Balms Not Bombs
Korean rice cake soup recipe and hopes for a new year.
I can taste it before I start. The slightly springy texture of rice cakes, the perfect imperfection of handmade noodles, the rich briney, earthy broth, the silky texture of the most delicately poached egg. My mom is pining for Rice Cake soup, which we traditionally eat on New Year’s Day...both of them. Roman and lunar, although my personal sense of renewal seems more to coincide with the latter - something about not being committed to the same date, each year, feels right to my sensibilities. This is the year of the ox, lumbering in slowly, cautiously after the dynamic expression of 2020. Collectively, we are weary and worn.
Last year, I brought in the Lunar New Year at a Tibetan monastery, high up in the Catskill mountains. I was probably very satisfied with myself, for what felt like some sort of spiritual achievement - although more a privilege or gift. Lucky me, able to breath fresh mountain air and pray and sit in spaces dedicated to worship. Some of the newly initiated monks were originally from China, and they were unable to return home as the COVID virus was emerging as a real threat in the East. I began to sense the magnitude of the time we were about to enter.
I had been watching a historical drama set in ancient Korea in which there was a smallpox outbreak. Part of the resolution in the show was the discovery and use of vaccination techniques that were innovated in the West. Maybe it was the similarity of the colors, architecture, symbolism at the monastery which reminded me of the ancient Korea I never knew, but watching the despair brought on by the epidemic, seemed to inform what I was currently experiencing. It put me in the context of the plight of humans when we encounter the most fearsome of our enemies, the unseen, unknowable, the microscoptic. My only resounding thought: “We’ve been through this, before. So many times before…“ In our collective psyche, we have been confronted by that omnipotent force, that can take away, anything and everything that we hold dear, in what seems like a snap of a finger. Moreover, all the paradigms, systems, and habits that encourage a feeling of disconnection were staunchly in place; it was scarier than when we knew less. We’re going to go through it again. And again.
A year later, we’re still in the fallout of all that is taking shape. The restructuring, the adjustments, the ways a year of living in quarantine has affected our lives. Sometimes, it feels like bombs were dropped everywhere. That road that connected you to your family, friends, your job, washed out, impassible. An atomic bomb was detonated in our collective consciousness. We have to wrestle with the dichotomy of how interdependent we are and deal with the risks of being infected or passing an infection should we choose to inter-relate. At times I was paralyzed in the swamp of despair.
My antidote is to create. So, that’s when I start thinking about it. The New Year’s rice cake soup. I want to fulfil my mother’s desire - almost her obligation to our culture, to have that soup. Moreover, I want to have that soup to remind myself of all the hopeful thoughts that come with a dawning of a new year. Making the soup will be like trying to fulfill an unspoken promise I’ve made with myself. The act of creation is my connection to the unknown force, coaxing it to be a gentle yet vital experience, which will feed and nurture. The act of service is my way of expressing the inherent love and appreciation of a blessed life, this blessed moment.
I start by cleaning a bulbous scallion I want to use as a garnish. The outer leaves are wilting but still pungent, and I strip them from the stalk along with any yellowing leaves and boil it in a couple cups of water. Within 5 minutes, the water is light green with a mild, savory flavor. There’s a small amount of ground beef from my favorite butchers upstate, which I marinate with some soy sauce, crushed garlic, white pepper, sesame oil. I strain out the broth and proceed to saute the beef mixture, in the stockpot, until the meat is cooked. I pour in the light green broth and combine it with some broth my mother has made with daikon and dried anchovies, it takes like the ocean….surf and turf. When the water starts to boil, I add more soy sauce and salt and adjust it to taste. It should have the same impact as when you first dive into the sea; tasting the salty shock of the mineral in the water. Once the flavor is right, I add in the rice cakes and some handmade noodles. Another 5 minutes for the starch to cook. By then, I have a bright orange egg lightly scrambled. I’ll throw this in last as I’m turning off the heat and sealing the flavors with a lid. The latent heat should gently cook the egg proteins, forming ribbons of yellow that enrich the broth and add another layer of texture. The scallion wants to be sliced thinly as a garnish for the soup but also to elevate and to serve as a foil to the flavors.
After the creating, the only need is now to share. I serve it to my mom and myself. We always eat together. Occasionally, she’ll complement me and say that it tastes like it came from a restaurant. It’s amusing, the praise, since what I’m really going for is that the dish feels like home. A simple, peasant dish, made with intention, to evoke the feeling of being where you feel safe, loved, held. Each spoonful, a balm.