A Piece of White Bread and a Cup of Coffee, Mom’s Comfort Food

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This would be probably one of my earliest memories – looking at my mom enjoying a piece of morning quietness with her late breakfast after my dad went to work and my sister went to school. It was before I started kindergarten, so it must have been one of those days she didn’t go to work. Her breakfast was often very very simple. A piece of white bread, dipped in coffee. Just a plain white bread, not toasted, with no jam or butter, no cheese or ham. Even as a kid, I thought it didn’t look delicious at all. When I asked mom why she was having it, she smiled and answered “This is most delicious.”

After years and years and years passed, out of nowhere, not knowing why, sitting alone at the kitchen table in Queens of my current home, I tried what my mom used to have – a piece of plain bread dipped in coffee. Coffee had to be made with instant coffee, prima, and sugar. And that – was delicious.

Plain bread soaked in sweet coffee must be a bit similar to dunking a sweet donut in black coffee, which a lot of people enjoy, but the former somehow has a bit more modest and fragile sentimentality. Donut doesn’t break when it’s dunked in coffee. It holds itself strong enough. But a sliced bread, thin and often fluffy, has only a few seconds of chance to hold between getting soaked in coffee and landing safely in the mouth. But when it does land in the mouth, you can taste the softest and sweetest, melting in the mouth, coffee soaked piece of bread. Most delicious.

Lunch Boxes, Anyang, S.Korea, 1995

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I had very unimpressive junior high school years. Nothing was particularly fun and I probably read the least amount of books for fun during those three years in my life. Pressure started to set in to study for tests, to enter good high school, and eventually good college.

Yet, there still was a fun part. It was during my sophomore year I had such a good time eating lunch with my best friends before lunch time, and again, during lunch time. Teenagers are always hungry. Supposedly we were growing, I guess. Nowadays, school cafeteria is a norm, but we didn’t have cafeteria back then and we were supposed to bring our own lunch boxes everyday. When we came to school, early in the morning, we would open our lunch boxes together. Mmm…we sipped the smell of still warm and steamy delicious lunch, saw what each of us brought for lunch, had a bite or two, or three, and put them away for later. (Otherwise, we would have been very sad during the actual lunch time.)

It was so much fun because everyone brought different food and we all shared. Traditionally, Korean meal consists of rice, soup, and side dishes (called banchan). Since packing soup is trickier, and it alsomakes lunch box heavier, in addition to already heavy book bag we carried around on our shoulders, a lot of kids skipped soup. So a kid would bring 1-3 kinds of banchans, but with friends, you get to taste a lot more than what you bring. During lunch time, a group of friends would all gather and cram around one kid’s desk with all different food and containers, making the boring wooden desk all colorful. Since everyone has different family recipes and their “specialties,” sometimes you get to try something you have never tasted before. If you like your friend’s banchan so much, you can keep a tiny piece of it in your lunch box, bring it back home, then your mom or dad whoever cooks for you can figure out what that is and cook it later.

My all time favorite banchans were sliced egg omelet (you can put anything in the omelet, but my favorite always has been with dried seaweed – ah, so yum!) and mini hot dogs with ketchup. My favorite banchans from my best friend’s lunch box was grilled spam and seaweed salad. I tried seaweed salad for the first time from my friend’s lunch box, and I did bring a piece back home. Since then, my mom made seaweed salad whenever I wanted!

During winter, a lot of students carry thermo-lunch boxes that keep food warm for a few hours. So when you open your lunch box in the afternoon, rice that was packed in that morning would be still steamy and banchans still warm. So good to eat warm food on cold winter days! During summer, usually lunch boxes get lighter, as kids don’t care so much of cooled off rice and banchans. Kids bring all different kinds of lunch boxes, all cleverly designed to accommodate right amount of food, several banchans not to get mixed up, along with chopsticks or spoon/fork combo! Some kids would bring a separate container with fruits for dessert, which we always shared.

Since moving to New York, I got used to eating alone, especially lunch. Everyone is busy, everyone has a different schedule, and everyone wants to do something different during lunch time other than chatting and sharing food. It’s nothing to be sad about and I never mind it. It actually makes occasional gatherings to have meal together extra special. Yet, thinking of those old time in junior high school lunch time does make me think of the time when sharing food and stories with friends on a regular basis was such a norm and a part of everyday life.

 

 

Coffee with Half & Half in New Haven, 2005

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I stayed in New Haven briefly over the summer of 2005, subletting a modest studio apartment from a student writer who was spending her summer in New York. It was my very first time living completely on my own, in a “real” apartment, not a dorm room. Though it was only for three months, I felt pretty cool. Until then, my experience in America had been limited to visiting friends and relatives or living on campus, which were all very safe and not so “independent”. I was pretty excited with this new setting and enjoyed every bit of it. When a close friend came to stay with me for a few weeks, flying all the way from Korea, even going grocery shopping became a fun activity (probably because we treated ourselves with crispy crème donuts whenever we went grocery shopping).
Then one day we went into a corner store. It was then when this small package of milk with a picture of coffee on top caught my eye. I instantly thought ‘Oh, they have coffee milk in America, too.’ By “coffee milk,” I mean “coffee flavored” milk, just like chocolate milk or strawberry milk. Coffee milk was my favorite choice of drink as a teenager in Korea, regardless of the fact that it basically was just sweet milk with a hint of coffee scent. Upon graduating high school, I had evolved into a sophisticated grown-up who drank coffee instead of coffee milk. Yet I felt very happy and nostalgic seeing coffee milk, I immediately bought one. When we came home, I opened it and drank right from the packet as I always did in high school. Of course it wasn’t sweet, coffee flavored milk I expected, that came pouring into my mouth. I stopped drinking, with my eyes wide-open, and my friend looked at me puzzled, probably because I must have had the most confusing look on my face.
That was the first time I learned about “half&half”that it was cream for coffee. And during that summer, I enjoyed my iced coffee greatly with half&half. When summer heat cooled off during the evening, my friend and I would make iced coffee, with half&half, come out of the small studio apartment, and drink the coffee outside, pretending we were old time local residents of the building. Though no one would have thought so, we liked to think that way. And my friend would praise that I made excellent coffee. (It was instant coffee with half&half.) A few years later, we got to spend another couple weeks together over the summer and I made iced coffee. When she tasted it, after a moment of silence, she said, “Your coffee in New Haven was so much better.” And I agreed my coffee tasted better at that time. Then, we realized, it wasn’t that I had made good coffee in New Haven – it was the magical half&half that we hadn’t known before, that made coffee so tasty!
Alas, I don’t enjoy half&half any more, (I like to think I evolved even more into more sophisticated grown-up, who likes one’s coffee dark and bitter) but I just cannot forget the first time I encountered half&half. And it certainly made our summer of 2005 better with tasty coffee.

Breakfast To Go, Illinois, 2003

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I found my favorite breakfast in America in 2003, while I was attending a small liberal art boarding college, located deep into a little town near Mississippi river. It was during my very first year I spent in U.S. as a grown-up (I’m saying this because I spent two years in U.S. in my infancy when my family was living in Ohio, which of course I don’t remember).

As much as I loved the life on campus – surrounded by nature, very supportive and safe environment, lifelong friends and great teachers – I was also struggling to adjust to a completely new life and culture, far, far away from my beloved families and friends who I left behind in S.Korea. The little town and the small campus had absolutely no Korean around, and I was very often homesick from not being able to speak my mother tongue. Though my friends and classmates were more than wonderful, having to have a conversation in English all the time drained my energy sometimes and I just wanted to be alone. Being alone wasn’t easy though in a small and intimate setting of a boarding school campus where everyone knew everyone. (This must have been an ideal setting though for a first timer in US, I later realized. It is horrifying to imagine coming to NY as a first timer, where people are too busy and quite indifferent in others.)

Then there was this Thursday morning breakfast when everything came together perfectly for the relaxation of my body and soul. I had one hour class from 9am. My roommate had three hour class and was gone for the entire morning. (Come to think of it, I was a horrible, awkward roommate, especially for the first semester.) And the school cafeteria, where most of students came for three meals a day, or two, if you skip one, served my favorite breakfast every Thursday! Their breakfast menu was on a weekly routine, and I couldn’t have loved this Thursday breakfast more. It was buttery biscuits with sausage gravy on top. Mmm…so yum! I actually didn’t miss Korean food that much during my first year in US, and adjusted quite well to American food (which I’m not so sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing). But that biscuit with sausage gravy was especially so good and even now it makes my mouth water. I often skipped breakfast, but on Thursdays, as soon as the morning class was over, I would run to the cafeteria, being very impatient, got the biscuit with sausage gravy on top to go, came back to a quiet empty room, and slowly indulged in eating the delicious, peaceful breakfast all by myself.

I’m not sure if I will still like the food now if I have that again (oh, I will like it!!) – but in any case, back then, it was the most perfect comfort food for a tired and lonely foreign student who sought the peace of mind and body.

 

 

Breakfast in Tokyo, 2010

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Now I can take a convenient non-stop flight between New York and Seoul, but in early 2000s, when I lived in midwest, all my planes to and from Korea had an overlay in Japan. After ten plus something hours of being cramped in a narrow seat from USA to Japan, I would sit at the transfer gate totally exhausted, thinking of home that I would get to in couple hours. I had never gone outside of the airport (except one time the airline overbooked the flight and I stayed at the nearby hotel until the next flight) to explore the city. Then in 2010, my close friend from college who had moved to Tokyo invited me to stay over, and I stopped by for a week on my way home to Korea.
I ate a lot of delicious food during my stay in Japan, but what I remember the most is the breakfast my friend cooked every morning. She had recently moved to the apartment at that time, so didn’t have any table to sit around. We would sit on the floor with food and eat together. Every morning, she made hearty meal for our breakfast. Even for someone who loves cooking, making breakfast every day for someone else is a lot of work especially when it involves more than pouring cereal and milk in a bowl. She always included small side dishes of pickled veggies, lots of salad with fresh lettuce, and big omelet style eggs, which were all delicious. On top of that, there was a main dish – one day it was perfectly simmered chicken to go on top of rice, another day it was grilled fish, another day it was tiny pancakes with tuna, crab, and veggies. While my friend was cooking, I stayed in bed and got up only when the breakfast was ready. It definitely was the luxury not many grownups get to enjoy, and it still remains as my favorite memory in Japan, thanks to my friend’s heartfelt hospitality.

Breakfast in Selcuk, 2002

AramKim_2016_TurkishBreakfast_Selcuk_CR_72dpi_singedSince my sister and I didn’t prepare anything (though I’m tempted to say we were spontaneous, we were simply unprepared), when an old man who was waiting at the bus station of a town called Selcuk (10-12 hours away by bus towards South from Istanbul) told us he had a guest house, we happily followed him. It was quite common back then that small guest house owners would wait for their potential customers at the train or bus station, hoping to get backpackers like us  when long distance bus or train arrived.  After a long overnight bus ride, we were just ready to go anywhere if they had a room for us.

The town was very quiet and peaceful. The room was…so bare. Bed was very small and wobbly  and the mattress so thin. There was a curtain instead of a door for the bathroom. We were about to feel a little bit sorry for ourselves, but then when we walked out of the house to look around the town, there was a sudden wave of fragrance. It was from jasmine flowers that were abundantly covering the gate arch. The smell was so divine, air so sweet, all of a sudden, it almost felt surreal. (There were a lot of surreal moments afterwards while traveling in Turkey.) And this was the moment the trip in Turkey really started becoming memorable.

Next morning, breakfast was set out in the garden. Our old host was very proud of the set up, and he had all the right to be. It was gracious. Sliced tomatoes and cucumbers were so fresh, white cheese was just rightly salty, soft bread with butter and jam melted in the mouth. Boiled eggs were delicious. On top of that, sweet jasmine fragrance and fresh air just made everything so heavenly. This was now so long ago, I don’t remember if we ate with the host’s family or if there were olives on the table (which feels to be the probability) or if we drank coffee or tea or both, but this sensation of eating such fresh breakfast out in the garden surrounded by flowers is forever  ingrained in my brain as one of the perfect moments that I had in Turkey.

Breakfast in Istanbul, 2002

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Fall 2002, My sister and I went traveling in Turkey, not quite having anything planned out.  Only thing we reserved other than a plane ticket was the guest house which seemed to be the only guest house run by a Korean owner. There were many guest houses run by Koreans all over Europe, but at that time, Turkey wasn’t yet a popular destination for traveling for Koreans. We naively expected to get all the information needed to travel in Turkey in that guest house, which turned out to be just a plain house, that must have lived in, not really a lodging facility. It was a house with a room and a bathroom, in a total residential area, and the owner dropped us off there with a key and left. Though not dirty, we could tell the bedding hadn’t been changed or the room was cleaned since the last guests left (we knew this because the last guests hadn’t yet left).

After spending a nervous night in the so-called guest house, not having anyone around to ask about anything, we came out for breakfast in the morning. The house was located far from the downtown, but there was quite a busy street with stores. My sister and I walked into this small store that seemed to be a bakery. The store was very crowded and we figured the food there must have been good. But because it wasn’t located in the touristic area, the waiter spoke no English (needless to say we spoke no Turkish) and the menu was in Turkish without any pictures! So we just pointed any two dishes, not having a slightest clue of what they were.

When the food came out – it was DIVINE. So delicious. I wonder if the waiter had kindly brought out popular dishes, instead of what we actually ordered, since it was so obvious we had no idea what we were ordering. I believe what we ate at that time was peynirli börek (pastry consisting of several thin layers of dough with cheese filling) and kıymalı börek (same with minced meat filling). I only remembered the food itself, not the name (not that I actually knew the name), but based upon the Internet search from five minutes ago, these seem to be correct. Actually at that time, we were sad  we wouldn’t be able to order this delicious food again since we didn’t even know the name of the food.

Anyway, this delicious mouthwatering breakfast certainly brightened our mood and cheered us up completely. It gave us a nice anticipation that wherever we would go, no matter how many obstacles we might face, there would be at least delicious food. And it was true.