this little piggy went to market…

…we aren’t talking about pork – it’s me. I’m the piggy and I went to the farmers market.

For years I tried unsuccessfully to make Chinese stir-fry at home. They weren’t yucky, but they were utterly forgettable. I’ve already addressed the wok issue, but even the finest carbon steel would not have saved me. My vegetable choices were woefully uninspired: canned bamboo shoots & water chestnuts, ineffective onions, overcooked snow peas and undercooked broccoli. And there was this vague ginger/soy/dishwater flavor that crept into the sauce every time. I found myself picking out the chicken and dragging it across the rice to wipe off the excess sauce, careful not to expose the soggy vegetables hidden beneath. (Props to my boy Food Taster for that trick.)

Seriously, at that stage why even bother? I should just order take-out. Nope, I had a better idea: as Louise of the West says, “you have to do the work.” So this week I did.

amped-up my Szechuan-ish chicken this week with broccolini, crispy shallots, white shimejis and authentic peppers, spices & oils, courtesy of the Buford Highway Farmers Market

If you are fortunate enough to live near any international communities, upping your cooking game doesn’t have to mean gourmet specialty shoppes or online subscriptions. Neighborhood mom-and-pops, local farmers’ stands and giant international markets are abundant here in Atlanta, but it does take effort to research and time to go shopping. However, it is making those actual human connections that has been the most helpful to me, especially since we’re all a little rusty with our face-to-face social interactions. So yes, this means you have to go make some new friends.

Last September I hit a wall – I needed an inspiration, a little morale boost and perhaps most of all, a distraction. That’s when a morning newsletter featuring Chuseok photos pinged my inbox and I was sold. Lost and intimidated, but definitely sold. Described as Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok is a festive holiday which is very much about food and family. Great. I had just spent the last 18 months locked down with only food and family. But the thankfulness part struck a chord and there she was again, serendipity. I knew what I needed to do, both to create this feast and to cure my own ennui.

I drove straight to the international farmers market to get the goods for three traditional Korean recipes, the ingredients for which I had never heard of and definitely couldn’t pronounce. After wandering the Korean aisles for about 20 minutes, I managed to look sufficiently clueless and was spotted – mission accomplished. I am not afraid to employ and weaponize stupid when stupid is called for.

When we lived in Japan it was often assumed that gaijin (foreigners) were incapable of mastering the language, even if we politely and correctly ordered out loud from the menu, which we had read from the non-English kanji and hiragana text. It was like they simply couldn’t process Japanese words coming from my mouth. Luckily, I had no problem dragging the wait staff outside to gesture and point to the pretty plastic food displays in the window. It was ridiculously primal and required a certain calculated, fearless stupidity. Which brings me back to aisle 23.

Finally a very kind older woman approached me, scanned my cart, and reached in, picking up a fat container of red spices. “Gochugaru?” I asked in my best fearless/stupid voice. It was not.

I’m unsure of the exact translation of her reply, but it was definitely universal for no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!

She escorted (grabbed and dragged) me to the next aisle and we got to work. Using photos and recipes from my phone we (she) chose a more suitable menu and edited everything from the ingredients and measurements to the pan size and cooking times. We (she) even got into it with another auntie over whether I could handle the heat of a particular brand of kimchi, but she had my back. Soon my cart was filled with Korean goodies, my (her) meal was planned and I (and only I) had a new best friend. Never saw her again.

Chuseok dinner: japchae, pajeon and kongnamul muchim

Here’s the part where I hail the international farmers markets: the world’s fabulous variety of sights, sounds and smells are all there, and people congregate for a single reason – food. These days seeking out those crazy moments in the farmers market is how I expand my personal kitchen vernacular and punch past the blahs. All the blog-blabbing, web searches and cooking videos on the internet could not replace that wily ajumeoni who set me up with with my Chuseok menu. Wherever you are, 감사합니다 (thank you.)

I firmly believe that a stint living abroad is imperative for a well-rounded education at any age, but that’s not always an option. Learning about a society’s traditions and customs through cuisine is a wonderful substitute. How, when, where and why people gather to share a meal speaks volumes about their cultural heritage, and foreign travel is entirely optional. That was pretty convenient for the last two years.

When I’m asked how I come up with some of my more unusual menus, it really just comes down to my mood of the day and a wild hair. There’s simply no accounting for my moods, or so I’ve been told, and the ideas just seem to evolve from whatever I’m scrolling, watching or reading. But quite often that idea hits me mid-shopping in a special place that throws fragrant, colorful, delicious bombs at every sensory receptor. Guess where that is?

a few farmers market treasures that are now staples in my life:

Bonus: about my song choice:

The Grace Kelly challenge was apparently a TikTok phenomena where the refrain this MIKA song is harmonized by recording and layering the multiple parts. I can’t sing. But Ryan Reynolds and Will Farrell can. So can Sous Chef.

this will never be mot funny to me
and this will never be not awesome to me

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