A Korean Feast Like No Other

Chapchae DinnerThere are a multitude of reasons for why I love living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being able to travel the world through ethnic cuisine is on my short list. Having long been a fan of Korean food, I was particularly thrilled when our neighbor Soonoak invited my family and one other over for a chapchae cooking lesson. I didn’t just jump at the chance, I did a pirouette, a back flip, and threw in a few break dance moves to underscore my enthusiasm!

Late Sunday afternoon, my family showed up on Glenn and Soonoak’s doorstep. Upon crossing the threshold, I could immediately smell deliciousness. Glancing over at the counter, I was excited to see sliced kimbap rolls. I had definitely come to the right place! The other family soon arrived and within minutes, rice wine and soju (Korean vodka) were being poured into small sake cups, more food was being placed on the counter, and conversation was flowing. One of the greatest pleasures of the evening was getting to know my neighbors better. Learning about their interesting careers, their families, and what brought them to El Cerrito.

A Korean custom we were taught was that the drinker never pours their own drink. It is not uncommon to clear your throat as a sign of needing a fill-up. Jokingly, we all got into the swing of clearing our throats throughout the night and sure enough, the drinks did not stop flowing. I found it particularly amusing that our gracious hostess, who had initially declined the opportunity to be photographed for my blog, warmed up to the camera after a few shots, posing with great animation.

Chapchae Dinner

After grazing on kimbap, chive omelets, kimchee pot stickers, rice cakes with soy bean powder, and spicy seasoned cucumbers, we finally sat down to feast on our chapchae. We gave the kids an amuse bouche of brown rice balls, sprinkled with fish roe, seaweed, and sesame oil (that I mixed by hand with traditional plastic cooking gloves under Soonoak’s guidance. Remind me to invent a version that doesn’t burn your fingers when handling rice just out of the cooker!) The rice balls were a clear hit with Caleb.

The star of the show, our chapchae, was outrageously good. The perfect meal to warm your belly on a crisp autumn evening, it consisted of warm cellophane noodles (made from sweet potato), tossed with sautéed onions, carrots, spinach, bell pepper, mung bean sprouts, marinated beef, sesame oil, and other seasonings. The chapchae, as well as the other Korean delicacies we prepared, including a refreshing dessert of sliced Korean pears and apples, was far better than what I’ve tasted in restaurants. I am so proud of our collective effort and am grateful to Soonoak and Glenn for opening up their home and treating us to a fabulous Korean cooking lesson amongst neighbors, who I can now call “friends.”

I have already begun dreaming up the cooking demonstration I would host. I’m thinking a cheese, wine, and food pairing. Not exactly the Eastern European cuisine of my people, but an invitation I would bust another one of my break dance moves for any day.


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