A small revolution, with porridgeUlsan was a quiet port city until it became a manufacturing center for Hyundai Motors. A bizarre mix of small neighborhood creeks, shipping containers and tall, smoking chimneys, the city was home to my father’s family for many generations. One of the joys of visiting my grandparents there when I was a kid was that I could skip half a day of school on Saturdays to go to a seafood market, where I’d watch my dad eat whale meat.
My grandfather was a perenially unsuccessful mayoral candidate who, in his later years, published a regional newspaper and helped build shelters for the homeless. As I recall, my grandmother, a small, tidy woman, was mostly a quiet wife to this defeated but outspoken man of pride.
Things at my grandparents’ were rocky at times. But for the most part, we muddled through our conflicts, except over one issue: dining habits.
My grandfather was a traditionalist who wrapped himself in Confucian ideals. For some reason, he thought it was improper for men and women to eat together at the same table. That was how things worked in that house. Nobody questioned it, not even my father ― until my mother joined the family.
To my mother, who’d grown up in a liberal family hearing that the most disgraceful thing one could do was to interfere with a person’s food, this old family tradition was a direct attack on her egalitarian pride.
At holiday meals, when 25 to 30 people would gather at my grandparents’ hanok, the crowd was divided into two large groups: women in the kitchen and men in the guestrooms.
The intent was clear. I saw it perhaps even more clearly than I was meant to, because the food I would get would be different from the goodies on my brother’s plate.
One day, my mother dragged me out of the kitchen and sat me down next to my brother and the other boys in the guestroom. She slammed a spoon and a pair of chopsticks down on the table for me, and left the room. She’d also left me a steamy bowl of jeonbokjuk, a rice porridge simmered in a bed of sesame oil and freshly chopped abalone ― one of the most expensive seafood dishes on the peninsula.
That was it: I was in the boys’ club. Hallelujah! Once in a while, my uncles and their boys would stare at me from across the table, giving me a look that said I should quietly stand up and go away. That never happened. I sat there and emptied all the bowls I wanted.
The porridge was truly remarkable, though I was warned a few times by my uncle that I was too young to enjoy such delicacies. Whatever that meant, I didn’t care. It’s still one of my favorites. And maybe because it was something my mother bought me with the price of her silent protest, she still boils me a large pot of jeonbokjuk whenever she has a favor to ask.
How to Cook
1 abalone, 1/2 cup rice, 3 cups water, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, salt, dried seaweed.
1. Soak the rice in water.
2. Shell the abalone and remove the viscera. Gently clean the abalone with a brush and cut it into bite-sized pieces.
3. Heat the sesame oil in a pan over a medium-low flame. Add the sliced abalone, and stir for a few minutes.
4. Add the rice and stir occasionally for about 10 minutes, until the rice is yellowish.
5. Add the water and simmer for about 25 minutes, until the rice is done. Add a little salt.
6. Serve the porridge in a bowl with dried seaweed sprinkled on top.
by Park Soo-mee