Remember those days when you were a pre-teen? An awkward, gangly creature who spent their days tripping over their feet (definitely almost smacked my head into a gate once). As a pre-teen, my friends and I shared our time and our stories. We ranted about our homework loads (which were nothing, by the way; how were we supposed to know how lovely high school is?). At the end of three glorious years, we wept together as the impending doom of our separating paths seeped into our brains.
Most of that was shadowed by lunch. My friends and I shared food, and often. As morsels of delicacies were handed to me, I felt like my trades to my friends were inadequate for what I was receiving. And my friends, shockingly, felt the same way. My friend Erica and I had a regular routine. After we both ate our fruit, I’d give her my sharp cheddar in exchange for her salami. I couldn’t understand why she’d want my boring cheddar, but she (amongst my other friends) really gravitated towards that cheese (I still don’t get it).
Other friends gave me more elaborate food. The grandma of one of my friends would constantly make and send xiao long bao, those ridiculously fragrant and slurpable soup dumplings to school for my companion’s lunch. My friend, who was stuffed with them at home, grew tired of them, and would swap lunches with me once and a while. I was overjoyed. Who knew a hallway in the sixth grade wing would be the best market for xiao long bao? Even though the dumplings were hours old, they were still warm and intact at the time of my ravenous consumption. The pork was tender and the soup spilled forward with a heady ginger aroma.
The xiao long bao wasn’t my only lunchtime harvest. Dan tats migrated their way into my stomach via my friend Kendall, whose parents trekked frequently to Oakland to visit her grandparents (and stop off at a bakery or two). Buttery, shatteringly crisp shards of pastry stuck to my shirts while my tongue smoothed over the rich, eggy custard center. On other days, Jessica’s mom would send extra kimbap for me. The slices were laden with thinly sliced beef, pickled daikon, julienned carrots, sauteed spinach, sweet scrambled egg and imitation crab. So many flavors that blended seamlessly together in a tidal wave of tastebud bliss. Even as a naive twelve-year old, I knew that this stuff was good.
When J’s mom didn’t have the time to make kimbap (honestly, who does?) and J didn’t want a sandwich, J would get seaweed gochujang rice rolls. Trust me, they are a lot more appetizing than they sound. J’s mom used purple rice, which is basically Korean brown rice. It is super nutty and flavorful, and (to me) it tastes a lot less healthy than normal brown rice. Which is a good thing, in my eyes. The gochujang was mixed with a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce, then combined with the rice. The rice was rolled up in little sheets of seasoned seaweed, then tucked into a container for J’s later enjoyment.
It’s simplicity at its best. The gochujang is spicy enough to make your mouth tingle, but sweet enough so that you can taste the other flavors at play. The seaweed is seasoned, but not overly so. The firm grains of rice work against the softness of the pliable seaweed.
Seaweed gochujang rice rolls are the only Korean thing I can make consistently well, but that’s okay. There’s so many Korean restaurants around that I can get reasonably delicious Korean food on any day that I like. And besides, I can always sidle up to J and weasel her into donating a golden, heavenly slice of kimbap.