April 13, 2010


"I love tofu so much."
Now that is a declaration you do not hear every day.

But tofu is one of the foods that Jiwon always has in her refrigerator, along with mushrooms (any kind) and kimchee (home-made). Growing up in Seoul, she remembers waiting for the tofu-maker to come around in the late afternoon. He would announce his approach by ringing a little bell, "like an ice-cream truck," she says. The tofu would still be warm.

Jiwon works long hours and forages leftovers on weekday evenings, but on weekends she often hosts friends, neighbors, or coworkers for dinner. She cooks everything from basic dishes like Chap Chae (stir-fried noodles) —"what every Korean housewife should know," she says—to specialties from her mother's repertoire, such as a pine-nut sauce with soy and garlic served over cucumbers, Asian pears, or cold meat.

When Jiwon was a girl, her mother would send her off in the morning with homemade snacks like sushi, and bread filled with red bean paste, and she DELIVERED a hot lunch to her daughter at school every day. A little extreme, Jiwon says, but not unheard of. Nor did it go unnoticed by Jiwon's classmates. "My mother always gave me more than I could eat myself, so I could use nice food in making friends," she says. "I always had a little entourage around me when it was time to eat snacks." Yet at home Jiwon was not allowed in the kitchen. She was "the clumsy one," according to her mother.

As a result, when Jiwon arrived in California for graduate school at the age of 24, she did not even know how to cook rice. Her roommate, from Chicago's south side, introduced her to that culinary building block called Hamburger Helper, which, Jiwon says, "was okay for a while." Eventually realizing she had to feed herself in a more satisfying way, Jiwon found a Korean cookbook and began making rustic, simple meals. Then she began throwing dinner parties. Then she got interested in deep-frying. "My friends would be sitting around, starving, for five hours, and finally I would serve them this very greasy, clumsy food," she says.

Yet it was the social aspect of cooking and eating that Jiwon valued, and still does. She likes to feed people. It makes her—and her guests—happy. In a couple of hours one afternoon, she creates scallion pancakes called Pajeon; also, Chap Chae with sweet potato noodles, beef, and vegetables; sliced beef in cucumber cups, and stir-fried French horn mushrooms. The evening's guests will be a couple from work and their young daughter. Jiwon has her sights set on the little girl. "I want her to like eating my food," she says. "Then she will want to come back again and again."


1 ½ cups flour

1 to 2 cups water

1 egg

½ pound scallops

1 can crabmeat

2 bunches scallions, chopped into 2-inch pieces

salt and pepper to taste

oil for frying

Dipping sauce: Mix together a few tablespoons soy sauce, a few drops of rice vinegar, and toasted sesame seeds

Mix flour, water, and egg to make a smooth, thin batter (like crepe batter). Stir in scallops, crabmeat, and scallions. Season with salt and pepper. Coat the bottom of a skillet with a film of neutral-flavored oil. Ladle batter into the pan to form cakes approximately 3 inches in diameter, and fry until golden brown. Flip and fry until second side is golden brown. Serve hot or warm with dipping sauce.

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