared with just the right green garnish on top. Sometimes it would be a bottomless bowl of mix for noktu puchimgae (a type of flat cake made from mung beans).
I was the champion puchimgae -maker. My sister may argue with me. She may even say that she's the champion puchimgae -maker. Sure, she may have spent her share of hours in the trenches with me, making one after another of those endless flat cakes. She might even be better at the flipping, skillfully turning them with one flick of the wrist. I would chase those pesky things around the whole surface of the frying pan, trying in vain to get that unwieldy plastic spatula under their elusive bottoms.
But no one can argue that I didn't make the best-looking ones. I could pour those cakes exactly the same size, as if I were a machine stamping them out. Then I'd cook them to just the right golden brown, perfect for eating hot off the griddle. Everyone would grab a hot puchimgae right off the frying pan, slapping it back and forth to keep it from burning their hands.
Everyone but my brother. He didn't eat them right off the frying pan. No, that would have been uncharacteristically nice. He waited for just the right moment, when I had them laid out on the large platters, arranged beautifully fanning out from the center. He learned to wait until I had the last puchimgae in just the perfect place before he sneaked out of nowhere and grabbed the one that would throw the whole presentation off balance. He must have learned that kind of patience in little brother school. Then, as quickly as he materialized, he would disappear, while I shook my fist in fury.
Despite my little brother's efforts, I still enjoyed cooking for a party. I especially liked looking over at the women swarming in the kitchen, laughing and gabbing and chopping and stirring.
I must have inherited this love for throwing parties from my folks. I'm usually the one calling up 10 or so friends for an impromptu dinner. People call to invite themselves over for celebrations I never even intended to throw, and I'm always ready for them. Although some of my friends balk at the idea of cooking for 30 or 40 people, I welcome the challenge.
Besides, that's nothing. Try making dinner for a hundred. Now, that's a party!
Lee is working on a book about Korean food.
Napkins, dipping bowl and accessories in cover photos from Sur La Table stores. Plate, above, from Sur La Table stores.
Mung Bean Cakes (Noktu Puchimgae)
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours
Be careful when selecting the mung beans. Check to see that the beans are yellow in color and that the package is not too dated. I discovered that some companies dye their beans, so you might want to choose a more expensive brand for the quality. Mung beans, green bean sprouts and prepared kimchi are sold at Korean markets. Serve with Dipping Sauce, if desired.
4 cups dried peeled mung beans (noktu)
10 to 12 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 pounds green bean sprouts (sukju namul)
1 pound sliced pork loin, cut into thin strips
1 head garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted and crushed
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 (14-ounce) jar cabbage kimchi
1 tablespoon coarse salt
Vegetable oil, for cooking
Soak the dried mung beans in cold water for at least 2 hours.
Soak the mushrooms in cold water for about 1 hour. Squeeze the liquid from the mushrooms, cut off the stems and discard. Slice the mushrooms and set them aside in a bowl.
Blanch the bean sprouts briefly in boiling water. Rinse them in cold water immediately. Drain and squeeze the water from the sprouts. Set them aside in a second bowl.
Place the pork in a third bowl.
Divide the minced garlic evenly among the bowls of mushrooms, sprouts and pork. Then, add 1 teaspoon of sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil to each bowl. Mix.
Put about 1/3 of the mung beans into a food processor or blender, add 3/4 cup of water and puree. Pour the puree into a large bowl. Repeat with the remaining mung beans.
Add the kimchi, mushrooms, sprouts and pork mixtures into the bowl of mung bean puree. Add the salt and mix thoroughly.
Heat a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Sprinkle some oil onto the surface. Spoon the batter into circles about 3 inches in diameter. Cook the cakes in batches until they are golden brown, 2 minutes a side. Serve with dipping sauce.
50 to 60 cakes. Each of 60 cakes: 71 calories; 205 mg sodium; 6 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.37 gram fiber.
Sweet Potato Noodles (Chapchae)
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours
Be careful not to overcook the noodles or they will lose their flavor and chewy texture. The noodles should be translucent but still slightly firm. You can find sweet potato noodles at Korean markets.
1 (1/2-pound) package sweet potato noodles
10 to 12 dried shiitake mushrooms
1/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
1 pound sliced rib-eye or bulgogi beef, sliced into strips
4 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon soy sauce, divided
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sesame oil, divided
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds, crushed, divided
2 bunches spinach, thoroughly washed with roots trimmed
2 teaspoons salt, divided
2 white onions, sliced
2 carrots, thinly sliced
1 small green bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, whole, plus more for optional garnish
1/2 cup sugar
Break the noodles into 6-or 7-inch pieces, then cook them in boiling water until the noodles are translucent and slightly springy when pulled, 4 to 5 minutes. Immediately drain and rinse them thoroughly in cold water.
Soak the mushrooms in cold water for about 1 hour. Squeeze the liquid from the mushrooms, cut off the stems and discard them. Slice the mushrooms.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over high heat. Add the mushrooms, beef, 2 cloves of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil and 1 teaspoon of crushed sesame seeds and cook until the beef is cooked through and no longer pink, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In boiling water, blanch the spinach. Squeeze the water from the leaves and cut them in half. In a bowl, combine the spinach, the remaining 2 cloves of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil, 1 teaspoon of crushed sesame seeds and mix. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over high heat. Add the white onions, carrots, green pepper and 1 teaspoon of salt and cook until the onions and peppers start to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the green onions and stir-fry for about a minute more. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a large bowl, thoroughly combine the noodles, beef mixture, spinach, onion mixture, 1/2 cup of soy sauce, remaining 2 tablespoons of sesame oil, 1 tablespoon whole toasted sesame seeds and the sugar.
Serve warm, sprinkled with whole sesame seeds if desired.
10 servings. Each serving: 591 calories; 1,465 mg sodium; 26 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 94 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 2.50 grams fiber.
Dipping Sauce (Yangnyom Kanjang)
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Korean red pepper powder is sold at Korean markets. Serve this with Mung Bean Cakes or Pollock Chon.
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, crushed
1/2 teaspoon Korean red pepper powder
1 clove garlic, minced
2 green onions, chopped
Combine the soy sauce, sesame seeds, pepper, garlic and onions in a bowl.
About 1/3 cup. Each teaspoon: 3 calories; 126 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.06 gram fiber.
Pollock Chon (Tong Tae Chon)
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Sut gat are sold at Korean markets. If you can't find pollock, you can substitute rock cod. Serve this with Dipping Sauce, if desired.
1 pound frozen pollock, thawed slightly
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten with a dash of salt
Oil, for cooking
5 to 6 stalks sut gat (crown daisy), for garnish
Slice the fish diagonally into 1-to 2-inch pieces, about 1/4-inch thick. Sprinkle the salt on the fish.
Place some flour on a plate. Coat the fish evenly on both sides with flour. Then, dip the fish in the eggs.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle some oil onto the surface. Cook the fish in batches, placing 1 leaf of sut gat flat on each piece of fish, if using. Cook the fish until the egg is slightly browned on the edges, for about 3 to 4 minutes on both sides.
About 30 pieces. Each piece: 24 calories; 94 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.01 gram fiber.