Yukgaejang… and the cooking lady.

The cooking lady sat down at the lunch table on Tuesday looking very pleased with herself.

I have come to recognise this look. It happens when she is about to tell us what she’s in the process of preparing for the next day’s meal – normally, we don’t know what we’re getting until we sit down to eat it, but there are three dishes that she always tells us about in advance. Why? Because they’re my absolute favourites, and she seems to get as much pleasure from seeing my delighted anticipation as I do from eating them. It’s very sweet. :)

She said something in rapid Korean, but I caught the most important words. Hayley Teacher…. happy… tomorrow… make… yukgaejang. 

Assah! (Hooray!) I responded excitedly… actually, with more excitement than I would generally display for a bowl of soup, but I do love to see how pleased it makes her! And yes, I will admit: after my screaming baby related sleeplessness that night, the one thing that made me feel enthusiastic about getting up and going to work was the knowledge that there would be yukgaejang.

Yukgaejang (육개장) is a very spicy soup/stew made with beef and vegetables, and it rocks my world. I was never a fan of soup until I came here, but the Koreans take it to a whole ‘nother level. Some are bland and fairly blah, of course, and others are not to my taste (I still can’t eat seaweed soup, although I did recently discover that it was very tasty when it had some oily tuna added to it), but the majority are mouth-blisteringly spicy and packed with flavours and textures that send my taste buds into ecstacy. Yukgaejang is my absolute favourite of them all. (At least, of those I’ve tried – there really are a lot.) As with most spicy soups, it’s usually served while still bubbling hot. It is a fiery red, boiling, dangerous-looking bowl of lava. And ohhhh… it’s fabulous.

The cooking lady’s version is made with minced beef and contains a variety of stewed vegetables, including bean sprouts, courgettes, onions, kimchi, various species of mushrooms, and other things that I have been unable to identify thus far. It’s another one of those extremely healthy meals that don’t taste like they can possibly be good for you when they’re that incredibly delicious. Eaten with the ubiquitous bowl of steamed white rice, it’s filling, satisfying, nutritious, and the sort of food that kills conversation at the lunch table because everyone’s too busy slurping and going “Mmmmm…”.

Everybody goes into the kitchen for seconds on a yukgaejang day (which doesn’t occur very regularly, sadly – it’s one of the slightly more expensive-to-make “treat” meals that we have now and again). Some of us have been known to have thirds. I believe I may actually have had a fourth helping once, purely to come to the assistance of a colleague who had overestimated her ability to finish her third bowl. I’m kind like that. The cooking lady makes almost double the normal volume of soup when it’s yukgaejang, because people would most probably cry if they only got one bowl. Teaching afternoon classes on a yukgaejang day is obviously something of a struggle, as all you want to do is collapse in a bloated heap and take a nap in front of the TV.

Yesterday, I was in the kitchen ten minutes before lunch time, hovering excitedly around the cooking lady with a lot of dramatic Bisto-kid-style sniffing as she stirred the bubbling contents of the huge soup cauldron and batted me away. She shoved the chopsticks and spoons into my hands and shooed me out to set the table, and when I returned she gave me an appetiser of a few spoonfuls of broth over a spoonful of rice, presumably to keep me out of her way while she ladled out the soup. She was trying to act annoyed, but she couldn’t hide her proud smile. She is right to be proud. The woman is a culinary wizard, who cooks a tasty meal for a hundred people every day and still notices when one of them can’t reach the kimchi plate.

Hayley-sen, manni mawgaw! she said encouragingly as we sat down at the table. That’s a common instruction from Korean hosts, literally meaning “Eat a lot!”. Noisy enjoyment of the food (we’re talking lip-smacking and soup-slurping here, as well as the “mmmmm” noises and frequent remarks of “Mashisawyo!(Delicious!)”), backed up by consuming more than you would believe could possibly fit inside your body, is seen as a great compliment to the chef. Well, I complimented the heck out of her yesterday, let me tell you. She wouldn’t even let me go into the kitchen for more soup – she just rose when she saw me lifting the bowl to my lips for the final dregs, took it from me, refilled it, and repeated the stern order to eat a lot.

There are people living in Korea who don’t like Korean food. This waegook, however, is in love and devoted. In fact, I believe it may have overtaken Chinese food to become my favourite national cuisine… and our cooking lady beats any number of celebrity chefs hands-down, if you ask me. ;)


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