An Imperial Kitchen

Kitchens are the heart of a household.  One can assess a family’s internal matters by the organization of a kitchen.

At Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace Complex, a similar idea holds true.

Constructed in the early 15th century, Changdeokgung Palace Complex today still bears the palatial grandeur of Korea’s long civilization, complete with detailed art work on panels and multi-layered roofs.  Visitors admire the royal garden and stately rooms with soft aesthetics found in numerous patterns showcased on the walls, partitions and lanterns.

My impatient local guide from an organized tour tells me about the special sand used in the palace compound, designed to create sound so that an intruding assassin can be immediately detected.  She also tells me about the designated seating chart in front of the main hall where advisors and aides sit in hierarchy denoted by the marked distance from the King’s throne.  “Will the King have to yell?” I ask.  It is a massive court after all.  The guide’s response: “NO!  The King does not need to do anything!

But I don’t care much for all that.

What really stands out to me is the imperial kitchen.  A medium-sized structure with minimalist interior work: white-tiled and sun-soaked through large glass windows.  Locked to modern day visitors, the kitchen’s traces of indoor plumbing and electricity are easily visible.  The kitchen’s classical artwork on the exterior masks the highly modern and simple arrangement of the interior space formerly used exclusively by royal servants.

Changdeokgung Palace is already famous for its indoor heating system through stoves built under each pavilion with smoke channeling out from a standalone chimney next to the structure.  Modern electricity came to South Korea just seven years after the invention of incandescent light by Thomas Edison.  Changdeokgung Palace was already electrified by 1894, which is quite impressive.

Yet, it is a curious thing to see that the modernity of electrification is often masked under traditional design elements as is the case with incandescent light bulbs in the main hall, or relegated to servants as is the case with the sophisticated kitchen operated only by servants.

Of course I am assuming this, but changes have always been uncomfortable.  Changes bring even more discomfort to those who are on the better end of keeping the status quo, like the royalties.


Changdeokgung Palace Main Hall after electrification


A proper industrial kitchen with plumbing and electricity


Changdeokgung Kitchen


A Korean guide explaining the palatial heating system but not too happy with my questions


Doing some major lurking

Thank the kitchen gods

Happy Mother’s Day in advance. It’s only three days away. Order flowers. Make her a card. Bake her some cupcakes. Get her a pass to that fancy spa she has been eying on for weeks. For a change, let’s get her pampered instead.

Whenever I think about my mom, or “career moms” in general, my admiration for them is with a strange mix of intimidation. In a way, the situation resembles that of a novice hiker gazing to the peak of whatever hill she is resolved to climb – with wonder, curiosity, and a constant stream of self-reassurances. And it shouldn’t be this way.

Many moms in Myanmar are stay-at-home moms, and so are an increasing number of highly trained moms in the US choosing to drop out of workforce. When I was in college, people usually told me that a student can only get two out of three things: a good GPA, a fun social life, or an impressive track record of extracurricular activities. While I know many students that seem to have had it all, a similar tri-lemma arises here. When you become a mom, it is as if you can get only two out of these three: being a good mother, having a fulfilling career, or keeping the ‘spice’ in your marriage. Why? Because the roles are so conflicting.

Role models ranging from Anne-Marie Slaughter and Shery Sandberg to French mothers have reached different conclusions. But the bottom line seems clear: the future of feminism desperately needs participation from men. As women penetrated into the formal economy sector in the past decades, their responsibilities at home have never receded. The new freedoms are beginning to enslave women in double-duty shifts: fabulous professionals by day and glamorous moms and wives by night. It’s really scary.

Things in Myanmar are slightly different. With the help of extended family and relatives, there is some help releasing maternal pressures. But Burmese husbands also tend to be less involved, adding a different twist to the American story. Ha and by the way, thank god for the sexually repressed nature of the conservative Burmese society: married women are usually not expected to look glam all the time, like in the States. The nature of career has so far been different although things are changing fast now. Without many multinational companies in the country, most women have worked in family-owned businesses: family farms or mom n’ pop stores with very flexible hours. It will be interesting to see how this trend will have changed in ten years’ time, when there are more corporate jobs available and when the long isolated country gets immersed in prevailing trends and new, modern biases without the former “protection” of self-imposed isolation.

In any case, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. My point is, what an amazing job our moms have done today! How have they navigated their way to today? What are they feeling? Do they feel fulfilled? By how we the children have turned out to be? With their career path? And their marriage, even? Are Burmese moms today happy?

Happy Mother’s Day!

Daily Bread by Barbara Kingsolver

The clink of tin cups in the kitchen
rouses my ears. I close my book,
hold my place with a fingertip while
I listen: to the measuring cups,
little quarrels of half against quarter,
then the sifted hush of the flour.
There will be kneading,
there will be punching down,
and rising and rising again,
the press of increase constrained
by the small square box in the oven,
the immutable passage of time,
and finally a home and a hunger filled
with fragrant gold.
I return to my reading, but first
I thank the kitchen gods
for what marriage is: throughout this
immutable passage, these square
impossible constraints, these petty clinkings
of half against quarter, and oh
this needing, oh this falling and this rising,
I am blessed
with a husband who makes bread.

Culinary mishaps: Badly braised Burmese duck

Myanmar is so in this year. It’s listed in the top ten places to travel by the Lonely Planet Guidebook. Investors are flocking into the country to search for opportunities and new markets. The Burmese language program is the most popular one at SAIS @ John Hopkins this year. Back in 2007 when I was a first year student at Davidson College, no one even knew what Myanmar is. But then again it was Davidson, in North Carolina.

Investors and tourists aside, Burmese cuisine has caught attention lately from a variety of different people. Burmese food came in at #7 on the BA list of 25 food trends for 2013. Two amazing cookbooks just came out in the past six months. James Beard Award-winning author Naomi Duguid had been eating and studying the cuisine for a number of years and her book “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” was just published in September 2012.

Burma: Rivers of Flavor

The second book “Hsa*ba: Please Eat” is written by a Burmese woman named Tin Cho Chaw. Her beautiful book contains amazing photos contributed by her husband. This is also the kind of book I can only hope to write one day in a long-term future! Not that I am well-versed in this art (just read along) or anything, but my life goal #506 is to write a hybrid between Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life” and “Hsa*ba.” Or something like that. In any case, just go to this website and order your copy. NOW!

Hsa*ba: Please Eat

Then, this evening, I had some people over for dinner and one of them is working on a project that involves 200 family recipes from the Kachin State. He also happens to be a chef from New York City. Surely, I have come a long way since my days with Third Rich Pressure Cookers, where my college pals and I embarked on a journey to learn to cook and poked fun of ourselves. Still, that does not mean I am going to make perfectly braised duck and serve it to a New York City chef. Not at all.

My culinary errors unfolded immediately after I began making the chicken curry. As I was leisurely massaging turmeric and chili peppers into the meat, an inconvenient truth dawned upon me: THIS IS NOT CHICKEN.

I was holding none other than the dark duck meat and I had no former experience cooking this type of meat at all. Duck is fattier and takes way longer to cook. In Myanmar, the ubiquitous duck is considered cheap and hardly cherished at all. Three US dollars gets you half a vice of it. While my originally planned dish “chicken curry with gourd” enjoys the status of a classic Burmese dish, no one particularly makes duck curry with gourd. If I started calling the dish “a contemporary twist to the traditional chicken curry with smoky flavors,” no one would be fooled.

At dinner, Robert and Jalin graciously ate what was served to them. But you knew you hadn’t cooked the meat long enough when the guests remarked, “the flavors are nice.” I learned the crucial detail that the duck takes long to become tender but free range Burmese ducks take even longer. An hour of braising just isn’t enough. I have made plenty of culinary mistakes (from making bad hot chocolate to serving perhaps soapy turkey soup) but I have outdone myself here today.

Life goal #506 still stands far away, but I have had a pretty sweet Sunday. And some duck curry leftovers to braise more tomorrow.

Better luck in the kitchen to you,