...for a week. Here's what happened.
On my visit home to California last year, I unearthed a couple ’80s-era cookbooks that my mom had acquired when she first moved to America from Korea. One was a Betty Crocker microwave cookbook, which in its own right is truly amazing (microwave Bundt cake anyone?). But the one I took home was a Korean title called 식단과 반찬 365일, which loosely translates to 365 Days of Dishes and Banchan.
Originally published in 1981, 365 Days starts off with a question: “What should I cook for dinner tonight?” Sort of a Korean Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, this book—written by Park Il-hwa, Kim Hwa-sun, and a community of cooks—is a manual for feeding a home. Complete with 365 recipes and banchan (Korean side dishes), the book also features full menu suggestions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for every single day of the year (but taking special breaks for holidays like Christmas and Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving).
Day One, for example, features a traditional New Year’s rice cake soup as the main recipe of the day, to be had for lunch. But breakfast that same day, the book suggests, should be barley rice, pollack and egg soup, a bacon and mushroom stir-fry, spicy dried squid, and cabbage kimchi. Lunch is the rice cake soup with salted pollack innards and cabbage kimchi for banchan. Dinner is barley rice, ground soybean stew, grilled saury, water dropwort, and gat kimchi… I'm exhausted just translating this one day.
But as I read through 365 Days’ year-round cooking schedule and see the litany of daily menus, I can’t help but feel that it’s totally in line with the way my mother fed us growing up. She’d cook my father, my sister, and me an impressive dinner spread every night, resplendent with five to ten banchan, rice, a soup or stew, and a main meat entree; breakfast and lunch might not have been as extravagant, but were equally varied. In our meals, there was almost always some new recipe which she would have spent a good part of the day cooking. Every weekend we’d travel as a family to two to three grocery stores just to find the best and most seasonal ingredients (not for culinary reasons, but for budgetary ones), and my mother would build her weekly menus around these.
Monday night might be galbi jjim, which she’d simmer all day on the stove, the smell of beef bones permeating the house when we came home from school. Wednesday could be kimchi jjigae (stew) to use up the dregs of her kimchi jar. And Thursday she’d supplement those leftovers with some grilled croaker, dug out from the bowels of the second (!) freezer we housed in the garage and fried, loud and popping, in its portable fish cooker in the backyard.
My mother’s mother (my grandmother) didn’t teach her how to cook, so she had to use this Korean Mrs. Beeton cookbook, along with one or two others, as a guided map through the various dishes of her childhood. In many ways, it taught her not just how to cook Korean food, but also how to feed her family in America. I remember coming downstairs to the kitchen to catch her exasperatedly flipping through the 365 Days to garner inspiration for yet another meal. But day after day, there it was: rice, a soup or stew, a meat, and five to ten banchan.
When I took the book home myself years later, flipping through it a few times to marvel at the retro photos and some ridiculous recipes (Milk Jelly Salad, anyone?), I shelved it for nearly a year, only referring to it occasionally for inspiration for my Korean-American pop-up restaurant, Yooeating. Until a month ago, when my husband Nick changed jobs and lodged himself knee-deep in opening up a new restaurant-slash-bar-slash–movie theatre.
In our six years of dating, we typically operated on opposite schedules: He’d usually eat family meal at his work, and I’d scrounge up some dinner for myself, some mixture of convenience and nostalgia. But for the first time in our entire relationship (and very shortly into our new marriage), our dinner times were aligning. He asked if I could help him out by taking charge of the dinner responsibilities for a bit. I initially bristled at this (Who am I? Your wife? I shalt not cook for you!), but then I realized I probably owed him after the many Sunday mornings I spent whining from bed while he cooked us breakfast.
I figured the 365 Days cookbook would be a good way to step into my mother’s shoes, at least for a week or two, so I could do what she had to do years ago: feed her family. I was also looking forward to the prospect of cooking solely Korean food every day, and how much I’d learn from it. At first, I tried to follow the menu prescribed by the actual corresponding week from the cookbook, but many of the dishes presented (Ketchup-Braised Shrimp, Sausage-Stuffed Pollack) proved less than desirable from an eating standpoint. In an attempt to be mindful of food waste (and as much fun as it would have been to cook Nick an intestine stew, which he’d hate), I picked a few dishes from the cookbook that represented a range of meals.
Here’s how it went.
On Monday night, I had a dentist appointment after a full day’s work, so by the time I finished, trekked uptown to H-mart and then back home after picking up laundry (the right side of my face still slack from the local anesthesia), it was already 8 p.m. I was easily able to find the ingredients for my main dish, soy-braised pork ribs, but no traditional Korean vegetables, so I just bought some premade banchan options in the prepared food section. At least I’d save some time, I thought. I was so hungry by the this point that I scarfed down three-quarters of a pack of Korean blood sausage as I chopped up veggies and pork. I texted Nick to pick up some garlic, which I had incorrectly assumed we had at home.
Night Two went off similarly. By the time I got home after work and various errands, it was already well past 8 p.m., so I snacked on a few clementines (and some cheese) while I prepared do-mi myun, braised porgy with noodles. The recipe called for slivers of meat to be stuffed into slits cut into the sides of the fish, and then dipped in egg before cooking in beef broth. Like the night before, Nick arrived home just as I was putting a second spoonful in my tired, hungry mouth.
I intended to cook another new dish Wednesday night, but we were both already tired of home cooking and, itchy for a nice restaurant meal, we went out for Italian instead. We resolved to push to the next night.
This plan went belly-up when a Thursday happy hour for a departing coworker turned into dinner and more drinks, and I remorsefully had to text Nick: “Sorry! Please have dinner without me.” I came home that night to two boxes of half-eaten delivery pizza.
The next three nights got shot as well by various holiday engagements, and Nick was MIA anyway due to work (it was a week before the theatre’s opening).
Finally, the following Monday, I was able to tackle the last dish of my week-ish experiment: a kimchi pork gratin. It’s typical of the pseudo-Western dishes present in the cookbook, mostly ‘70s-era relics made palatable to the Korean palate by the ‘80s and ‘90s (food trends moved much more slowly prior to the internet). My Midwest-born husband loved this Korean spin on what’s essentially a casserole and finished the entire Pyrex. I was just relieved not to have leftovers so I wouldn’t feel obligated to re-cook and set out another spread the next night.
My mini-365 Days challenge was fun, but difficult.
Here’s what I learned from cooking like my mother for a week: Ultimately, a full Korean spread replete with rice, stew, meat, and banchan feels unsustainable for a smaller family without devoting all hours of the day to planning and cooking. The cook in question can’t have a full-time job, because cooking like this is a full-time job. I think back on my family growing up: My mother was planning dinner before breakfast was even finished and cleared away. She was a housewife in a time when Korean women were expected to stay home with the kids and, well, keep house, as they say. It didn’t matter that she had a masters in biochemistry from Ewha University (Korea’s top women’s college); she followed my father to Detroit, later settling in Los Angeles, and started a full-time job as a mother of two (and dope home cook).
What all of this taught me was how much cooking Korean food always makes me feel connected to my mother—through the smells that emanate from the stove, the taste memories accessed from the annals of my mind, the satisfaction of serving my loved ones. Cooking from my mother’s cookbook affixed me to her in a different way, as it made me walk a mile in her house slippers, consumed throughout the week with what to cook next and when and how, as she must’ve been in the 1980s. She must’ve cooked like this because she, too, missed home and wanted to feel close to something in the past. There’s nothing like spending the entire afternoon menu planning and stewing and tasting foods from your hometown to help shore yourself back.
My week of trying to live up to the expectations set for Korean housewives (at least according to 365 Days, which I should mention is addressed to women with “a husband and 2 to 3 kids”) proved deceptively difficult. Not least because I’m a terrible “wife” (whatever that word means). City life has great perks like delivery pizza and restaurants on every corner, but it’s more difficult to access speciality ingredients, and so it feels like a full-time side hustle just to get Korean groceries. Though the dishes were simple enough, the need to set the table with so many banchan and create new menus each night overwhelmed me. I had grown up and succeeded at supporting myself, but with that I lost so much of the patience and dexterity my mother needed to feed us for 365 days. It made me appreciate her even more when I flew home for the holidays this year.
For our first meal together, my mom casually spread out ten banchan along with a short rib stew to accompany our bowls of rice. Though her cooking has reduced (she only cooks for two again, now that both my sister and I are out of the house), I noticed that she still spends a lot of time and energy grocery shopping, planning, and cooking. The only difference is that nowadays, my mom uses the internet to recall old recipes and get inspired by new ones. She doesn’t rely on her old cookbooks anymore. This last visit, when I asked to take yet another from her collection, she paused (wanting to hold onto it for nostalgia’s sake), and then waved me off saying, “It’s fine, you take it. I already have all the recipes in my head.”
After dinner, I was lying down on my bed digesting the gargantuan feast when my mother came in and plopped down next to me. She sighed and said, “I forgot how hard cooking is.”
Do you have a favorite heirloom family cookbook? Tell us about it in the comments below.