My Forever Inspiration, Halmoni

My halmoni, or grandmother, always cooked a full dinner for my family—me, my mother, and my father, after they came back home from work.

Written by Doobydobap

My halmoni, or grandmother, always cooked a full dinner for my family—me, my mother, and my father, after they came back home from work. Looking back on it now, I am in complete awe of her dedication to our family meals. Every day at 7 o’clock, my parents would stumble in home after a long day of work. We would sit down around the family heirloom mountain-ash pine table. She would first bring out the side dishes. They would come on a large stainless steel tray with faded rose patterns— worn out from transporting countless dishes to and from the kitchen. Then came the main dish. She would open the lid, and her glasses would turn opaque from the steam. We would all hold hands for a quick prayer, and feast.

Her signature stainless steel floral tray

I remember my halmoni in her floral apron in the kitchen with her bifocals hanging by her neck. To me, she seemed big. She had large callous ridden hands from years of working and a loud laugh that would ring my ears. Despite her working hands and attire, she always had her gold chain necklace my mom bought for her back in 96’ after her first paycheck from the hospital. I always thought that my mom and my grandma were polar opposites. My mom is a slender, pale, and cosmopolitan dentist who speaks perfect standard Korean. She has hands of a pianist—her fingers long and pale, and her soft hands untainted by harsh labor. People often thought she was a daughter of a wealthy family from Seoul, when in reality she was born into a poor country bumpkin fruit seller family in Soonchun. Despite their differences, my grandma was so proud of my mom. As the first to go to medical school in their entire extended family, my mom was my halmoni’s greatest pride, even more than my uncle who is her only son. Therefore, she did not want my mom to learn how to cook. She vowed to be her supporter and a supporter of her family to help her study for her PhD in orthodontistry and to eventually open her own clinic.

So when I was born, my grandma moved in with my family to help my mother raise me. Both my parents were working back then, working overtime to pay back their debts accrued from years of schooling and opening their clinics. Naturally, I ended up spending most of my time with my halmoni in the  kitchen, watching her whip up mouth-wateringly beautiful and delicious meals. Watching her cook was stupefying. To me, she was like a wizard preparing a magical potion. She would throw a pinch of this, a pinch of that with nonchalance a delicious meal would suddenly appear before my eyes. She could also see, feel, smell, and hear taste. She would be tossing namul, or grilling a fish, or stewing meat and know by feel what was missing. She’d tell me to fetch her a missing ingredient, and I’d ask her how she knew if it needed more without tasting it. To that she would respond with absurd answers like “Still sound too soggy”, “No pshhhhhh sound”, “No funk, no good.” 

I’m sure many people out there reading this also share a similar experience with their grandmothers. All the Italian nonnas, Spanish abuelas, Russian babushkas, Japanese obachaans, paved the way for the foods we love and eat today. And that’s the food I love to eat and make. No frills. Homey. Nourishing. Simple.

Hi, I’m Tina aka Doobydobap!

Food is my medium to tell stories and connect with people who share the same passion. My recipes are a culmination of my experiences. I hope you enjoy recreating them at home, and if you do, make sure to tag me on Instagram!

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