It didn’t start with the bulgogi, but I realized what was happening with the bulgogi: I was shedding my self-image of being an indifferent cook. I was — could it be? — enjoying myself. I was now … a different cook. I might even start cooking for other people more now, despite my historic performance anxiety.
For a few days before I moved to Scotland, after I sold my condo, I stayed in a hotel and cooked my meals in a microwave or ate out. For six weeks after I arrived in Scotland, I stayed in an AirBnB with a tiny fridge, no freezer, and few cooking implements, so I ate a lot of very simple or prepared meals (pasta and the Marks and Spencer food hall are lifesavers).
When I moved to my current apartment (I mean, flat) in November, I was giddy at the prospect of a large kitchen complete with a full-sized fridge with freezer compartment — not entirely common in rentals here. Working mostly from home and making my own hours meant I didn’t get home exhausted and hungry at 6 pm. I could plan. I could cook.
Starved (not literally) for all my favourite home-cooked foods, I planned out meals, stocked up on the necessary ingredients – delivered by ASDA or Tesco because I don’t have a car and was starting from zero — and ordered whatever cookware I needed from Argos or Amazon. (My furnished flat came with dishes but not cutlery, a toaster but not pots and pans.)
In the relative paradise that was my new kitchen, I made my favourite one-pot recipes: Moroccan chicken, a vaguely Mexican pork stew called Mancha Manteles, my random chilli that uses up all the produce that would soon go bad, and quasi-Thai chicken lettuce wraps. I made Christmas morning wife saver and a fig and brie pizza similar to one I loved at Vancouver’s Rocky Mountain Flatbread. I made the Chicken Milanese from Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram stories.
Nothing out of the ordinary, really, but I was making more recipes more often than usual for me. The bonus of having no friends in a new country, and of not working in an office where I could forget to bring a packed lunch? I was eating out less.
And then one evening, struck with a craving for bulgogi, I got Korean takeout. I’m not normally a food snob, but the whole point of bulgogi is that sharp, vinegary, sesame oily taste, the crunch of spring onions and toasted sesame seeds on top of thinly sliced beef. Not plain old chunks of beef on rice in a Styrofoam container.
I learned that restaurant food here, especially Asian food, doesn’t taste quite like I’m used to. Not the Korean, not the Chinese, not the Japanese. I’m used to the Canadian version of inauthentic, not the Scottish. And in the case of bulgogi, I’ve had bulgogi in Korea, and whatever I had here was not bulgogi. If I wanted it, I’d have to make it.
I have actually made it before. One of my favourite things to do when traveling is taking a local cooking class. But I can count on one hand, and have about four fingers left over, how many times I’ve continued to make the recipes once I return home. I took a class in Thailand, for example, and am now an expert in adding a protein to Blue Dragon kits. Quick and delicious. It’s enough for me.
In the absence of similar cheats for Korean food, I found a bulgogi recipe online that was similar to what I made in that Seoul cooking class, and that didn’t seem too onerous. Still, I’d normally blow past any recipe that wanted me to gather so many ingredients on my kitchen island and marinade the thinly sliced beef in the vinegar/sesame mixture overnight – with a caveat that I could, if I was willing to risk the bulgogi being less flavourful, keep it to an hour. The blogger was in love with cast iron, too, saying that’s the only way to get the authentic taste. I wanted flavourful. I wanted authentic. I marinated. I cast ironed.
There was something therapeutic about massaging the thin sheets of beef in the marinade mixture. Something satisfying about searing the bits in a hot frying pan the next day. Something wonderful about eating a meal I put effort into, that tasted exactly how I wanted it to taste. I could get used to this cooking thing.
I’m not a fantastic cook. But I’ve finally realized I have to stop disparaging my cooking and allowing others to do so. I’m not bad. I never was. At least I know it now.