I’m turning 25 in a month-and-a-half.
Yet, whenever I talk to or hang out with my parents, I instantly morph into my 7-year-old self, the little girl with the headband and high ponytail who wants nothing more than her parents’ praise and pride.
I remember when I was still in primary school, every morning at 6:15 a.m., my mother would force-feed me while my head drooped, heavy with sleep. Whenever my eyes closed and my mouth sagged, my mother would prod me awake and remind me to chew again. And then, as I continued to nod away, my mother would yank my hair back into a tight ponytail, secured with bright-colored bobble hair tie (this is very Korean!).
Dressed and pruned, I would be carried out of the house and pushed up the school bus. The last blurry vision I would see before falling back into sleep were my parents waving goodbye, telling me to buy something yummy to eat for lunch. I spent all my money on Grape Fanta and fish nuggets, but didn’t tell my parents that.
When I came back home from school, the first thing I saw would be my mom or my dad (sometimes both) standing in front of the door, waiting with open arms to greet me back home.
My mother was the bad cop. She was the one disciplining us and restricting us with house rules while my father went on mission trips 280 days a year. Having my dad with us was a treat, both emotionally and physically because he was always hugging and kissing me and my brother, allowing us as many McNuggets as we want (while my mom disapproved) and enthralling us with tales of Popeye and his magic spinach. My brother and I sought his expressions of love and despised my mother when she complained to my dad about our misbehaviors, yet loved her for being the gentler, sweeter counterpart when my dad’s temper fired up.
It’s a strange wonder world to be a kid. You’re at the mercy of these two (or one) individuals who have such powerful control and influence over your life. You feel safe and protected for it, because you know no matter what, your parents will blow at your boo-boo, pat your head when you scored a 100 on your math test, and remind you to eat your vegetables. They’re always there, these seemingly tall and omnipotent beings, to love you and care for you. And so all you ever want to make you happier, is to reward them by making them feel happy and proud of you.
And then you start growing up and realizing that your parents are mere humans, just like you. And you either love them more for their flaws, or get hurt and bitter about it. I’m lucky that I fell in the former category, and blessed that my parents’ flaws and mistakes aren’t as bad as others’.
Parents. I just can’t imagine my life without them, literally.
I have so many lovely childhood memories, and my parents play a role in pretty much all of them. I also have many bad childhood memories, and they mostly involve me misbehaving and getting severely punished by my parents. The worst time in my life was when I left home at 20 and stayed at odds with them for months. I remember crying every day because I felt so unnatural, and I would weep at every song about fatherly/motherly love.
Even now, I call my parents almost every single day and they’ll ask, “What’s going on? Why did you call?” and I’ll mumble, “Nothing, for no reason” and they know that I call because I miss them and the sound of their voices comfort me.
Whoops. I hadn’t meant to state all this. I started this blog post to share childhood snacks, and somehow all of this flowed out from my fingers. I think as you get older you get more and more nostalgic, which is also why childhood snacks burble out so much warm joy.
I didn’t grow up eating cookies and milk or sandwiches in America, nor did I grow up enjoying pretty lunchboxes during family picnics in Korea. I grew up mostly eating cup noodles with raw egg or a peanut pancake after school in Singapore. But my mom did make sure I had my fair share of Korean “after school” snacks, such as kimbap (Korean sushi) and tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes).
That kind of “after school” snacks is the main concept of School Food, a small Korean restaurant in my Koreatown neighborhood.
A church friend introduced it to me…and I’ve been introducing it to my non-Korean friends because unlike some ghetto Koreatown eateries infested with BBQ smoke and non-English menu, this place offers a nice, sparkling atmosphere while retaining a non-intimidating menu.
School Food is actually a Korean international chain, so it’s probably not as “good” to some authenticity-snobs who champion mom-and-pop shops. But it’s nice and bright with friendly service and fairly cheap, decent food, and that’s good enough for me.
Say hi to Sylvia Hur, an absolute sweetheart who schooled me on her philosophy on evangelism and K-pop:
This was our first meal together, and we both decided we were craving Korean “boon shik” (comfort food). She recommended School Food, and I’ve been re-visiting it several times, which is surprising for a dining nomad like me.
The first time, we ordered squid ink roll:
Rice dyed with squid ink, wrapped around marinated dried squid. Drizzled with sweet mayo.
It’s funky to look at and fun to eat. It’s probably less friendly than other kimbaps unless you love dried squid, a Korean snack favorite. The squid inside was both tender and chewy, seeped in some kind of sticky-sweet soy sauce marinade.
We also had tteoksooni:
Tteokbokki + soondae = Tteoksooni. I’ve written about soondae, or Korean blood sausage, before. It’s basically vercimelli noodles boiled with pork’s blood then stuffed into a pig casing.
I used to find soondae kind of nauseating, but I’ve grown fond of it. I actually crave it from time to time. Funny how tastes change like that.
The second time I visited School Food, I brought my darling friend Samantha:
Samantha is my fellow student from this summer’s New York City Convergence. She happened to be in Santa Barbara for a summer internship, and one Monday morning, she drove down to meet up!
Sam was curious about the aloe vera drink and it was a hot day, so I encouraged her to try it:
She liked it! I think it was spiked with 7-Up or Sprite though, as it had a bubbly carbonated characteristic.
We went hiking before so we were ravenous. We ordered three dishes. First was the School Food Mul Naengmyun:
Chilled noodles!! I want to write more in detail about this dish some other post, but I hadn’t eaten naengmyun is so long and this reminded me what a perfect dish it is for this hot summer weather.
Basically, naengmyun is chilled beef broth served with chewy buckwheat noodles. It’s a very, very simple dish—a poor peasant’s dish—and I remember my parents eat this dish every afternoon during the hottest summer days.
Usually this dish comes with hot mustard (kind of like wasabi) but this time they left it out because they assumed Samantha, being non-Asian, wouldn’t be able to tolerate the heat.
Maybe they’re right because Samantha couldn’t eat our tteokbokki without gasping for water.
Now that I think of it, School Food’s tteobokki is pretty spicy even for typical Korean standards. I like it that way, though. But Samantha did bravely try the blood sausage:
Would you eat that? If a Korean kid can chomp that down, so can you.
We also had the Egg Roll:
Inside-out sushi with egg. Stuffed with radish, sausage and spinach the size of ear wax. The squiggly red thing is marinated burdock, I think.
Urgh. Pretty to behold, but too much rice!! That’s a pet peeve of mine. If you want to skimp on the filling, just make it smaller. Don’t bulk it up with rice, because then it’ll just be bland carbs.
The third time I visited School Food was to have a reunion dinner with my close friend Jordan, the day we reunited after a long summer break. We sat and talked for so long the restaurant closed up and we were asked to leave.
I have had great memories every time I visited School Food. I can’t argue that it has the best food, but for some reason I crave it frequently and whenever I dine out, School Food appears as one of the options. Since it’s not the food, it’s definitely the memories.
Question of the Day: What did you usually eat after school when you were young?