Growing up as “that one Asian kid” in a community where the average civilian resembled Gary Busey more than myself, I devised several methods to fit in with the other children at school. I wore chic American clothes, like stripped, glittery V-necks from Justice, and I pretended to have an intense passion for all things equestrian so a pig-tailed horse girl would befriend me. One of the early routines I adopted to be cool was eating the food my mom packed for me as quickly and discreetly as possible, because it was absolutely nothing like what the other girls at my table had. There were days that I came home after school and told my mom I’d simply “forgotten” to eat the kimbap she woke up at 6 a.m. to assemble for me. I probably thought if I ate enough mashed potatoes, everyone who looked at me would see a blue-eyed blonde instead of the pasty, bifocaled Korean I clearly was.
I am the proud daughter of immigrants who raised me in an agrarian town where food options, for an Asian fob, were nonexistent. (We had one sad “Chinese” buffet whose highlight was a vanilla soft-serve machine.) It would have been easy to raise me on a diet of Hamburger Helper and grilled cheese sandwiches, but instead my parents went to great lengths to ensure we could retain the cuisine of our culture at home. Comfort food was not to become one more sacrifice they had to suffer in the name of the American Dream. And as I grew, so did my appreciation for Korean food. (In retrospect, I can’t believe that as a kid I would have preferred the synthetic cheese and bland ham of Lunchables to laboriously marinated meats laid out over a freaking pillow of white rice.) Every ingredient which had embarrassed me before — copious spoonfuls of garlic, pungent kimchi, roasted seaweed which clung to the teeth — just came together as delicious food I felt incredibly lucky to have at the table, cooked fresh every day.
Korean food takes patience and dedication. My mom will slice away every spare strip of fat from our short ribs. She spends days preparing her rich ox-bone broth, and weeks to ferment and pickle half a dozen side dishes. My dad delights in searing a perfect, medium steak for his family, testing new recipes, making inscrutably terrible food puns (preferably about nachos) and using tongs and scissors to fry us immorally indulgent slabs of pork belly. They demonstrate how to eat mussels with a single shell and entreat me to take the crispiest portion of a fish — the tail. We each get one bowl of rice, the food placed in the center communally, and we dig in together.
Food, for my parents and for many immigrant parents, is an expression of pure love. My mom will debone a whole fried swordfish and make sure I have plenty of the meat before she lifts a single grain of rice to her mouth. If I’m ever too busy to come to the table, she’ll wrap pork, rice, garlic, a jalapeño slice and a generous heap of ssamjang in a lettuce leaf, walk to my desk, jam it in my mouth and tell me not to work so hard. K-BBQ fed to you by your umma just hits different. A love expressed through food is quiet and unassuming, like East Asia’s cultural status quo, but the reward is a complex medley of deep, spicy, garlicky, sweet and earthy flavors which play off of each other and warm you from within. It tastes like home. When I went to college, I realized I hadn’t appreciated the full extent of my parents’ efforts and I craved home food and cut fruits more than ever. Nowadays, I’m off the meal plan and I take buses to Korean grocery stores and try to learn — though I can never quite replicate the flavor —to cook my mom’s recipes myself. I text her asking how to make budae jjigae and she replies with bafflingly rough estimations of her cooking process (“when you’ve chopped up enough onions, you’ll know”) followed by “good luck!” and a smiley face or heart emojis. I host dumpling parties with my closest friends where we sit around the table and whine about being single and applying to internships while folding meat filling into pale dough wrappers, just like I grew up doing with my family. And when I visit my big sister in Seattle, she always has a hot, Korean meal set on the table, waiting for me. Whenever I’m exhausted from a long flight out West, all it takes is the sight of a steaming odaeng broth on the stove to remind myself that family is worth crossing any borders and taking any risks for. Together, my sister and I try to hold onto these precious remnants of our parents’ love and, my God, do they taste delicious.