Cooking Other Cultures. (How to Make Samgyethang The Indian Way.) Or Not.

I am not a foodie. I don’t get excited by the idea of eating out or by food itself but I like to cook. Cooking is equal to meditation. Especially when I am in my own kitchen with no mother, sister, aunties (who are far better cooks than me) hovering over my shoulder clucking away in disapproval. My kitchen is the space for contemplation and rumination.

I mostly cook from memory. As I remember my mother, sister, grandmother and aunts do their thing. It is strange what you imbibe listening to the women gossip in the kitchen…the smell of ground spices as it mixes into grated coconut browning on the caramelised onion…fishy fumes from the gurgling, hot oil as the batter slathered Bombay Duck slides into it…related imagery and olfaction as such.

So I replicate the familiar, the comfortable. As meditative practice. Bar my pathetic attempts to make pasta and Thai curries from supermarket sauce bottles and paste sachets. Even then I do it with a sense of ‘whatever’, still meditative. Only I have to eat it anyway. 🙂

It was in the course of my work, at a Korean household and deep in conversation, that the wholesome smell of chicken soup floating along my olfactory pathway. ‘You are making chicken soup’, I said to the lady of the house. ‘Samgyethang’, she said. Not chicken soup. I asked to see it; home cooked food from a different culture learnt from watching her mother, listening to the women in the kitchen. Via familiarity. Just like me. It is the inherent nature of food, its role in every culture. Whether Lamingtons, pavlova or roti canai. So there it was. A huge steel pot, the goodness of chicken filled with ginseng and rice. I clicked a photo and posted it on Facebook but I could not get the image out of my head. Food pictures are a strange thing. They stimulate the gustatory senses via visuals even as you imagine the smell, whichever culture. Nek minnit, I’d bought chicken on special at the supermarket and from there started my journey to make samgyethang. Not for a moment did I think that I might be invading another culture. It was the idea of wholesome food from another woman’s kitchen that was worth emulating see. Without actually researching the recipe in detail, just remembering the oral instructions. As one should.

Then on the day I panicked. As I gathered the ingredients I got performance anxiety and voices in my head. What if it turned out inedible? But how can any kind of chicken soup, from whichever culture, be inedible? IT IS NOT CHICKEN SOUP! What makes you think you can make something you have never eaten before? So on and so forth. So I looked up the recipe online. Chicken (check), garlic (nope, have to use shallots), red dates (Indian dates, check), ginseng (nada), spring onion (nyet, should use chives), short grain rice (got Basmati instead). I mean what else does one expect in an Indian kitchen? What a stupid thing to do, cook samgyethang instead of good old chicken curry. I tussled. Seriously. Was this venture going to be meditative-contemplative or about cooking the perfect samgyethang, when I did not even know how it tasted? So I made it the Indian way. Like this, with Indian ingredients.

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Just thought I would share it. And the lessons learnt.

(a) Always prepare ahead for something you have never cooked

(b) Taste the real thing first.

(c) Don’t ever use Basmati rice instead of short grain rice. They have different functions, such as the former does not make sticky rice or cook in the belly of a chicken.

(d) Never use Indian spices for Korean dishes. Green cardamom, cinnamon and clove make it sweet. Ginger is not ginseng. D-uh.

What I did do right? Remove the froth from the boiling water and chicken to get rid of the fat. Then I showed off to my Korean friends, just as I am now. Can cook other cultures. Just should not the Indian way.

*Check out the real recipe at the link above.

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