· A handful of miyuk (미역) seaweed
My pregnant grandmother walked through miles of man-made bombs in North Korea to reach the south. Once a wealthy woman, she now wore her remaining possessions. A local South Korean woman allowed my grandmother to enter her empty shed. There, my grandmother gave birth to my mother.
The woman made my grandmother 미역국. Fed it to her. It is tradition to serve seaweed soup to new mothers. Also, to loved ones on birthdays. Both birth and survival are miracles.
My grandmother was a woman without shelter. Except for this momentary respite. So many girls were given up. Don’t worry, the woman said to my grandmother. Your daughter being born in a shed means good luck. This shed is normally filled with grain and rice. It’s only that you cannot see it now. It’s coming.
The power of a woman feeding another woman. My mother survived being born into the Korean War. Later, thrived.
Miyuk is a tender tangle of seaweed. 미역 is meant to flutter, like a butterfly. On land, she dries into a dark tumbleweed. In the womb of the sea, she is free.
My mother told me seaweed has twenty-one different minerals. She sent me two kinds in a box. I put one in a teacup and added hot water. Sipped the wisdom of her. Used her to make broth. Broth is one step in the recipe.
· 3 flat rectangles of dashima (다시마) seaweed
There are many different kinds of seaweed. To make seaweed soup you need two.
Dashima is so dark green she’s almost black. Like when the night sky turns midnight blue. In South Korea, I dyed my hair like that. The salon owner said my hair was already black. But blue-black, I said. Your hair is already that black, she said. My mother wanted me to get a straight perm. Your hair is already straight, the salon owner laughed. Just a cut? my mother asked—a shame to not take advantage of the midnight deals. Salons open 24/7. We agreed I’d do it all: dye, cut, straight perm—even though I was scared of the chemical straightener. My black hair transformed into blades. I whipped those needles back and forth when I said: No. So sharp, they left pink marks on my face. When my hair grew out, it revolted. Grew in dark brown. Soft and wavy. Like Miyuk.
Dashima is thick-skinned, tough. 다시마 can survive waves that would knock a man down. Drown and kill him. Dashima comes in sheets. She knows how to flow in unpatterned movement. Or in movement patterned on such a profound level, fractals would freeze in amazement. I once saved my drowning boyfriend from this kind of sea. A sea that would kill a man. Seaweed had taught me how to read the flow of water, and in an instant I was her, leading him to our safe crash onto shore. You just saved my life, my boyfriend said. I let my dark brown mermaid hair hang over my shoulder, looked up at him and smiled.
Intuiting others’ needs and putting them before your own is called noonchee. It’s a highly desired Korean trait. Noonchee is meeting others’ needs before they need to be expressed. The more subtle the delivery, the better. The more a person is not conscious their need is being met, the more pure the expression. The less ego, the more flow.
One begins by developing deep listening. Noonchee surpasses intuition. Through observation, one can sense what is unspoken. What needs are seen, are met. This habit becomes an instinct. This instinct becomes a way of life.
At our family dinner table, no one refilled their own water glass. No one had to ask to pass anything. Desires were read and dishes floated from one side of the table to the other, presented to the person with the question: Would you like to be served? This is how my family, at our best, takes care of one another.
· Sea salt and pepper
Everything has light and shadow. The most powerful aspects of noonchee are empathic and psychic abilities. Awareness of interconnectedness. Dark sides exist when one can, inspired by relationship, continue like this without balanced flow.
All of us mixed race Korean daughters born in America worry that we are not Korean enough. We can over-perform from a feeling of lack. Our own needs can dissolve, like salt into water. When one is drained, consumed or left parched by others, it can be hard to halt a lifetime of training and to recover. To become the clear glass that contains the water. To create walls and pull from the well of ourselves.
It can be a challenge to flow in harmony with noonchee in a country so focused on independent needs.
· 6 black mussels
My mother taught me the recipe for seaweed soup. I first made it on her birthday, two years ago. I used more than six mussels—I thought, better with more.
Genchana, she said. Which means: It’s okay, or—close enough. As her mixed race daughter, I took this as both a slight and a compliment. Maybe I overcompensated. Maybe I put in too much: that was my default. I knew better.
Americans want things fast, individualized, and customized. Bibimbap made your way. Mild Kimchee Chigae. To make a recipe in half the time—and to think we can. I know, because I am American. Italians and Koreans both take their time.
The second-to-last time I made seaweed soup I was rushing, as my mother always tells me not to do. I am trying to strengthen the muscles within me not to do this. Concentrate on one thing at a time, my mother says. This is what I do when I make my best recipes.
· Toasted sesame oil
I made a salad in this way, over Christmas. This is my Italian father’s specialty. Simple, I thought: oil, vinegar, and garlic. But he intuits perfect proportions. My father came from a poor Italian family. He uses canola oil instead of olive. Pours salt and pepper into his palm and slips the ingredients into a clean jam jar. Shakes it up. It has taken me years to develop my own version.
Everything we touch takes on our emotional intention. Pianists know this. With food, we taste all notes in a single spoonful. Taste the intention next time someone feeds you. It is a momentary respite. Channel your own intention the next time you cook. Kiss the dough. Slice the carrot on the exhale. Taste how it all comes through.
So gourmet, my mother said of my salad. An instinct of shame swept over me—spoiled and American—until, I understood it was a compliment. I made a salad of baby arugula, toasted walnuts, cranberries, blue cheese, and a dark balsamic and olive oil vinaigrette. Not Italian. Not Korean. Not soup. In salad, liquid only coats the surface. In soup, ingredients contribute to a living conversation. Like careful listeners, each ingredient absorbs all nuances of the broth, independently expressing what was learned. Like, seaweed in the sea.
· 3 melchi (멸지), adult silver fish—dried
Both Italians and Koreans use melchi. Italians and Americans call them anchovies. My father plucks soft filets out of a tin can and places them dripping with oil onto Italian bread. My mother uses adult melchi for broth and babies for banchan: a side dish, my favorite. Melchi like this is sticky, salty, and sweet. This is how—by the chopstick-ful—I ate hundreds of small silver fish.
A friend once won me a goldfish at a school carnival. She threw a ping-pong ball into plastic cup. Handed me her in a plastic bag as if she was disposable. My mother disliked pets and looked at me with disapproval. My fish was as small as a chamae seed. It’s going to die soon, my mother told me. I put my fish in a soup bowl with faucet water. We need to get her food, I told my mother. My fish waited twenty-four hours. We bought her a real fishbowl, but not the necessary chemicals for her water. I secretly named her the most beautiful name I could think of: Pamela.
Weeks later, I placed my finger on the water’s surface. Pamela shimmied up to it and kissed my fingertip. She followed the path of it for a decade. Still I ate fish. Until I won two goldfish myself as an adult at a carnival. I knew each would survive: my mother taught me survival through anything. Each grew to show me their dignity; each reflected a distinct personality. Now I do not eat melchi. How I have changed. How everything changes. Now I see so many little eyes—frozen in every face, staring back. The differences in their looks.
· Many garlics
My Italian father peels hundreds of garlic cloves for my mother. Last month, he cracked open hundreds of hard acorns. They fell all over their front yard from an oak tree. This made exactly one Korean dish. We ate it as a family: delicious.
My parents live near Chicago close to my father’s Italian family. My mother misses her homeland. My father lived in South Korea for seven years. It’s where they fell in love. My parents never returned after retirement: for balance—or, as planned. I like to witness my mother enforce reparations during their prolonged residence in America.
South Korea is close to the sea. Italy is close to the sea. I lived close to the sea, in San Francisco. My parents spend winters in Florida, watching the sea from their window. This is where my father peels hundreds of garlic cloves. Garlic is at the heart of Korean and Italian cooking. This, and food of the sea.
Take squid, for example. Italians batter and fry it. Call it calamari. Koreans steam it, till tender—but with a bite. As a girl, I stroked the raw purple-speckled tentacles. Watched squid steam through a clear lid into tight swirls and white circles. Both Italians and Koreans serve it with red sauce. Italians use marinara. Koreans use gochujang. Tomato sauce and hot pepper paste represent the blood of both cultures. Everything else—rice, bread, tofu, dough—is flesh. Pizza dough and kimchee both contain cultures, and through them, culture is passed on.
As a baby, my eldest sister ate thick handfuls of gochujang. My mother would discover her hands stained bright red. Her burning reward. I guess her hands had the advanced dexterity to open giant jars. She’s now a minimally invasive surgeon trained in the latest robotics—still able to take the heat.
The middle sister, the second daughter, learned not to cry. She displayed noonchee as early as a baby. The few precious times my mother had friends over, she kept quiet. The smallest sound was a signal to tend to her. Eventually, keeping it all inside, she threw up. As a therapist working with high-trauma clients, she has developed noonchee to a high degree.
I, the third daughter, almost died as a baby. Our ancestral trauma met me early. My Korean aunt, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather lived with us. My grandfather held me screaming every night, to relieve my mother. Taught me to sing Korean songs about butterflies and bunnies: Santoki, tokiya. Before my ABCs, and before, English only. Art was how I moved through the dark.
How Korean we three were, from birth.
- Chef’s Knife
- Cutting Board
- Wooden Spoon
- 2 Soup Pots
- 2 Bowls
- Kitchen Scissors
- Soup Ladle
Fill one pot halfway with cold water. Water—let’s talk about water for a moment. Once my sister brought home a picture of an African child carrying a bucket of water. Taped it up on my mother’s bathroom mirror. Said she was instructed at school to do this. It was to remind our family to conserve. I was that child, my mother said. I don’t need a reminder. Go put this on your own mirror. She told my sister how she carried a slat across her back with buckets on either side. Up and down a mountain every morning. Her family lived under a tree. No shelter. Filling the pot with water from the shiny faucet, see this picture. Bring this consciousness to the seaweed soup.
Slip the silver fish into the water. If, like me, you do not eat faces, leave out the melchi.
When Dashima speaks, she imparts flavor. This is why Dashima is chosen to make broth. Use a kitchen scissors to slice three rectangles. Add Dashima to the pot. For those familiar with thin crispy seaweed salted in sprinkles—do not confuse her with kim. Dashima is as thick as five sheets of paper. A white film of salt lingers on her skin like a watercolor wash.
When tears fall they leave a film of salt upon our cheeks. Our skin carries the wisdom of what we remember—what we let go of—like Dashima. Tears as natural as those of the sea are not tears from crying. Salt water that streams down at these times is different. Think of tears that fall when you are deep in meditation. Or, when a pianist like Horowitz or Rubenstein plays Chopin. It is the body’s response to a channel of the divine—to flow. Hold Dashima up to your nose and she smells salty and sweet. Like she just had a whole lot of good sex. This also is all about the divine and flow, when done well.
I once flowed with seaweed. Scuba-dove to the bottom of a sea. There she was, waiting for me. Or, perhaps like the universe—dancing all along. At first I felt timid with all the heavy gear in a teal pool in San Francisco, but covered head to toe in black neoprene on a gray day in the bay, slow-motion walking at the bottom of a cold and gritty sea, stopping to stand-dance amongst tall, dark undulating seaweed, I explored my new liquid city like an inevitable meeting—an extension of the fluid dream that was my life. You’re a natural, smiled the teacher on shore. Seaweed was teaching me, as women do. This is how my mother taught me recipes. I watch her flow. Then, we flow together.
Cover the pot and boil. Lower the heat. Simmer on low-medium for ten minutes. Cool on the stove, then place the pot in the fridge. Let it sit overnight, or until ice-cold. You can add ice day-of, but it’s always better not to water down. If you do, take a cube out from the tray. Hold it in your fist. Feel the fresh flow of water drip. Remember this. Even if it may seem like something is frozen inside, if you allow your own warmth to meet it—there will be flow.
Locate Miyuk: the three-foot-long brown tangle. This is where the small handful comes from. Note how she looks like mermaid hair. Long, wavy tendrils. With the kitchen scissors, snip off a section. Place her into a bowl of cold water to reconstitute. Watch her transform from dark brown to a deep green.
Remove the cloves of garlic from their tight family. Rest the side of your chef’s knife on top of a clove, then hit it. Break each free from its crisp clothing. Like tearing off a collared shirt. Gets the juices going. Note the almost-sheer layer of skin covering each clove. When you have a pile, chop them up. Perhaps in an organized way, so all are rectangles. Or, maybe rough—some triangles and some rhombuses.
Remove the shit sacks from the mussels. There is no other word for them. And, you must remember: no one wants this. Forget this rule in romantic French restaurants with butter, bread, and dim lighting to distract you. Here, on the cutting board, we see things for what they are. Thus, we have a responsibility. Do your work not to pass shit on. Cut these sacks out with the tip of your chef’s knife. Scrape until clean. My grandmother, who saved every grain of rice from falling, taught my mother who taught me to throw these out.
When I visit my mother I devour her kimchee. Dip my gold spoon into her dark soy sauce. My mother’s soy sauce is a set of double-digit steps performed over three years. She told me once. Simmering soybeans for hours. Creating a giant brick. Fermenting it in a traditional clay pot. Turning it. Scraping it. Revisiting it. Placing the pot the correct distance from the sea. Watching it. Timing it. Saving it. My mother set the soy sauce out on a crowded table in a small circular celadon dish, hidden but right in front of me. I took the tip of my spoon to it. Placed sauce upon my tongue.
Oh my God, I said. Where is this from? From the kitchen, my mother stayed quiet. She likes to learn where people are coming from. This soy sauce, I said. It’s so good. My sister tasted it. You like it? my mother asked, so nonchalant. Are you kidding? I go on. It’s so pure. So complex. It’s the best soy sauce I’ve ever had in my life. Now, any other soy sauce will taste incredibly fake, watered down and oversimplified. I tilt the soft blue dish to show my sister. Even the surface shines like a mirror. See?
In darkness, the soy sauce shimmered—reflected the light. Dark as my own irises, inherited from my mother. It took time to develop that clarity. Time to develop that complexity. Patience, child, my father would say to me. This inspired the fire within me—necessary to burn. Bonfires by the sea are my favorite.
Like a giant dark iris, I said aloud. I’m so verbose and repetitive but I make my mother smile. Have you tried this? I asked my father. Sure I have, he said, so nonchalant. I flashed him my eyes, prompting him to voice himself. He sounded like this: Of course it’s good. She’s perfect. She does everything perfect. He stated this like a fact that didn’t need to be stated. No, my mother smiled coyly from the kitchen. Not perfect. In her soy sauce, I taste my mother’s expectations.
I wish I could make seaweed soup in this way. I did it once, I remember. 시원하다, my mother said. This is a high compliment. It has no English translation. It means: so clear, fresh, and life-giving. How can one describe a broth in this way? Feel it. Imagine a hot day when you are sweating. Your shirt sticks to your arms, chest, and even parts of your stomach. Someone opens a window. A cool breeze billows your shirt. 시원하다, you would say.
Or you are lying down naked after a shower. Someone you love wafts a freshly clean sheet above you, and it falls gently upon your bare skin. Imagine a broth like these actions.
A broth without ingredients that cloud it, like potatoes. Potatoes absorb broth’s teachings—yet, talk too much into the space. They are for another Korean soup. One with a sandy broth—from the starch—with green scallions sliced on an angle.
시원하다 soup is like a clear sea you wish you could swim in forever. A soup that reminds you that everything is changing, but for a moment—you get to drink it in. This is my mother’s soup. This is what I aim for.
I once made kimchee in San Francisco with farmer’s market vegetables. I thought I’d try Pechu Kimchee with dinosaur kale instead of Napa cabbage. My interpretation of Gakdugee Kimchee used magenta beets in place of moo—white Korean radishes. All of the jars stayed in the back of my fridge, over-fermenting. I missed my mother’s kimchee. I could barely eat mine, minus the beets. Some things are better left pure. Eventually, I threw out the old and soured contents. Unable to use them even in soup. This is the least Korean thing one can ever do.
I bet kimchee will get popular, I said to my mother. Really? she asked. I bet if I started a kimchee company here in San Francisco I’d make a fortune, I said. Kimchee emerged in the next five years at organic grocery stores. Eventually, at Whole Foods. It tasted like sauerkraut.
The same week I moved to New York, an H-Mart opened up down the street. When I excitedly told my mother I bought kimchee there, she cringed. She sent me back with bubble-wrapped containers filled with kimchee—homegrown. The amount of Korean food in my bags reached the maximum weight one is allowed to carry on a flight. She told me to bring empty suitcases next time.
My mother sends organic vitamins with my uncle to South Korea. He brings back organic hot peppers grown in Korean soil. My mother uses them in her kimchee. Triple-Ziploc bags it to send to me. Priority to New York. I don’t think she tells USPS about the liquids. The Pechu Kimchee ferments in transit. After two to three days it is done. Ready to eat straight—perfect.
In America, I rush—move from Chicago to San Francisco to New York, increasing the speed of my life faster and faster, until I wonder if I will spin so fast that I will fall to the ground, to my knees, in South Korea. Not in the condensed city of Seoul where my mother is from—but back to Jeju. I know my ancestors would welcome me, but I worry that as a mixed race American, the people won’t. I don’t blame them. Even on my knees, I feel I cannot make up for enough.
The American military just drilled into Jeju Island’s coral reef. Protestors risked their lives to stop construction seven times. America convinced the South Korean Supreme Court to grant them permission into Jeju’s Absolute Conservation Area. My mixed race face could be read as an amalgamation of the island’s despair. This most recent US invasion destroyed artifacts as ancient as 4 BCE. We built a Jeju Naval Base in place of ancient, living reef. I am a citizen of this America.
Jeju is where my mother and I flew. Off the coast of South Korea, women run the island. They are the only ones who free form dive. Black neoprened women go deep on their descent, rising up with shells full of flesh and iridescence. My mother and I held hands on Jeju. Walked into a three-million-year-old cave. Only us. No barricades. We touched the wet walls and prayed. Brought our fingertips to our foreheads. Blessed ourselves with holy water. Smiled as we blessed each other. On Jeju, I sat in the Buddhist temple. My ancestors spoke to me. I cannot repeat the transmission. Only return.
Rinse your knife clean. Cut the mussels into small chunks. Place them into a bowl. Run hot water over your cutting board. Soap and scrub it. You just cut seafood. Clean your knife, too.
I went home for my mother’s birthday, in June. She said she’d get the ingredients for seaweed soup. She went to three stores and couldn’t find fresh mussels. They were all open, she said. We looked, my father said. Meant to be, my mother said. She loves saying this. When I arrived, my mother also said: no silver fish. That she didn’t like the broth with it. Deliveries such as these make her advanced noonchee and accommodations of my vegetarianism hard to detect. That’s how it was when I was a little girl, she said. No mussels. That’s how the poor have it: no mussels and no fish. Only the rich—they have it with beef. In the South, they use oysters—if no oysters, then mussels. But if you really want to know, we didn’t have enough for that. Even just the sesame oil was so expensive. So we did the seaweed soup without all of that.
Okay, I said. How to make it with four ingredients. I did. We ate it as a family.
My mom took a sip. It’s real, she said.
My mother served us her kimchee with the next meal. My sister took a bite. Beet kimchee, my sister said. This is really good. It’s like that one kimchee— Gakdugee, I said. Yes, it’s like Gakdugee, she said. I asked my mother the question. A question I hoped didn’t deny the depth and nuance of her love and noonchee: Where did you think to make beet kimchee? I asked. From you, she said, and added, In San Francisco. You fed it to me. It was years ago. My mother made a giant jar of it for the garage fridge. She waited to serve it. Young people, she said to my father over dinner, They know more. We need to learn from them. This flow—this—even if I do not deserve it, grants balance. I love my mother for this.
The mermaid hair seaweed has reconstituted by now. Scoop Miyuk out of the bowl.
I once danced like seaweed in an intuitive dance class in Oakland. A priestess led a group of us women. It is not a struggle for Miyuk to stay grounded. Miyuk knows how to survive the pounding of the sea. She plants herself so deep that tumultuous waves wash over her.
We women grounded our feet. We swayed as the priestess approached each one of us like a wave—as we took on her impact, we softened our spines, undulated our hips, unspooled our arms, and let our entire bodies respond. This is how to flow. Never to be knocked down. Miyuk teaches us: this notion is an illusion. She sources herself from the sand, which is also fluid—made of shells of billions before her. From here, she finds her center.
Hold Miyuk in your hands. Cupping her, give her a small squeeze. Place, still wet, onto your clean cutting board. Chop into medium-sized pieces. Set aside.
Place your second pot onto the stove. Ignite it. Lower the heat to low-medium. Add a gentle drizzle of toasted sesame oil. Throw in the chopped garlic. Let it sizzle. Not burn. Not brown. Sizzle like a whisper. Not—a reprimand. Ready when you can smell the oils. Same garlic color. Add the chopped seaweed. Let it sit for a moment. Then, sauté it with a wooden spoon. Don’t move it around too much. This affects the clarity of broth. Just heat it to hot.
Take your ice-cold broth out from the fridge. With a soup ladle, test the fried seaweed by dropping in a small amount of cold water. It should sizzle. Not like a whisper. Like—a firm reprimand. Add two ladles of cold water. The broth will transform from clear to a milky soft white. Bring to a boil. Add two more ladles. Heat to hot and stir gently. Repeat this hot-cold process. This is what makes the broth milky, and fresh. Try it in the Sauna, for yourself.
I remember going to the Jimjilbang—the Korean sauna—with my mother. It was our time with water. We went to saunas in both South Korea and America, together. At both, some women stared. At my mother, and back at me. At my mother, and then, again—back at me.
My mother tried to ignore them. They sometimes shot her looks as if she was less Korean. Or not Korean enough. They sometimes shot me looks as if I was less than human. I took them in, confused. What illusions we can take on from others.
Deflect these like shimmer off your spoon.
Lower the heat under your seaweed soup. Simmer. Add salt and pepper. Stir. Dip your spoon in and lift it to your lips. Taste it. Here is a momentary respite. Trust your noonchee: you alone will know when you are ready to serve.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.