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Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

I was sitting in my serene home yesterday reading the online news with my cat on my lap when I heard a disconcerting noise. It sounded kind of like a squeak, kind of like a scuttle…and what was even more disconcerting was that my cat heard it too. She got of my lap and sniffed around. ‘OMW I thought. Seriously, if I have to deal with two monster cats, the least they can do it earn their keep by keeping away the vermin!!!’ I did a mass dash around the house looking under the couch, behind the fridge, in the cupboards with my cat trailing behind me seemingly more interested in her psychotic owner than in finding the offending rodent. But then, after watching me for a minute she laid down beside her brother on the bathroom mat and they both fell asleep. So then I figured, it was just our collective human-feline imagination until…10 minutes later another squeak, scuttle…was that a…fizz????

So I started to investigate. Where was the sound coming from?? I followed it until it led to….the kimchee. Of course.

My kimchee is currently doing its 3-days-at-room-temperature stint. My kimchee is fermenting. And today, it’s reached the bubbling stage…and the room-is-getting-a-wee-bit-too-stinky-for-me-to-be-okay-with-it stage. When I posted the situation on my Facebook page, my friend noted that fermenting kimchee would make a GREAT horror movie. And OMW…how right he is. Bubbling, hissing cabbage…brine overflowing the container (and oozing out of the sealed top)….the creepy transformation process that is fermentation (cause really…fermentation is a bit uncanny don’t you think?)…yep…that is a good foundation for a horror movie!

I can’t wait to be able to transport my kimchee into the kimchee fridge, so I can avoid the weirded-out feeling I’ve been experiencing every time it makes mysterious noises. And…I also can’t wait for the fermentation process to be over so I can start to eat it. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

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On Kimjang

Today was kimjang. What’s that you ask? Well only the fun packed kimchee-making event that the whole family gets together for every year…the whole family except for Mr. Lee, who was doing his family duty to his company. Cause…company trumps family 90% of the time whether the worker wants that or not.

So I went alone, and I have to say…life is SO much less awkward with the inlaws – any inlaws I think – regardless of culture – if you have your hands almost elbow deep in kimchee brine and red pepper paste. When Westerners say they want to have a good ‘relationship’ with their inlaws, I think they mean they want to be able to feel comfortable, communicate well, and enjoy being around each other. I’m not saying that Westerners don’t have physical obligations to their inlaws and that Koreans don’t want to converse with their inlaws like their own family members, but here filial piety is more of a verb. And when you can’t have fluent conversations with your inlaws, it’s actually quite comforting to be forging a relationship based on cutting up kat and packing baekchu with spicy filling.

As usual, the inlaws were a bit hesitant at first…can she cut? Oh no…she’s going too fast…might hurt herself. Oh no…sit on the chair not the floor! Foreigners can’t sit on the floor. Can she mix? But she’s mixing…oh my! The foreigner can mix the kimchee paste!!! AND look at her! She’s packing the kimchee very well in the containers! Who would have thought?

I recall this with love.

FIL also tried to get in on the fun. But I could tell he had no real life experience in kimchee making. I would ask him a vocab word for something…or a verb for what he was doing, and he would use the wrong one and get corrected by MIL. And he packed one piece of cabbage with kimchee paste and then promptly gave up. Mostly he was the lifter of buckets of packed kimchee. I’m not sure why he sort of takes part in cooking when I’m around. He is certainly not the cook of the family, and I highly doubt he has ever made a meal by himself. I’m not sure if it’s because my presence makes him vaguely rethink the gender roles that have always just happened in the house, if he thinks, ‘hey…the foreigner is doing it…maybe it’s not that hard,’ or if he just enjoys seeing me learn to be more Korean. But it’s kind of cute, and MIL summed it up well when she said, ‘Wow! This kimchee! Made by me, and eldest daughter-in-law, and Msleetobe AND FIL.’ Special kimchee indeed.

After everything is prepared, everyone splits up the kimchee and takes home their portion. When I saw the size of the container my MIL had prepared for us, I was a bit sceptical, but decided not to say anything because if I were to question how much kimchee we two need….with one of us a foreigner who rarely makes Korean food for herself, and the other a Korean salaryman who rarely eats outside of the office….but to state those facts might make me look like a bad wife. But after lugging it home, I realized that we really should have bought a fridge with a larger in built kimchee fridge. Cause this container…doesn’t fit.

You can’t just leave kimchee in the regular fridge because a) it has to be at a different temperature than both fridge and freezer food or it will go bad b) you really don’t want the rest of the fridge smelling like kimchee. Been there done that in my first few weeks in Seoul. So, we bought a fridge with a kimchee fridge built in to minimize appliance space while still being practical. Anyway, then I had to unpack all the tightly packed kimchee rolls, measure out the fridge space, and attempt a complicated jigsaw of tiny containers each with their own small portions of kimchee in them. So now, not only am I a kimchee making wife, I am a kimchee fridge packing wife. Two good skills I’ve developed today!

It honestly was a good day. I got to hang out alone with the family while doing something…making something which is what I’ve been advocating for a while in order to facilitate a stronger bond between my brother-in-law’s wife, MIL and myself…I learned a new skill…I got to participate in an age-old Korean tradition, AND I got to make my own food. My grandmas stopped canning when I was about 9 and they moved off their farms, and I’ve always looked back with some nostalgia at those times hanging out with the grandmas in the kitchen while they were surrounded by canning jars or mountains of fruits and vegetables. It’s nice to have that connection to my past which is also somehow my future.

Now we just have to find something to do with all this kimchee….anyone hungry? it’s healthy…..

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My dear friend P asked me to blog about my first Chuseok as a wife, so this one’s for her.

Despite the worried looks from older Korean managers, and the whispered questions dripping with concerned from coworkers, Chuseok really wasn’t that bad as a wife.  This was my second Chuseok with the family, and the fifth major family event I’ve attended, but of course the first one in an ‘official’ capacity.  All the other times I’ve been with them, they’ve insisted that I sit down with the men and not help with the cooking/cleaning because I wasn’t yet a wife (or…’not a REAL wife’ until all the weddings were finished).  Last Chuseok was the first major event, and with the exception of the language, type of food served, and the ever present Chuseok specials blaring from the tv, I didn’t find it that different in terms of work or spirit from my Canadian Thanksgiving/Christmas/Easter experiences.  If you ever help out mum with the turkey or the dessert, it’s not such a far stretch to be making songpyeon or jeon

But I do realize that my experience as a wife of a Korean is very different from other people, in part because there are actually several factors which can make Chuseok=hell for wives which means that the experience can differ radically between families, and in part because I am a foreigner…and my family seriously has no idea what to do with me.  I’ve offered to cook – to take cooking lessons from my mother-in-law or brother-in-law’s wife so I can learn to do it ‘right’ – but I’ve been told that’s not necessary.  Partly I think it’s because my brother-in-law married 8 years ago, so his wife’s role is clearly defined and she and our mother-in-law have been doing these events for years together.  But I also think that they don’t think I’m actually able to do it.  Something about the confluence of the belief that Western women are homemaker-deficient and the idea that Korean food/culture etc is ‘too difficult’ for ‘foreigners’ to gasp.  But, actually, those ideas work in my favour, so I’ll let them slide for now.  So this time, my duties were 1) make a non-Korean dessert for everyone to share (this is a great one if you want to impress your inlaws who don’t like cake that is very sweet..all the female relatives had 2 helpings pre-lunch, and my eldest niece came back for fourths) 2) show up 3) survive through 3 meals and a Catholic church services over a 10 hour period.  That was really a marathon and test of my ability to struggle through all-Korean, all the time conversations, but considering the work many Korean women do – and the work my mother puts into a Thanksgiving dinner, I think that’s pretty damn good!

But apart from these reasons for my laid back Chuseok, there are several other factors which led to my situation this year and conversely, contribute to the burden many women face.

1)     Our family lives nearby.  I suppose this could = hell for some people who have to deal with regular inlaw intrusions, but in our case it works out well.  We see Mr. Lee’s family about once a month for a big event, but then after a couple of hours, we get to go home and sleep in our own bed and live in our own space.  If you have to travel half way across the country (a small country that becomes completely deadlocked during holidays), and stay for 2, 3, 4, 5 days in a small house with a gaggle of Korean family members (sleeping on the floor – getting drunk together, doing mass-family outings together) – I think this could really get on some people’s nerves.  But we can see the family more often (thus shorter periods), and that really helps in reducing stress and workload.

2)     A small family.  Of course my family doesn’t live here…which might not matter if I were in a traditional Korean family.  In the past, when a woman married, she literally left her family and was responsible only to her new family.  She didn’t go to visit her natal family during holidays which probably also led to the stress of doing everything for husband’s kin without being able to see their loved ones.  Of course, this is changing, but it also means that while many women do visit their family members, they also have more responsibilities heaped onto them by both families.  In our case, we have the added fact that Mr. Lee’s entire paternal extended family immigrated en masse to the US decades ago (his father is the only one who refused to go), and two of his mother’s four sisters live abroad (LA and Australia).  Therefore, we only have two gatherings – parents + siblings, and reduced extended maternal family (grandparents, uncle, 2 aunts and their families).  This really reduces travel time/stress/and amount of people we have to greet.

3)     North KoreaMr. Lee’s parents are both from North Korea – they fled during the Chinese invasion during the Korean War (not recent defectors!) There is that sad fact that they can never go back to their home town and we can’t visit our ancestor’s tombs located there (we don’t even discuss it because of this sense of loss) – but it also means that we don’t need to join the traffic jams to grave areas.

4)     Catholics.  The big big big reason why traditional holidays pose such a burden to Korean women is because of the ancestral memorial rites.  Traditionally, the women cook and cook and cook for these rituals while the men relax or gamble…and then the women are barred from participating in the rites.  I have had female students who are now allowed to join the rituals, and I’ve had the odd male student who helps his mum with the cooking – but that’s still the exception to the rule.  But many Catholics and Protestants don’t do the rituals (believing that making prostrations to ancestors is an affront to the 1st Commandment, or that these rites are at least in some conflict with Christian beliefs).  Therefore, our family goes to a special Mass where people sprinkle a small amount of incense, bow at the waist, and deposit some money with a loved one’s name on it in a basket.  Not too difficult.  And I get to practice my Korean singing skills.

5)     ‘We’re not that yangban.’ That’s a quote from Mr. Lee himself.  Yangban refers to the elite class in the Confucian heiarchy.  While Korean culture doesn’t really follow this social structure anymore (money is a much stronger marker now), it now often refers to people, families, or institutions with a strong sense of Joseon (Lee) Dynasty values and ethics.  Of course my family has a more rigid notion of authority than my Canadian family.  And of course males are considered more authoritative in the Korean family (but not Mr. Lee and my family!), but they are much more relaxed about such things than some, and this means that some of the ‘manners,’ ways of speaking, and ways of doing things are also more relaxed.  

6)     My father-in-law can be authoritarian.  Times are a chang’n, and my mother-in-law has a great deal more of force than in Mr. Lee’s childhood.  However, the father’s opinion still trumps all when there is a direct order, and when I went to clear the table, help with the washing up, my father-in-law gave me a very direct order to sit beside him and watch tv (and then he literally pulled me down).  Then he ordered Mr. Lee to clear the dishes instead.  This occurred with much laughter and joking.  But make NO mistake.  My father-in-law in not a feminist and does not harbour equal gender role beliefs.  However, for some reason – maybe because I’m a foreigner – maybe because he doesn’t know what to do with me – but most likely because he wants to practice his English and get me to practice my Korean – he told me over and over again to sit down.  I know my mother-in-law does not entirely feel the same way (she has told me over and over again that I must cook for Mr. Lee and that he must NOT do any cooking), but my father-in-law’s opinion must be followed.  And so I sat and handed dishes to Mr. Lee. 

7)     Mr. Lee is the youngest child.  How many times have I been told by people not to marry the oldest son?  This is another place where we benefit from the Confucian hierarchy.  From a cultural standpoint, we are much less responsible for his parents, and I, as the youngest daughter-in-law do not have as many duties.  Certainly if you have horrible in-laws and horrible older sister-in-laws, life can be hell if they make many demands and give many orders.  But as I’ve said before, my brother-in-law’s wife is a freaking saint – and has an extraordinarily sweet personality.  She takes on everything and tries to make life easier for everyone but herself.  And as I say to myself every single day – I have a lot to learn from her…

So those are the factors which I think contributed to a less stressful and more enjoyable Chuseok holiday.  And I would imagine that depending on the individual circumstances of each woman and each family that their experiences very much depend on these same factors.  If she is from a very yangban-esq family in a rural area far from Seoul – and a family which diligently follows the ancestor memorial rituals – she will probably have a much harder time than a woman who has a smaller, more ‘modern’ Protestant city who lives nearby. 

I do worry about one thing though – that despite my father-in-law’s insistence that I ‘be with the men,’ that deep down my mother-in-law thinks that I am lazy or incompetent.  In my perfect world, Mr. Lee and I would both help with preparation and clean up with the female relatives.  I actually would really like to help out more because it would give me something tangible to do in a sea of complicated Korean conversations.  One of my coworkers – a very very tall Kiwi who is married to a Korean – has taken to donning an apron and cooking all the major family meals because he feels more useful (and can avoid soju laced gambling losses). 

But at the same time, I realize that my brother-in-law’s wife has taken 8 years to get into her role, and that it will probably take a bit longer for the whole family to fit me in.  So I need to be patient and wait for that role to slowly evolve.  For now at least, I will bake my non-Korean desserts and try to amuse my father-in-laws as my contributions to the Chuseok fun.

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