Erin Jang has seen, first hand, the power of food as an expression of love. The child of immigrants from South Korea, Erin watched as her hard-working parents juggled several jobs alongside the demands of cooking hearty and delicious nightly meals. While Erin describes her homemade Korean meals as simple, it is aweinspiring to understand how some cultures interpret simplicity in food—by today’s standards, Erin’s daily multi-layered fare would be deemed a feast.
“Growing up, my parents worked really hard to support our family. My mother held the night shift at the postal office when I was little, then in my high school years, my father had to work long hours. But my mother always made sure to have a simple homemade Korean meal for us. We’d have bowls of steaming rice, some sort of soup or stew, banchan, (several small dishes of marinated vegetables), and, always, kimchi.”
Born in Chicago, Erin lived in New Jersey for a time, grew up in Seattle, and is now settled in New York with her own family. Food has played a strong role in connecting Erin to her Korean heritage. Erin has strong memories of the traditional Korean food she enjoyed growing up, seminal dishes prepared by her parents and grandparents.
“I cherished the rare times my father made a pan of kimchi fried rice. It would always be too spicy for me, but I loved how he let the bottom of the rice cook in the hot oil just a bit longer, to make it extra brown and crispy. We would just dig in with spoons and eat it piping hot out of the pan.”
“And then there are memories of my grandmother coming to visit us in the summers and making wonderful meals. One extra special treat she would make was a sweet rice drink called sikhye. She knew it was my favorite, and she’d make a large batch, storing it in gallon-size glass jars in the refrigerator.”
Erin, as with many children from immigrant families, grew up eating at abundant tables; tables where the food overflowed, barely leaving room for dinner bowls or cutlery. For migrant elders, particularly those with children or grandchildren growing up in a culture different to their own, food is such a crucial form of expression, a way of showing your kids and grandkids how you feel about them.
“A memory I will always carry with me is a meal my grandmother made shortly before she died. I had just gotten married, and I wanted my grandmother to meet my husband; we flew to Chicago and made plans to visit her. She was frail and ill, but she surprised us by cooking a small feast. She had walked across the street to her plot in the community garden (she had such a green thumb—everything she touched flourished) and gathered vegetables and perilla leaves to make a special meal to welcome my husband. Her small table by the kitchen was covered with so many homemade dishes—humble, but delicious. Different kinds of kimchi, vegetable and tofu sides, beef she had marinated days before, the most flavorful stew—there was no room to even set down our chopsticks because she had prepared such an incredible spread. Even though my husband could not speak or understand Korean, he felt her love through her cooking, he felt the warmth and care as she nudged him to eat more. I understood in that moment how much love could be expressed through food prepared for others, how meaningful it can be to welcome someone to your table.”
Now, as a mother to two young boys growing up in Manhattan, Erin keeps her Korean heritage alive by sharing recipes she learned from her mother with her family. Pajeon, Korean savory pancakes, is one such dish. Easy to make and endlessly adaptable, pajeon can be made with a plethora of fillings, from just scallions to seafood, kimchi, or any kind of vegetable. A simple dish that undoubtedly carries a lot of meaning.
“Most Korean families use buchim garu—a seasoned pancake mix you can buy at any Asian grocery store. But when I found myself wanting to make these for my own children, and didn’t have time to trek out to an HMart in Koreatown, I started making my own batter from scratch. I like shredding up leftover vegetables we have in the fridge like carrots, zucchini, and red bell pepper, and sneaking them into the pancakes. The boys always gobble them up, especially when served with a dipping sauce.”
by Hetty McKinnon
SOY DIPPING SAUCE (OPTIONAL)
If you are serving with the dipping sauce, combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Combine the flour, rice flour, cornstarch and salt in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, ice-cold water, garlic, and doenjang or miso, if using, then add this to the dry mix. Mix until the batter is smooth.
Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a nonstick frying pan over a medium heat. Now, there are a couple ways to cook the pajeon . . .
One way, which takes a little more effort, but looks really pretty (especially if you have an assortment of colorful vegetables), is to keep the vegetables and batter separate. Place a small handful of one kind of vegetable (for example, just the carrots) in the oiled pan, laying them down in a flat layer, about 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Then spoon some of the batter over the vegetables evenly, so there’s just enough to cover them. Cook for a few minutes, until the bottom of the pancakes turn golden brown and crispy, then flip over. Add another spoonful of oil to the pan if necessary, to crisp the other side.
The other method, which is quick and easy, is to dump all the sliced and chopped vegetables and scallions into the batter, then fry spoonfuls of the veggie-filled batter in the oiled frying pan. Fry until both sides are golden brown.
Either way, I usually place a paper towel on a plate to soak up any extra oil on the finished pancakes, and then serve them immediately, scattered with scallions and sesame seeds and alongside the soy dipping sauce, if using.
Doenjang is a Korean fermented soybean paste, similar to miso. It is optional, but it gives the batter a yummy umami flavor.
The dipping sauce is optional, as the doenjang, salt, and garlic give the pancakes enough flavor on their own.
I store leftover pancakes in a resealable bag in the fridge, and they can be crisped up again on both sides in a hot oiled pan right before eating.
You could use cooked leftover veg like roasted broccoli here; just nothing too watery.
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Recipe excerpted from Family: New Vegetarian Comfor Food to Nourish Every Day by Hetty McKinnon, published by Prestel 2019.