I was eight years old the first time I cooked for a group. It was New Year’s morning, and I had spent the night at my friend’s house drinking fizzy grape juice from plastic cups in my best pyjamas. I woke up before everyone else and thought I would surprise her family with a New Year’s breakfast spread of pancakes with scrambled eggs. I remember the pancakes being pretty good, with sliced strawberries and doused in maple syrup. I also remember my friend’s parents’ faces when they walked into their kitchen and found me in my PJs and an explosion of flour and egg shells on the counter and pancake batter caked all over the stove. Surprise.
A few angry words from hungover parents did not deter me from cooking for others. Nothing makes me happier than when my friends and family are eating and laughing around my table and then roll out of my house in a food coma. In high school, I made late-night tempura for friends when we snuck into my house past my curfew. When I was at university, I made a Thanksgiving feast for friends out of my small dorm room kitchen the night before we all left to see our families. And for the past few years, I celebrate Thanksgiving at my home in Hong Kong. So many of my friends here had never tasted Thanksgiving dinner before they came to my place. How could they have survived in this world without knowing the joys of roast turkey and stuffing, pumpkin pie and candied sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts with bacon, chocolate pecan pie? My heart bleeds for these deprived souls, so we are usually about 80 people at Thanksgiving.
“The more the merrier” should be tattooed across my chest. This mantra applies to the number of people around my table, the ceramics lugged home from trips, and the various influences in my food.
When people ask me what kind of food I cook, my answer is usually “Korean…kind of”. It’s Korean-ish. You could get fancy and call it new or modern Korean cooking. Just, whatever you do, please don’t call it “fusion”, which only reminds me of 1980s blue neon signs and fish tanks.
The truth is my cooking is fluid, with a Korean base. There are influences from growing up in the States, my years in Europe and Hong Kong and my travels. At home, I often make Korean dishes and layer in Chinese and Mexican flavours and spices. Or I might come back from a trip with a suitcase filled with goodies from the local market – like last year when I returned from Iran with a heaving sack of dried barberries and dill, threw them into a kimchi omelette, invited my friends over and declared my new favourite cuisine to be Korean Persian food.
This is the kind of food I like to eat. I hope you end up craving it as much as I do. More importantly, the recipes I want to share are good for when you want to share.
Look out for the first recipe in a couple of days…
All images by Alice Gao