CATARINA DE PETERS LEITÃO
The walls flood with afternoon light. The hot kitchen air shortens our breath in summer. It makes me sweat even with the front and back doors open. Lucy is in her room, which is the closest to the kitchen, and her door is open. She is lying in bed with grey marle shorts and a tank top, doodling a new illustration on her iPad.
BULGOGI MARINADE (MIX ALL TOGETHER IN A SMALL BOWL)
● 6 tbsp soy sauce
● 3 tbsp brown sugar
● 2 tbsp rice wine (mirin)
● 2 tbsp grated onion (this is equivalent to ½ large onion – 80g, 2.8 ounces)
I am attempting to make beef bulgogi from an internet recipe. I tasted bulgogi for the first time in this house. Lucy made it. It is one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted in my life. No one should tell this to my mother. Lucy makes it for herself but always ends with enough for two or three. For an hour, she stands by the sink and stove when she makes it, chopping onions. She usually makes me a bowl too. Today I am making it alone for the first time.
● 1 tbsp minced garlic
● 5 tbsp grated red apple (this is equivalent to 1 medium apple – 155g, 5.5 ounces)
● 1 tsp minced ginger
● ⅛ tsp ground black pepper
I am lucky to have her – a friend who knows how to love others with food, not only with words. Recently, I have discovered that my love language is acts of service. It means that I see proof of love deepest through actions. I was convinced it would have been words of affirmation, because I live for receiving messages the size of Russian novels from friends saying how much they miss me and talking extensively about the characters of TV shows that we are both watching. I always remember what boyfriends did for me rather than what they said. Maybe it’s to protect myself when things have gone wrong, so that I don’t whisper their past speeches in my mind. I am aware that both are cruel, but still I prefer actions to words; they seem less harmful.
Though Lucy is half Chinese and half Hawaiian, she makes this dish like she’s Korean, with familiar ease and swift movement. She is quick in preparing it, like a knowing Korean mother.
In Korea, bulgogi is made for special occasions because the beef can be expensive. Bulgogi means fire meat: bul is fire and gogi is meat in Korean. A lot of condiments can be added to it like sugar, honey, and sesame oil. The sauce is made in a blender: a red sauce that reminds me of a Portuguese dish my mother makes. I follow the instructions but not necessarily the list of all ingredients.
1. Remove the blood from the meat with kitchen paper. This can be done by placing the kitchen paper on the cutting board. Then put one slice of meat and layer another piece of kitchen paper on top of the meat. Gently press it down to soak up the blood. Place the meat into a large mixing bowl for marinating.
Bulgogi is prepared with the most tender parts of the meat. It is supposed to feel like it melts in your mouth. Lucy’s chosen meat for the dish is thin pork belly slices, though it’s traditionally made with thinly sliced beef. You can buy bulgogi meat in Korean supermarkets. She says pork belly soaks the sauce better, so this is what I got. I place it in the large bowl.
I put two nashi pears in the blender (Lucy explains that the sweetness of pears heightens the umami of the dish against apples), some onions, Gochujang, that gives it its redness, and some other condiments. I feel like a witch with her secret potions. This is white magic. When I asked her previously for the recipe, she had said, ‘Just google it’. I thought, what do you mean, google it? I didn’t believe something that special could be so easily found. I wanted to believe in the simplicity of the recipe, but I also didn’t.
2. Pour the marinade sauce into the bowl and mix well with the meat. Add the sesame oil and gently mix it in. Cover the bowl with food wrap (or move the meat into a glass container with a lid) and marinate the meat at least four hours in the fridge. If you have more time, you can also marinate it overnight for an enhanced flavour.
I am following the recipe. I make the sauce and let the meat marinade in it, but only for an hour. It’s all the time I have. Prepare and preheat your grill.
She waltzes into the kitchen and says, ‘Oh you’re doing it. Put a sweater on, cover yourself. I’m not kidding’.
I am attempting this dish in the height of summer. Our kitchen still pours with sunlight at 7pm, and I am already suffocating with the natural heat before starting. ‘Put a sweater on’. That isn’t on the recipe, but I do as she says. I grow gradually more confused about making this dish. Though the recipe is clear there are many small instructions, like the ones Lucy is giving me, that are missing. I feel like the stereotypical beginner making something that is far from my own culture.
4. Preheat the wok/skillet on the stove on medium high heat and once heated add the cooking oil and spread it well with a spatula.
5. Add the meat and vegetables and stir. Cook them on high heat for 3 to 5 mins until the meat starts to turn brown. Stir occasionally (every 30 seconds).
‘Is this going to kill me?’ I shouted across the kitchen to her room. I mean, it tastes incredible but –
She walks into the kitchen and warns me as I am about to start grilling the pork belly that her mother has lost her eyebrow hair from making bulgogi for her and her siblings. An ordinary person would have considered not making this, or getting her to make it at this stage, but I now feel responsible for the dish. I have started it, this was my idea. I pretend I am collected and that I have the confidence to deal with a tricky dish that I am making for the first time. I must own it for it is far too late to back out now, the rice is in the rice cooker. I throw on a hoodie. She says with a grave look on her face ‘Cover your hands too’. It is very hot, and my skin is becoming greasy from the heat. She goes back to her iPad art.
And so I cover my hands and swiftly drop the meat into the pan, burning oil splattering everywhere. A panic I couldn’t foresee when dropping the meat takes hold of me, I am highly stressed, like I am now using a stranger’s kitchen. I want to back away from the stove almost immediately, yet the recipe says I have to stir occasionally. There is sharp fiery oil jumping at me. This was not in the recipe, the sizzling oils dart for my forehead, which already looks shiny, due to combination skin. The sweat builds with the unexpected pressure of cooking something new. By now the kitchen feels oven-like and a thick layer of sweat is sandwiched between my hoodie and torso, as if spread by a giant invisible spatula. Trying to get at my face, arms and breasts, I’m heaving with sweat. Oil jumps, landing on the fabric and making me smell like a fish and chip shop. This is usually the stage when Gordon Ramsay starts hyperventilating in his shows and swearing at the white-jacketed chefs in his kitchen, and other people do his job for him. I never noticed Lucy wearing particular outfits for this, and I am now convinced she has never been covered like this to cook it.
6. Reduce the heat gradually as the meat and vegetables cook.
7. Serve the bulgogi onto a plate and enjoy.
I now see why it is saved for special occasions. Fire meat. So, like Lucy and her mum, I keep going. I finish what I have started. When it’s ready, I serve it in a bowl of rice for her. It looks similar to the picture provided in the internet recipe article, a red-tinted meat as if febrile, spicy. She says she would have put potato cubes in the bulgogi. It’s a trick. This was not in the recipe. I had also skipped a couple of other instructions. The dish looks familiar, laid in the bed of steamy white rice, fresh from the cooker, the steam blending with the last of the afternoon light in the kitchen. It belongs, this is how I know that it has been successfully done, by seeing it put together in the bowl. I grab the chopsticks from the drawer for both of us. She comes out of her room. She asks for extra sauce. She is proud that I cooked it on my own for the first time, and that I did not go into her room to ask her for help. I put more sauce in her bowl.
She picks up a yellow sponge and starts wiping the grease stains on the stove. I hear her laughing and laughing again, as the sun starts to set in our kitchen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catarina de Peters Leitão is based in Wellington. Her work has been published in Mimicry and Ruru Reads. She was born and raised in Lisbon and is Te Whānau-a-Apanui. She enjoys writing about and for women.