Thursday, October 29, 2009

Egg 밥 (Egg Rice)

Whenever I think back on a particularly eccentric aunt that I have, I always recall one dish. This aunt, though I call her 이모 ('eemo,' which means 'sister of my mother'), is not my mother's sister. She is my mother's friend.

My beloved 이모 has always been something of a character. I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't know her, because I was introduced to her when I was about four or five.

I mentioned this very briefly in a list, let me reiterate: I was astonishingly shy all though my childhood. 이모 knows this very well and she's told me that she's amazed at how I've managed to not become a recluse. This is because she is one of the feistiest people I've ever met, and if you've ever met your share of Korean women, that's saying something.

The things I remember about her that still hold true today:

- The poodle perm. The ubiquitous 아줌마 (ajumma*) hairdo that she totally rocks.
- Designer purses and shoes. The woman loves her some Chanel and Louis Vuitton- no knock-offs here, the real deal only.
- Mauve-fuschia-purple-red-pink lipstick. I can't even tell you what color it is. Though she varies it up, all her lipsticks are cut from the same eye-searing cloth. She reapplies her lipstick more frequently in one sitting than I do in a month.
- She calls my sister and me "강아지," which means "puppy." She does this because she loves us, not because she's calling us dogs.
- Flavored coffee creamer, about a gallon per teaspoon of actual coffee. She prefers Coffemate's French Vanilla right now and stocks up with about three or four bottles at a time.
- She adores orchids but has trouble keeping them alive. I buy her a potted orchid pretty much every time I see her.
- Egg rice (egg 밥).

What is egg rice, you ask? Well, first of all, even in Korean, we say "egg 밥" (pronounced "eggu bap") instead of "계란 밥," which would literally translate to "egg rice."

Second of all, I'm going off on a tangent- "rice" is "rice" in English. In Korean, though, uncooked rice is called 쌀 (ssal) and cooked rice is called 밥 (bab or bap, but more accurately, bhap), which is also the same word used for "food." As in, "let's get some food." Confused yet? I read somewhere years ago that many countries use the same word for "food" as they do for their main carb, be it rice or bread. This is definitely true in Korea.

Third of all, though egg 밥 is the easiest dish ever, it gives me more comfort than any bowl of chicken soup ever could. It brings my childhood and my family all back to me in a rush, as soon as I smell the sesame oil hit the hot rice and egg.

I'm pretty sure that every Korean family has their own variation of this. I think most people use raw (!) eggs. Our family's variation was very much inspired by my kooky 이모, but has been tailored and perfected by my sister and me over the past twenty years.

1 or 2 eggs
Oil for frying
Sesame oil, to taste
Soy sauce, to taste

Optional additions:
Toasted sesame seeds, whole or crushed
김 (toasted and salted laver)
고추장 (Korean red chili paste)

- Scoop some rice into a bowl.
- Fry the egg.
- Slide the egg onto the rice.
- Add sesame oil and soy sauce.
- Mix together, breaking the yolk into the rice and breaking the white into pieces, adding sesame seeds and/or red chili paste and/or laver (or the laver can be eaten alongside, wrapped around bites of the egg 밥).

The things that my sister does:

She fries her egg in quite a bit of oil and crisps up the edges of the white until brown and lacy, with the yolk still quite runny.
She likes crushed sesame seeds in her version- a lot of them.
She always eats hers with laver on the side.
She likes a higher proportion of sesame oil to soy sauce, making her version looser and more of a dish to eat with a spoon, rather than chopsticks (oil slicks the sticky rice prevalent in Korean cuisine and prevents them from sticking together).

The things that I do:

I like two eggs cooked over medium heat so the whites turn opaque but don't brown, and the yolks set about halfway. I have weird thing about really runny egg yolks- I can't eat them.
I like a higher proportion of soy sauce to sesame oil, making my version much thicker than my sister's, easy to eat with chopsticks and without a spoon.
I only rarely like crushed sesame seeds in my version.
I like laver and very fermented kimchi on the side.

My dad's the one who like red chili paste in his, though he'd rather also add every side dish in the refrigerator into his bowl, technically making it 비빔밥 (bibimbap, literally translates to "mixed rice").

There are endless variations, but the constants are always the rice, egg, sesame oil, and soy sauce. And never a raw egg- that would make me just about keel over.

I really don't know why the posts about food keep emerging from the hamster that occasionally sprints on a wheel in my brain, but I can't stop! I keep thinking about different things, like my volatile aunt, and somehow, my thoughts meander to food. Very strange, but I'm going where inspiration takes me, not writing assigned posts (wouldn't assignments make blogging so much easier??), so I guess I'll embrace my sudden food-obsessed streak.

Anyways, thanks, 이모, for showing me how to find comfort even when I'm not near my mother and her cooking. Anecdotes about her completely irrational behavior will have to come some other day.

* I don't even know how to describe what an 아줌마 (ajumma) is. She's a lady that is married and generally has children. To call a younger, single woman an 아줌마 would be insulting. To call a shopkeeper or restauranteur an 아줌마 is appropriate. To call someone familiar to you but not related to you an 아줌마 is a term of affection, and probably what I should be calling my 이모 were I not calling her 이모 (aunt), signifying that we are almost as close as family.