Today, on Remembrance Day, I thought about my many lost relatives, on both my mother and father’s sides of the family, during the Korean War. As a child, I used to often hear tragic stories about those too-vividly-remembered young men, now lost, that it left me wondering if there was ever a happy story that Korean people could tell. The particular national tragedy that was the Korean War is what, ultimately, led thousands of immigrants to come here to this country in the early ’70s. Part of the reason for this was that many Canadian soldiers also gave their lives on our nation’s behalf- courageous men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for a people (and way of life) they did not fully comprehend, but whose impulse was a pure one: to simply do what they could to make the world a better place as they knew it…
Koreans learned to love Canadians and longed to live in a country that upheld these Pearsonian, then Trudeau-esque, ideals.
When my family arrived here, in 1974, there was little by way of opportunity and even less by way of ingredients that tapped into their memory of their native land. However, there was an abundance of rice and rice cakes (duk) in the Chinatown supermarkets. My mother used to love making duk and we, her children, used to love eating them. The reason for this, of course, lay in every child’s love for all sweet things; duk was used to make the few desserts that Koreans enjoyed. Here are two that most Koreans would be familiar with: Another popular use of duk was as the festive New Year dish- a simple soup consisting of sliced rice cake with shreds of egg and nori, called Duk Guk (soup). Food as an act of remembrance. My favourite way to eat duk is to stir-fry it in hot sauce, sauteed with mixed vegetables, fishcake, and topped with a hard-boiled egg. This is called Duk Bok Ki and it is Korea’s national street food treasure. Korea was (and in some ways still is) an agrarian and peasant culture, hence “street” food refers to a kind of grub far removed from the overly-orchestrated and artificial cuisine of the aristocratic class. Even with the burgeoning middle-class of the early ’90s, Koreans returned again and again to the streets as homage to things they wished to continue to remember, even if it was only on their tongues. So this past summer, when Harbourfront Centre asked me to create and share a dish that I felt truly captured the spirit of Korea, I chose Duk Bok Ki. And I knew that it would go on my next restaurant’s menu.
Tonight, I invited some young Koreans out to dinner with me, all of whom are recent immigrants to this country, and kind enough to help me clean the restaurant after a day of renovations. I asked them to recall their favourite food as children. Almost unanimously, they said: “Duk Bok Ki!”. So it was, we hit two well-known Duk Bok Ki joints in downtown Toronto.We tested eight in all, dissecting each dish with our limited (English) culinary vocabulary, but decided that they just didn’t live up to what we remembered. The chili flakes were of low quality; it was too sweet or salty; the duk was overcooked or undercooked; the overall dish lacked a certain je ne sais quoi (their French was very good).(Loaded with bulgogi, but the duk was undercooked…) (Over the top with MSG, which means that the ramen seasoning was used instead of a house-made sauce)(We were all surprised to agree that this mild form of Duk Bok Ki, with miles of sweet potato noodles in it, was our favourite)
Here is my Remembrance Day Duk Bok Ki recipe for you if you are so inclined to test it:
Ingredients: Serves 2
Tube-shaped rice cakes 400gr
Kochujang (Korean chili paste) 4T
Korean chili flakes (medium-coarse) 1T
Small dried anchovies 6 pieces
Carrots 1 (julienned)
Green onion 1 (cut into 3cm lengths)
Fishcake 1 piece sliced
Hard-boiled egg 1
1. Separate the tubes of rice cake into individual pieces. Cut in thirds.
2. Add 3 cups of water and dried anchovies into a pan. (Ensure that you remove their heads). Add egg.
3. Bring the water to a boil.
4. Skim out the anchovies and add rice cakes. Take out egg and peel the shell.
5. Add Korean chili paste and chili flakes, fishcake, and sugar. Stir.
6. Add green onions and carrots. Stir until sauce is thick. Sample rice cake to make sure that it is soft.
7. Serve with whole hard-boiled egg on top.
Enjoy and Remember!