22 (Sat) January 2011
at Fa Cai
-Jeongja, Bundang, Seongnam, Gyeonggi, Korea-
with the Family
In a post last year, I referred to the Chinese dish palbochae as “Happy Family.” I was mistaken.
Happy Family is a different Chinese dish. Comprises the priciest bits of seafood (e.g., abalon, scallops) and vegetables (e.g., pine mushroom, gingko nuts) that the kitchen has to offer, sautéed in a light oyster sauce. The name “jeongabok” in Chinese means “complete (jeon)” + “family (ga)” + “fortune (bok)” = “happy family.”
For the proletariat, jeongabok is rarely considered, much less ordered, except maybe on very special occasions, because it’s so expensive, often the most expensive fixed price item on the menu (that is, not counting shark’s fin soup or fresh lobster or other seasonal or ultra-exclusive items), typically around 60,000 won, compared to around 30,000 won for palbochae. We usually don’t even dare to look at that part of the menu.
For 28 years, I had held the erroneous belief that palbochae and jeongabok were the same thing, even though their names aren’t anywhere near being similar. In fairness, the two dishes are vaguely similar in being stir-fries of seafoods and vegetables. The mix-up started in September 1983, at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco during the wedding reception of my Aunt H and her new husband Uncle S. During the meal, we were served what was likely jeongabok, in light of the special occasion. She explained that it was called “Happy Family” in English but “palbochae” in Chinese/Korean, reflecting the dish’s many expensive ingredients (bo = treasure). All this time, “Happy
Family” flashed through my head whenever I came across palbochae, which was often, though I can’t recall ever encountering jeongabok, so I never thought about it the other way around.
Tonight, 28 years later, at a Chinese restaurant in Seoul with Aunt H and Uncle S, I happened to be looking at the expensive part of the menu and saw jeongabok and looked at the Chinese characters and suddenly everything clicked into proper place. I turned to Aunt H and said, “You told me that ‘Happy Family’ is palbochae, but apparently ‘Happy Family’ is in fact jeongabok!” She was like, “When did I say that?” Me, “At your wedding reception!” Her, “That was … 28 years ago!” To the end, she claimed no recollection of ever equating Happy Family with palbochae.
In what may be the one of the weirdest coincidences in my life, the restaurant tonight was Fa Cai (Mandarin for “good luck/fortune”), while the restaurant in San Francisco was also Fat Choy (Cantonese spelling), which I remember because Uncle S’s brother owned it, and the name sounded funny to me, so Aunt H explained what it meant – she was right about that one.