The Gage/Henri dessert featuring sweet and sour cherries, Kastella with spiced port cherries and creme fraiche, is photographed for a food column about enjoying cherries, a childhood memory luxury food in South Korea on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Updated: July 14, 2012 6:05AM
For several years when I was a child, my family lived in a town in South Korea surrounded by mountains, all flowering with such an abundance of edible berries that my mom never worried about me going hungry while playing outside. There was more to eat in nature than in our house.
My mom and I still reminisce over how much of a little explorer I was during those years, especially when it came to my search for tasty food. During my 20-minute walk home at the end of every school day, I would pass streets lined with small storefronts. I loved the fresh fruit stands. The sweet, ripe smells and vibrant colors would always grab my attention.
One day, my mind fluttered as I passed by a stand that featured shiny, marble-sized, bright red cherries arranged neatly on a tray. It was the first time I had ever seen the fruit. The cherries were knotted with rubber bands in groups of five, each priced at 100 won (equivalent to between 80 cents and $1). “Wow,” I thought. That was the amount my mom gave me to pay for my lunch and little sister’s snack.
The next morning, I asked my mom for extra money so I could buy cherries and not forgo lunch. She responded with a resounding “no.” South Korea’s extreme temperatures made it difficult to farm certain produce, she explained, and our middle-class family could not afford such tasty luxuries.
Every day thereafter, I would stand in front of that stand staring at the cherries until the store owner would shoo me away. Deciding I could not pass up the chance to try this mysterious, beautiful fruit, I started saving my lunch money. When I had enough, I ran as fast as I could back to the stand, paid the owner and grabbed a bundle of cherries.
I will never forget the amazing taste of my first cherry, and how it put a huge smile on my face. Three decades have passed since my family moved to the United States, and I still eat cherries to my heart’s content every summer.
The Kastella recipe I’m sharing with you is one of my all-time favorite Japanese cakes — a light, sponge-like pound cake that I like to garnish with spiced port cherries and creme fraiche.
Ji Yoon is the executive pastry chef of Henri, 18 S. Michigan, and the Gage, 24 S. Michigan.