The Simple Things

Although I love making fancy food, and Americans in general like to pile on the flavors, I was recently reminded that sometimes simple is best.

I recently visited my Korean friend in North Jersey for the weekend. We wandered about town, checking out restaurants, as is our wont when together, visiting the hobby shop, exploring the parts of H-Mart he doesn’t usually bother with unless accompanied by an amusingly naive Westerner like me, all that fun stuff. I slept on his couch, and the next morning, I had breakfast with his family. (Well, sort of; the kitchen table is small and he also had relatives over, so we ate in shifts.)

A bowl of sticky brown rice with some black beans in it was placed before me along with a pair of steel chopsticks and a spoon. In Korea, the chopsticks are metal because they’ve been making everything out of metal since the beginning of recorded history, and it’s traditional to use a spoon for rice, porridges, and stews. (Soups are generally made to be sipped straight from the bowl, often as the only liquid of a meal, with drinks served only after the food is finished.) Arranged haphazardly around the table were a bowl of sautéed dried anchovies with hot pepper rings (I would say “stir-fried,” but “sauté,” from the French word for “jump,” is more evocative of the cooking method), a bowl with a braised makerel steak (bones still in) in a spicy sauce, a tupperware container of cold steamed broccoli, another of carrot sticks, a third of barely-spicy green peppers, and two bowls of sauce, one strong (the sauce base was 된장 (doenjang)), the other sweet. We ate, taking a chopstick-full of anchovies here, a bite of pepper dipped in strong sauce there, broccoli in sweet sauce, spicy mackerel, not on top of the rice, but alternating with spoonsful of it. It was surprisingly filling and absolutely delicious.

When I got home, I noticed that I had three half-full bags of bread flour, so I decided to use some of it up. How else but by making bread? I haven’t done so in quite a while (I don’t have a stand mixer, so I have to knead by hand, which is every bit as exhausting as it sounds, which makes homemade bread a sometimes food for me), and so every bit of the work that went into it felt worth it as the house filled with the aroma of freshly-risen dough and newly-baked bread.

These two events got me to thinking about how, in spite of my love of complicated, spicy, creative dishes, sometimes it’s the simple things that are best. That Korean breakfast of mostly whole foods with some rice and a couple of dipping sauces was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time, and while I spent hours slaving over four servings of 삼계탕 (samgyetang) to introduce my less spice-crazy friends to Korean food recently, I also had a very lovely meal consisting only of stewed vegetables, a little chicken, and a couple of slabs of fresh bread. Although I had dinner at a fancy sushi restaurant, my midnight meal (as I tend to stay up far too late; it’s 2:50 AM right now) was ham and cheese on some of the remainder of that bread.

In our rush for newer, bigger, better, cooler, we often bypass the simple-yet-just-as-good, and that’s a shame. Those wonderful meals I talked about were also far healthier than most of the rest of what I eat, and with all the world for inspiration it’s not like I would ever get tired of simple fare. Not only is it often good, sometimes it’s better than the complicated derivatives. Take, for example, the simple omelet. Just an egg or two, beaten and cooked in a pan until it sets just beyond custard, perhaps with a little cheese. I’d say “nothing fancy,” but that’s actually far fancier than what I custom-made for students when I worked in my university’s cafeteria: bacon, ham, mushroom, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and cheddar cheese, all packed into one small omelet pan’s worth of eggs, the thickness a third of the width after folding. Don’t get me wrong; I’m an American through and through, and I like me a heavy omelet (almost a fritata, really) now and again, but it’s nice to pause and appreciate the simple things in life now and again.

Even the simple American cup of joe has gotten high-falutin’ enough to need an occasional kick in the pants. In high school, I myself went through a period wherein I scorned my Eastern European relatives’ tendency to drink mediocre coffee black with massive amounts of sugar (we’ll ignore my Italian relatives, as they tended not to like coffee at all), preferring instead the more gourmet coffees straight or with a touch of cream, sometimes branching off into the fancy mixed drinks. Although I retain a touch of the coffee snob, any scorn (except for Starbucks when they call their horrible straight coffee “gourmet”) was beaten right out of me during my drifting period, when I discovered that there is no nectar as sweet as that half-pot of stale drip coffee that I’d share with my boss between two and six AM in the back of a bakery, and I caught myself drinking a cup yesterday that would make my grandma proud.

I suppose I’m meandering a bit, but my point, again, is that fancy isn’t always best. My favorite Italian dish is just spaghetti tossed with a little garlic, egg, and olive oil as soon as it comes out of the pot. A great way to eat most vegetables is steamed and lightly salted, maybe with a dash of olive oil, sesame oil, or butter. I eat Japanese rice all the time with no seasoning or just a little furikake, and you haven’t lived till you’ve had basmati rice boiled with some whole spices. I could probably spend until dawn listing dishes that are so simple I barely even think about them as I eat them, and yet when I do think about them they’re among my favorite foods. I’d better stop now before I have to eat again, since I ought to be going to sleep instead. However, I’ll part with this prompt:

What simple foods do you find yourself loving? The crisp sweetness of plain fresh fruit? The yeasty goodness of fresh bread? Something traditional in your family or something a friend turned you on to? And what do you think could stand to be toned down in your life? Perhaps you want to get to the root of the fancy pasta dishes you get at Italian restaurants, or maybe you just find yourself adding too many ingredients to a salad even when you originally meant to try it relatively plain (believe me, I know how you feel on that one). Do you maybe not like simple foods at all? If not, why do you think that is, and would you give something new but simple a try? Remember, simple doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “whole foods;” bread is a mixture of several thoroughly-processed ingredients, and it’s been the epitome of “simple” food in Europe for millennia.

Ponder these things, grab your favorite simple snack, and comment; I’d love to hear from you.


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