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.
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.
Since 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.
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.
There are things you don’t truly appreciate until much later. Unconditional love and support you get from your parents is one of them because it feels so natural when you are receiving them. I often thought of my parents’ support on whatever I chose to do, but it wasn’t until quite recent that I thought of the physical effort they must have gone through while I was in high school.
High schools in S.Korea are straightforward intense. I was supposed to get to school by 7:30 in the morning, school was over by 5 in the afternoon, but after one hour of dinner break, students were to gather again for a self study session until 10 at night. One goal for everyone was acing the national college entrance exam in November and enter a prestigious college. While I was going through this crazy routine for three years, my mom and dad went through the same crazy routine.
The school I attended was far away from home, by choice, about two hours away by subway/bus. So dad drove me, everyday, to, and from school. By driving, and especially because it was so early in the morning with no traffic, it took less than an hour to get to school. Mom packed my lunch everyday, waking up much earlier than rest of the family, and also packed dad’s and my breakfast before we left around 6:30 am. When we arrived in front of school, Dad and I would sit in the car quietly and eat the breakfast Mom packed for us. Most of the time it was ham, cheese, egg sandwich with lettuce, and milk. The sandwich was cut in four pieces, each piece wrapped carefully, and put together in a clean bag. After eating, I went to school, dad went to work. Then by the time I finished, dad would come from work (long after his work hour was over) and drove me home. We actually had a good time, though both were tired, spending so much time together in a car, everyday.
Among countless things my parents did for me, somehow this routine they had for three years especially strikes me as something noble and painful (though they would deny it was neither). But in the mean time, I’m sure what I know is just a tip of iceberg of what they have done for their children.
Things didn’t go quite as I had planned, but I stuck to my original schedule and went to Korea. I arrived on Monday evening, and three weeks later, I left on Sunday morning. It was the most relaxing and happy time I had in a very long time. Partly because I was under a lot of stress, it really comforted me to be with my family who loved me unconditionally and it cheered me greatly to reunite with friends who were always there for me. It was the priceless trip during which I rested thoroughly and this would support me throughout my life as some of the previous trips had.
Most of all, having breakfast each morning with my mom sitting at the kitchen table was my favorite time. Most of days, our breakfast was consisted with a homemade toast (mighty bread machine), a perfectly boiled egg (mom had her system), butter and homemade fig jam, couple of fresh strawberries, and a cup of instant coffee. The simplest, the heartiest, the most delicious. Having this delicious breakfast with mom while the sunshine sipped through the window was the food for my body and soul that I would never forget.