The Taste Of Heartbreak In 'Tongue' Chef Ji-won's life turns sour after she catches her boyfriend with one of her cooking students. Tongue, the English debut of best-selling South Korean author Kyung-ran Jo, is filled with food and restaurant trivia, but it's really about moving on from disappointment.


Book Reviews

The Taste Of Heartbreak In 'Tongue'

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"Only four genes control vision, but more than one thousand genes are involved with smell and taste. But one thousand genes can disappear faster than the four." So says Jeong Ji-won, chef and narrator of Kyung-ran Jo's surprising and nuanced novel Tongue. The senses of smell and taste, she says, are closely linked to the life force. In the wake of trauma, many find their senses of taste dulled. Conversely, those who lose their tongues or the function of their taste buds due to injury or disease become suicidally depressed, more so than the newly blind. Perhaps it's because these senses are tied so closely to memory.

By Kyung-ran Jo
Translated from Korean by Chi-young Kim
Paperback, 224 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $14

Read An Excerpt

Ji-won is a celebrated chef in her native Seoul, where she leaves the Italian restaurant in which she trained to begin offering private cooking classes, taught in the home she shares with her architect boyfriend. Four years on, she walks in to find her boyfriend having sex with one of her students, on the kitchen counter he designed especially for Ji-won. Suddenly unable to find enjoyment in even a cup of cocoa or her favorite sandwich, she shutters her school and returns to the comfort of her old job and her old mentor.

Tongue marks the first time Kyung-ran Jo, a popular author in her native South Korea, has been translated into English. Jae-hong Park hide caption

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Jae-hong Park

Tongue marks the first time Kyung-ran Jo, a popular author in her native South Korea, has been translated into English.

Jae-hong Park

Although Tongue is filled with cooking techniques and food trivia — and even includes a history of restaurants — it's really about living in the wake of disappointment and about how people's lives are reflected in their eating. Ji-won's aunt was an anorexic who, leading up to her suicide, refused to eat anything but clementines. In contrast, Ji-won's grandmother recovers from a death in the family through cooking and teaching her granddaughter about food.

Tongue is reminiscent of Banana Yoshimoto's cult classic Kitchen in the parallels it makes between appetite for life and for food, and the way food is used to revive a person's will to live. Although in Tongue, you're not sure until the end if Ji-won wants to recover.

A best-selling and award-winning author in her native South Korea, Kyung-ran Jo is, with this book, being translated into English for the first time. It's a clever debut; a simple-looking dish from the outside that, once you bite in, reveals hidden layers and complexity — and a shockingly bitter finish.

Excerpt: 'Tongue'

By Kyung-Ran Jo
Translated from Korean byChi-Young Kim
Paperback, 224 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $14


If loneliness or sadness or happiness could be expressed through food, loneliness would be basil. It's not good for your stomach, dims your eyes, and turns your mind murky. If you pound basil and place a stone over it, scorpions swarm toward it. Happiness is saffron, from the crocus that blooms in the spring. Even if you add just a pinch to a dish, it adds an intense taste and a lingering scent. You can find it anywhere but you can't get it at any time of the year. It's good for your heart, and if you drop a little bit in your wine, you instantly become drunk from its heady perfume. The best saffron crumbles at the touch and instantaneously emits its fragrance. Sadness is a knobby cucumber, whose aroma you can detect from far away. It's tough and hard to digest and makes you fall ill with a high fever. It's porous, excellent at absorption, and sponges up spices, guaranteeing a lengthy period of preservation. Pickles are the best food you can make from cucumbers. You boil vinegar and pour it over the cucumbers, then season with salt and pepper. You enclose them in a sterilized glass jar, seal it, and store it in a dark and dry place.

WON'S KITCHEN. I take off the sign hanging by the first-floor entryway. He designed it by hand and silk-screened it onto a metal plate. Early in the morning on the day of the opening party for the cooking school, he had me hang the sign myself. I was meaning to give it a really special name, he said, grinning, flashing his white teeth, but I thought Jeong Ji-won was the most special name in the world. He called my name again: Hey, Ji-won.

He walked around the house calling my name over and over, mischievously — as if he were an Eskimo who believed that the soul became imprinted in the name when it was called — while I fried an egg, cautiously sprinkling grated Emmentaler, salt, pepper, taking care not to pop the yolk. I spread the white sun-dried tablecloth on the coffee table and set it with the fried egg, unsalted butter, blueberry jam, and a baguette I'd toasted in the oven. It was our favorite breakfast: simple, warm, sweet. As was his habit, he spread a thick layer of butter and jam on his baguette and dunked it into his coffee, and I plunked into my cup the teaspoon laced with jam, waiting for the sticky sweetness to melt into the hot, dark coffee.

I still remember the sugary jam infusing the last drop of coffee and the moist crumbs of the baguette lingering at the roof of my mouth. And also his words, informing me that he wanted to design a new house that would contain the cooking school, his office, and our bedroom. Instead of replying, I picked up a firm red radish, sparkling with droplets of water, dabbed a little butter on it, dipped it in salt, and stuck it into my mouth. A crunch resonated from my mouth. Hoping the crunch sounded like, Yes, someday, I continued to eat it. Was that the reason I equated a fresh red radish with sprouting green tops, as small as a miniature apple, with the taste of love? But if I cut into it crosswise like an apple, I wouldn't find the constellation of seeds.

Once I take down the sign I'm unmoored, as though I have nothing else to do, as if my name were forever erased from the world.

After he's gone I curl up on the couch in the living room, immobile. I lie there quietly, sensing the wind blowing outside, the setting sun, the arrival of morning, the descent of cold, my throat starting to hurt. I don't fry an egg or toast bread. I heave myself from the couch once in a while to take a sip of water, and when it feels like the long, sharp end of a dried-up, hard-as-rock baguette is jabbing into my forehead, I make a face and manage to pour hot water into the coffee press for a cup. Right now, in this house, the only things I can keep down seem to be water, coffee, air. I quit counting the days after the third day. I'm gradually being split into pieces — my shoulders and arms, my head and neck. When I realize it's night again, I feel faint, as if my tired body is laid in a large, hot copper pan. Am I slowly disappearing without attracting any attention, like a small dot? I want to stir, to move and feel my fingers and toes that seem to be evaporating, but I can't. Help, help me up, I whisper into the deep, dark green of night. You have to snap out of this, Uncle says. You can't allow yourself to wallow in a pool of sorrow. Get up!

Something large and hot and wet sweeps across my cheek. I open my eyes.

Paulie is licking my face. His wide, black pupils are staring at me quietly.

Did someone come by? I ask, raising my upper body. Paulie barks once, in a low tone. He lies down quietly, twice shaking his head so that his ears, drooping and folded backward, swing to the front of his head. It's his way of saying he's hungry. I slide my hand under Paulie's belly and pet his soft, silky coat. English setters — famous for being an elegant, powerful, expressive breed, lying quietly at their owners' feet, pointing at prey without barking — are no longer valued for their hunting prowess. Instead they are prized for the long, silky, beautiful light-brown fur draping their bodies and their aristocratic beauty, which reveals itself when they prance around slowly, shaking their hair, taking a viewer's breath away. Paulie nudges my knee with his nose. He seems to be saying, You'll take care of me, right? Instead of agreeing, I rub his head with my palms — Paulie, such a loving, independent dog, with a weak homing instinct. He emits another low bark. Do you want to leave too? I ask him. Paulie flattens his stomach on the ground and puts his head on his front paws as if to say, I have to rest here a little.

Paulie is his dog. He trained him, saying, He reacts when I call his name, so maybe it's possible to teach Paulie actual words. With Paulie, he disliked using orders like sit, stand, go back, go forward, go away, don't bark, lie down, no, wait. Instead he wanted to teach words he could listen and react to, like Are you hungry? Do you want to go for a walk? Do you know that person? We discovered that, depending on the pitch, length, and frequency of Paulie's noises, there was an imperfect but workable sphere of communication between us. But just as dogs saw the world in grays, dark browns, and greens, there was a limit to the language we could converse in. This is good enough, he'd said, pleased. Now he's gone and left, giving me the dog he'd trained, the dog he'd raised for fifteen years, the dog he'd had even before he met me. Once the decision was made that we were to separate, we divided up our belongings as if we were playing jacks, but the problem of who would keep the dog was surprisingly easy. She didn't like dogs.

We were rejected, you and me. I want to kneel on the ground and lightly nudge Paulie with my nose, ask him, You're going to take care of me now, right? Something hot surges up from deep down within me. I swipe the back of my hand against my face, and then, because it feels as if I'm stuck in a tight corner, I touch my fingers, feet, and nose, carefully and seriously. The body parts that protrude, like noses and fingers, show the most wear and tear. Even though it isn't perfect, my body is still held together in the right places and my fingers and toes still move freely. If I go limp now, if I give in to the heavy weight of sorrow, my body would quiver anew from the fresh sensation of pain — just like a sudden drip of candle wax on skin — and from the thrill of pleasure, all the more irresistible once I'd discovered it.

I've never even dreamed of what rejection would feel like, and I know that I need to sense pain and understand the reason behind it and force my way out of it. My eyes are sparkling, reflected in the living-room window, and my skin tightens and my muscles tense the same as when I make a sumptuous dish. Like a cork bobbing on water, I resurface lightly. And to push away the fear that is poised to grip me at any moment, I address Paulie in an unnecessarily loud voice: Paulie, want to go for a walk?

Excerpted from Tongue by Kyung-Ran Jo. Copyright 2009 by Kyung-Ran Jo. Reprinted by Permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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