Pigeons in the bathrooms

I don’t have many stories of my dad’s younger years as he has never been a talkative man. The only stories I have heard repeatedly are mostly stories from the three mandatory years he served in the military. Korea had and still has a compulsory military system. In my father’s days, they had to serve three years. Now I believe it is closer to two. So there are just a few stories that I know about my father besides the ones about his military years; one of which is the story about the pigeons.

My father hates pigeons. He generally likes animals and I thought he had a fairly fond spot for birds. I mean I had a veritable zoo of birds when I was young which I had to feed and maintain so I assume he liked birds. I figured he just didn’t like pigeons for some reason. I don’t like them either since they are a bit like rats with wings. So I didn’t really think much of my father’s reason for disliking them. Then one day out of the blue he told me the reason why he hates pigeons.

My father was around nine when the Korean war started and he had to flee his home with his family. I am not totally sure where exactly his home had been nor where they had to flee to. I think his home was somewhere near Daejeon (mid-ish part of South Korea) and he had to flee to somewhere near Pusan (only area not at one point taken by the North). As there was not many places to put so many refugees, he and his family had to spend their “refugee period” at a temporary shelter, which was a public school. That made sense since public schools tend to have lots of rooms and bathrooms.

He told me that there were so many corpses from the war that they could not bury them fast enough, which meant they had to be put somewhere until the burial. Unlike now, there were really no morgues or cold houses so the place people piled up corpses ended up being the bathrooms (coldest place I guess) of these temporary shelters. My father remembers having to go to the bathroom at night, alongside these piles of corpses and the only sounds he had heard had been the sounds of pigeons. So to this day, the sound of pigeons gives him the creeps (literal translation). Some experiences stays with us forever it seems.

Child bride

My great grandmother was a child bride. That is not to say that she married an older man and had to be an actual bride like it is sometimes done in certain countries. It just meant that my great great grandfather found her when she was about ten and brought her into his household and designated her as the bride for his son. It was a custom that was sometimes practiced in the olden days. There were older brides (woman 10-15 years older than the man) who married child husbands and there were child brides who came into the household at an early age, but the actual marriage did not occur until the child husband or child bride were much older.

Having literally married into a family at a young age, my grandmother was probably not from a very prosperous household. But she would not have been brought into such a rich family if she had not been exceptionally bright and if my great great grandfather had not thought she would bring luck and prosperity to the household. Although she was loved by great great grandfather, her life was definitely not easy. She was in a strange household with no family to support her. She had to work very hard and help out with everything, cooking, making food, whatever household chores that were needed. I heard that at times she worked so hard that she’d get spontaneous nose bleeds. Yet she survived and eventually married my great grandfather.

She did bring much luck to the household. The family prospered and everyone came to love her. Unfortunately, her husband (my great grandfather) was not so enamored. I don’t think he hated his wife. It was just that she had not exactly been his choice. He probably resented that he had not been given any choice by his father. Of course, that was the way things were in those days, but I think something of the resentment toward his father made my great grandfather not love his wife so much. More to come on what such feelings lead to…

Three Sauces Nostalgia

Here I go again! Another post about Korean food. But it’s really hard to avoid topic of food when talking about Korea and my childhood memories.

There three main essential sauces in Korean food: 된장 (Doenjang, soy paste sauce), 고추장 (Gochujang, red chili paste sauce), and 간장 (Gangjang, soy sauce). My paternal grandmother used to make these from scratch each year, starting from soy beans as all three sauces come from the same source.

I always knew when she started this process as the house would be full of the smell of steamed soy beans when I come home from school. She usually bought a very large sack of soybeans in the fall and steamed them all at once. I have no idea how she managed to do that since her steaming process always happened while I was in school during the day. All I know is that by the time I came home mid-afternoon, she would have steamed and somewhat cooled the large sack of soy beans already.

Image by 온맘으로

And the fun begins!

Both my grandmother and I would stand on the large steamed sack of soy beans and start smooshing them under our feet. It is a bit like those videos of wine makers who are crushing grapes with their feet although the beans were inside the sack and mushier. I often got really enthusiastic and jumped up and down on the sack and thankfully nothing splattered. Every time you step, there is this smell of steamed soy beans everywhere. As much as I associate that smell with my childhood, I did not like the smell when I was stepping on them. I just liked crushing the soy beans with my feet.

Eventually you do need to take the soy beans out of the bag and make sure they are paste-like. There are always some larger chunks of bean here and there (that’s part of the charm), but essentially you should be able to shape it like a clay. The shape my grandmother usually made was a cube, about 10 cm (or close to 5 inches) on each side. Of course, me being the child, I often made 2-3 chunks into cones or other fun shapes. My grandmother usually let me make whatever shape I liked for a few of them although I now know that some of those weird shapes were not optimal for the fermentation process. These shaped soy bean pastes are called 메주 (meju).

These meju pieces are then dried very carefully. My grandmother would usually set them carefully under the shade right outside the back of the house, protected from the rain (rain and freezing is a no-no). And there they sat until the weather started to get cold. She treated meju like her pets. Once the weather got cold, the meju pieces would come right back inside the house and take up very prominent places right next to 연탄 난로 (Yeontan stove – Yeontan is a coal briquette that was commonly used in Korea for heating when I was young). That and heated floors (more to come on this).

Around February is when the next phase starts. It is still cold out, but not completely frozen over. My grandmother would take these cubes and put them inside a large 독 (dok, Korean clay pot) and fill it with sea salt water. Sea salt is very important. Even though I was young, she made sure to tell me we never use just any regular salt. Don’t ask me why not…something to do with it being natural? Some kind of aid in fermentation process? No idea.

I don’t know how the magic happens, but once the cubes starts floating in the water (initially they stay at the bottom), the water turns dark. This is essentially beginning of soy sauce. I am sure I have forgotten some little process that happened while I wasn’t paying attention, but this miraculous sudden floating of cubes and dark water in the pot was what is left in my memories.

My grandmother would then fish out the the wet meju and divide them in half. The soy sauce would be used as soy sauce of course. Why divide the now again soy paste (but fermented) in half? Well, there are 2 other sauces to make. To make doenjang, one half of the paste is put into another dok and covered with sea salt to ferment further. It should be done in a month or two although you can let it ferment as long as you like. There are “young” doenjang and “old” doenjang and anything in between and are used for different dishes.

The other half of the paste is mixed with red pepper flakes — Preparation for this is a whole another story. Essentially, my grandmother would spend weeks drying red pepper on our balcony. You cannot go near this balcony while peppers are drying since it is so hot you will start crying — and rice flour (and there might have been some barley flour in it, etc. But mostly the 3 main ingredients are meju, red pepper flakes, and rice flour. This mixing process happens in a gigantic bowl. My grandmother used to have a wooden spoon that was about 3 feet tall. I used to stir the bowl by walking around it holding the spoon.

These three sauces are just basic, but they take 6+ months to make. If you buy soy sauce, I recommend you always looking for “naturally fermented” and ones without some kind of additives or wheat in it. The sauces are fermented so the preservatives are not necessary. I do not understand why companies that make these sauce nowadays add just random stuff. Needless to say when I go shopping for these sauces, I literally spend more than half an hour reading every brand’s ingredient so I find the right one with no preservatives, naturally fermented, and no additives.

Another note…I introduced just three sauces here, but within each 3 sauces, there are incredible variety of sub-sauces. There are soy sauces for soup, dipping, cooking, etc. (all different, I know!). There are dozens of different kinds of doenjang and gochujang for different occasions.

As this post is getting long, I will have to introduce you to the incredible Korean pots (독, dok) that behaves like a refrigerator in my later post. Stay tuned…

My Great Great Grandfather

My maternal great great grandfather, my grandmother’s grandfather, is a figure shrouded in myth for me. He is said to have been over 6 feet tall. 6 장신 is the term my mother and grandmother use to describe him. So what is 6 장신? I had no clue when I heard the term. From the descriptions I heard, I gathered that it meant over 180 cm tall, which is around 6 feet, which was quite tall for a man in Korea in the 19th century. 6 ft tall was quite tall for a person even when I was a child.

I actually looked up what is as I got curious writing this so click here to read a short digression on that topic.

It could be a family tall tale (that was a totally inadvertent pun since I still don’t get pun whatsoever) that he was that tall, but honestly, I believe it. My maternal grandmother who was born in 1915, was 163 cm tall (give a centimetre or two since one shrinks with age). That is very tall for a woman of that time. I heard that she was taller than my grandfather. Of course, as I write this, I had to verify. And no, she was not taller than my grandfather whom I had never seen. I was able to get a copy of their wedding photo and will write more on that in a different post.

Before I further digress, I want to go back to the topic of my great great grandfather. What do I know about him besides that he was considered a very tall man. Well, I really meant it when I wrote he was like a mythical figure.

To summarize (which I might or might not elaborate on my later posts):

  • North Korean: Well, in those times, it was all just Korea. He just lived in a region which is now in North Korea.
  • Landowner: He owned vast area of land where you could roll continuously for a day and not reach the end (yes, this was the literal description my grandmother gave me).
  • Banker: He acted like a community bank. In those days, people didn’t necessarily have “money”. They owned livestock, field goods, perhaps some jewelry, and maybe very few had money. And none of these people had vaults or somewhere they could safely deposit their precious items. So my grandfather’s house acted like a bank vault. People would bring bags of rice and such and deposit them at my grandfather’s house, which had huge storage. They were then able to withdraw or deposit as they they needed. I have a feeling little more were withdrawn as supposed to deposited.
  • Owner of local 양조장 (essentially a brewery): I heard this is one of the reason why he was so rich.