Kimchi, Jujubes and Citron Tea

May 5, 2013


Recently my eight-year-old niece Alex had to complete a homework assignment on the topic of her heritage.  Auntie Kate, she asked me, am I a little bit Korean?   You might wonder how on earth my ginger-haired, blue-eyed niece of Irish/Italian-American descent could be mistaken to believe her roots traced all the way to the Far East, but her intuition was not so naive.  Her Auntie Mandy (my sister) was adopted from Seoul, South Korea.

I recall that when I was Alex’s age, I was also curious about my sister’s origins and how that might play a role in shaping my own ethnic identity.  I was intensely proud of my talented and beautiful older sister Amanda (lovingly nick-named Mandy) and took every opportunity to boast my knowledge of her first nationality.  Silly school kids would assume she was of Chinese descent (the most ethnic restaurant we had in our small, American hometown was a Chinese-food restaurant run by a family with her same hair colour) and ask me if she spoke English.  She’s NOT Chinese! I would exclaim.  She is from South Korea and duh – of course she speaks English!  She’s American!   The only confidence I lacked was in knowing – where am I from?  And how can she be two nationalities and I only one?

Growing up in a family that has little knowledge of its ethnic origins (I blame this partially on my father who, despite his alabaster complexion, has stood by a belief  his late Auntie Hitty planted in him that we are exotically part Abenaki Indian and feared finding out that we were actually of standard Irish descent like most inhabitants of my town), I was far more interested in my sister’s background.  I too wanted to be linked to a place far far away and recall my parents inventing the possibility that I was actually Dutch to appease me.  This was after watching a film at Epcot centre in Florida about the nations of Europe in which I spotted a little blondie like myself in wooden clogs who could have been my distant cousin.

That worked for a little while until my 7th grade homework assignment came around (I was 12): prepare a dish linked to your cultural heritage and bring it into class to share with everyone.  No doubt the assignment was meant to inspire and remind all of us Americans that we are, in fact, descendants of Europeans, Asians, Indians, you name it.  A ‘melting pot’ or what was more politically corrected to be a ‘salad bowl’ of nationalities and ethnicities.  Unfortunately, all my mother and I could come up with based on our limited knowledge (or assumption we were of English descent) was fruitcake.  I was terribly disappointed by my rather dull contribution – no one touched it and it didn’t touch me – how could I be from a culture that put fruit in cake that didn’t really taste like cake?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I had some kind of advanced, refined palette for exotic and spicy foods at a young age.  Quite the contrary.  I was an extremely unadventurous and picky eater and spent the better part of my childhood oscillating between hamburgers, pizza, bagels, cereal and cake.  My father still reminds me of the embarrassing time my friend’s mother had to pick the peanuts out of their chunky (as opposed to smooth) style peanut butter in order to get me to eat lunch at their house – oh for shame.  But I do remember a curiosity about other foods, particularly the ominous jar of kimchi (fermented Korean vegetables – usually cabbage) that sat idle inside our refrigerator…

You see my mom used to organize little presentations at our school to teach my sisters’ and my classmates a little bit about Korean culture, since it was a very special thing in our town to have this kind of diversity and it would have been silly not to recognize it.  My sister would come dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok with beautiful embroidery and colours that had all the girls jealous and all the boys instantly in love.  You see, because aside from my sister, South Korea produces many beautiful and awe-inspiring things.  My understanding of the scope of this beauty, however, was minimal up until recently when I finally got to visit Seoul for the first time three years ago to see Mandy who has been living there for the past five years.

I was so struck by the beauty of Seoul and its rich culinary and artistic culture the first time I visited, that I planned another trip just this past April, this time bringing my best friend and fellow cohort when it comes to all things foodie.   Over the past two decades of my life, I started following in my sister’s footsteps by letting go of my fear to try new foods and becoming an adventurous eater.   This was aided hugely by living abroad in Italy and France and being forced out of my food comfort zone.  I also completely changed my diet to eat healthier, digestion-friendly foods after realizing the negative effect refined foods were having on my gut.  So by the time I got to Seoul, I was prepared to sample all of the many incredible dishes and treats that Korean cuisine has to offer (many of which boast health benefits), including all of the fermented (and initially off-putting items) like kimchi, as well as bibimbap, sambap, bulgogi, red bean paste, juk, duk, mugwort tea, citron tea, omija tea, jujubes and bingsu.  Suffice it say, there are few food items from South Korea that I don’t like and many things about Korean culture that I absolutely love.  My photo album from this trip consists mainly of photographs of food, a love affair gone wild and only just begun.

Just as my parents adopted my sister from South Korea over thirty years ago, I have adopted Korea through love for my sister and the enjoyment of Korean culture and food.  So in some way, it definitely feels like I’m a little bit Korean…and maybe my niece hasn’t got it so wrong.  If there is one thing that is for sure, it’s that food is a powerful mechanism through which you can learn more about a distant culture and country, but also yourself.  Even places criticized for their lack of fine cuisine such as Great Britain, where I have recently become an official citizen, have food culture.  There is certainly more to Britain than fruitcake (which I have grown to appreciate), but if my heart belongs to Europe and my passports to the U.S. and the U.K., then my tastebuds might always belong to Korea and I can only hope my parents are proud for growing a family with no boundaries for degustation even if they prefer to watch from the sidelines.

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