Once upon a time, I published a picture book called Dumpling Soup, illustrated by Lillian Hsu-Flanders:
Every year on New Year’s Eve, my whole family goes to Grandma’s house for dumpling soup. My aunties and uncles and cousins come from all around Oahu. Most of them are Korean, but some are Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, or haole (Hawaiian for white people). Grandma calls our family ‘chop suey,’ which means ‘all mixed up’ in pidgin. I like it that way. So does Grandma. ‘More spice,’ she says.
This year, I celebrated the New Year in Hawai’i for the first time in decades. Thanks to my mom, I got to eat my favorite traditional Korean dishes, and for the first time ever, I got to hear my story read aloud on New Year’s Eve.
My niece Julia wasn’t yet born when the book was first published almost twenty years ago, and she never experienced those big, noisy family gatherings I so fondly recall in the story. But at least she can still eat some of the same food! It was hilarious hearing her trying to pronounce the Korean phrases — but what a wonderful, expressive reader she is, and for a few moments, I was 7 years old again, smack dab in the middle of “so many Yangs!”
When you’re little, those “heaping plates of food” just magically appear, and you never think about the hours and hours of preparation required to make them. In the old days, New Year’s was a big potluck with ten of my mother’s eleven siblings and their families. But now, with relatives gone or scattered, she has to wing it on her own. Even though the “feast” is scaled down considerably, it’s still time consuming to produce her preferred variety of side dishes in a small galley kitchen.
For two days, I watched this 88-year-old dynamo slice, chop, mince, boil, shred, stir, mix, toss, steam, and fry. She would only accept minimal help from me, preferring to stick to her time-honored, perfectly honed techniques and a cooking schedule that began weeks before I arrived, when she made and froze the dumplings.
I watched in awe as she wielded a giant knife, using it to string celery and trim green beans. With shiitake mushrooms soaking, vermicelli and chicken soup simmering, beef short ribs marinating, a pan of veggies sizzling, I dared not disturb her carefully orchestrated rhythm and unflinching focus.
But she did let me clean the mung bean sprouts, bone the chicken, fry the beef, shrimp, and fish jhun, and help set the table. And I did ask again about a crucial step in making the dumpling filling: wrapping the tofu and cabbage in dish towels and running it through the spin cycle of the washing machine to get all the liquid out.
With our dumplings, we eat roast pork, three kinds of kimchi, spinach and bean sprout namul, spicy seaweed, taegu, boiled tripe, and octopus.
Lest you think I love all the Korean dishes mentioned in the story, let me finally set the record straight: I will not, no, not ever, never eat octopus! I don’t care if it’s a rare, albeit expensive delicacy that even meat-and-potatoes-raised Len will eat.
Dear Reader, I draw the line at tentacles.
There is no dipping sauce in the world that can change the texture of chewy octopus legs in your mouth.
But I admit to being duly impressed by how it’s cooked. For years, it has been my father’s job to wash the octopus. Since he is now 98 years old, on 24-hour oxygen and unsteady on his feet, my mother offered to do it. But no, some things are sacred — my Dad insisted he would wash the octopus just as he always did.
In a word: eewwwwwwww. Long and slimy and gross. He rubbed on a lot of Hawaiian salt, gave that mighty mollusc a good massage before cutting off its head. After the head was cleaned out, everything was rinsed thoroughly, then tossed into a big pot to be gently boiled in two bottles of beer. The octopus turned reddish brown when it was fully cooked. I’ve since learned that octopi are highly intelligent creatures with short and long term memories, able to distinguish between different shapes and patterns. No doubt, our octopus was probably capable of plotting revenge!
So I steered clear of Mr. Octopus, and thoroughly enjoyed all the other good food, especially the yak pap:
Hiram and I love the Korean dessert we get only on New Year’s: yak pap. He pulls off a chunk of the brown sticky rice mixed with honey, dates, and pine nuts and hands it to me. I lick every bit off my fingers.
We have to thank Auntie “Grace” for making the yak pap, which was so, so good, just as good as Grandma Yang’s. As far as I know, she’s the only family member who still makes this labor-intensive treat.
Right along with the salty, spicy, piquant and sweet came a lot of mixed emotions. Our joyful bites were inevitably tempered by poignant memories of missing loved ones.
Grandma Yang, at whose home we always, always celebrated New Year’s, died back in 1982, and only 5 of my mother’s siblings are still alive. Her eldest brother, Myung Ho, who swallows seven mochi (rice cakes) in the story and later tells main character Marisa that her funny-looking dumplings are “ono! delicious!” is gone. Two of the dumpling-wrapping aunts, “Auntie Elsie” and “Auntie Ruth,” passed away several years ago within a year of each other. And the Gum Chew Lau Noodle Factory, which provided the special dumpling wrappers, no longer exists.
But thankfully some things stay the same, or even move happily forward. My dad is still the official taster for everything my mother cooks (and her hands still smell like garlic). My cousin Marisa is now married with a son of her own, and my older brother “Hiram” still likes to tease me — behavior typical of an elephant ear loving octopus eater.
It was strange hearing fireworks on New Year’s Eve, since I’m now only used to them on the 4th of July. But it was fun to have cousin Carol drop by with my favorite white fruitcake, homemade cookies and a new granddaughter, my friend Lynn with freshly pounded mochi; to be prodded by Julia for childhood stories of her father, to remember the all-night marathon family poker game I was not allowed to include in a story for children.
The writing of this book, the remembering and reliving, the eating, laughing and sharing, become more precious with each passing year. What matters more than food and family — food made with love for love of family?
Those heart and soul-nourishing bites of dumpling soup will sustain me for the coming year; how lucky I am to have grown up in a place of such rich cultural diversity and largesse, with parents so fiercely committed to preserving tradition.
I think about how much everyone liked the dumpling soup. Even my funny dumplings. Maybe it was because we ate them at Grandma’s, all of us together.
‘Next year,’ I tell everyone, ‘I will make even better dumplings.’
I can hardly wait.
Hello, brand-new year!
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♥ Read more about how I wrote and published Dumpling Soup here.
♥ Click here for some of Margaret’s Korean recipes, including Japchae, Shrimp Jhun, Kalbi, and Cucumber Kimchi.
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Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.