My earliest memories of this shame came when I starting bringing bag lunches to school. Growing up in Manhattan, my class was ethnically diverse, but still, when the clock struck 12, I’d sit paralyzed starring at my lunchbox, hoping this time I’d have a sandwich or leftover pizza.
“What did you bring for lunch, Alex?”
“I don’t know my mom made it.”
But I knew. I could smell the pungency of kimchi and gim (seaweed) and the lunchbox wasn’t even open! No pizza in there to save me.
I vividly remember shrinking down and levering open the box and seeing a big tinfoil-wrapped helping of gimbap, our form of sushi, with bits of kimchi, pickled radish, marinated sliced ribeye beef, and some spinach encased in rice and wrapped in sesame-oil-toasted seaweed.
Delicious, yes, but man that odor hit you like a skunk!
My classmates weren’t cruel, some wanted to try it (and did!) but I’d slink down in my chair, trying to fall under imaginary pillows. The odors would hang in the classroom for hours.
My mom eventually stopped with the homemade lunches, I don’t remember what I would eat then because all we ate at home was Korean food.
I grew self-conscious about the smells and how they clung to me, my clothes, and my scent. Like culinary cigarette smoke, they would stay with me and add to my Asian kid feel. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.
As I grew older, I learned how to cope with it, changing clothes often, showering a lot, keeping my clothing in areas were the odors wouldn’t reach (this was a challenge as Korean food finds a way!). My shame turned to privacy, protection. Korean food was my private thing, and I would not share it with people unless they proved to be worthy to be let in.
I’m still that way, I suppose, protective, but no longer ashamed, no longer private about my food, my soul food.
During winters, you can always find a pot boiling away full of pork and kimchi stew—kimchi jigae. This soup warms my heart and gives me strength. Sure, it’s a stinky thing, but it’s part of who I am and that’s part of the deal. The big gallon jugs of kimchi that take up the entire fridge is inefficient use of precious icebox space but oddly comforting to know I always have ample amounts of probiotic goodness. I eat every Korean meal with kimchi, and a lot of non-Korean meals too.
It’s strange now seeing kimchi featured on the Food Network and on local menus. It feels sort of like vindication, but it also feels sort of like when your favorite band, the one you told your friends about years ago, hits it big.
My wife had to adjust greatly to life with Korean food (and me) but as with all things, she dances with it with grace. A proud woman with German blood, she scoffs at my privacy and says kimchi is nothing more than Korean sauerkraut. She’s half right, as we all know sauerkraut is really German kimchi, but it’s another lesson about love because the things you worry about, are nothing to worry about when you’re with the right one.
She’s a better Korean cook than me, now. She cooks a kimchi jigae that even my dad craves. I watch her make it and copy it to the tee, but mine always comes out tasting about a tenth as good. Another lesson is that people who cook out of love make better food—see Korean grandmas, see Southern grandmas, see your grandma: RIP grandmas.
From shame to fame: this is the cycle of my relationship with Korean cuisine. It means so much more to me than it should because it’s part of my identity. So much of Korean heritage has ties to China or Japan. So much of Korean history involves influences beyond its borders.
Who I Am
Korean food, my food, is unique. I can say bulgogi is Korean barbecued beef but you know it’s so much more complex. How there are memories in the bulgogi of grade school lunches, of charred shame and salty-sweet redemption. I can cook something, or take people to a restaurant, and I can point to all the trays of banchan (side dishes), sizzling smoking meats, boiling stone pots of spicy soups, and pickled cabbages and cucumbers, and say, “This is Korean people. This is who I am. This is where I came from. This is what I love. And how I show my love.”
Koreans often greet one another not with a simple hello but with an inquiry, “Did you eat?” We feed those we love. We feed our guests. One of my most striking memories of childhood is when I’d visit friends’ homes and there would not be a meal served, no snacks, even! The kids had to fend for themselves, that was shameful.
My wife knew where my heart was when I’d start cooking her all my favorite dishes. We eat family style. She does very Korean things like leaving the dishes she knows I like alone so that I can have more of them. I reciprocate. We do this unspoken. I never had to teach her that, just like I never was taught it. It’s just something we do. The last piece of something goes to the one who loves it most, not who gets there first. This is a very Korean thing to do.
We eat, and it’s how I heal—and show—my soul.
Did you eat?
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Nick Gray