Without even knowing it, I was a world traveler before the age of four, racking up adventures from two countries on opposite sides of the globe. Adopted when I was three from South Korea, I was already speaking fluent (albeit toddler level) Korean and was raised in an orphanage environment that while it was where I lived, certainly did not have the comforts of a real home. My flight to the States proved very eventful, having survived being left alone on the plane, scared and alone only to be welcomed in the hearts of an incredible family who embraced me openly and without reservation.
My mother studied Korean vocabulary in prep for my arrival, had my blanket/sleeping bag from the orphanage replicated to give me comfort, and even traveled a two-hour round trip to the closest Asian supermarket to make sure that I had some familiar foods. She lovingly recalls two distinct memories of my beginning of being an American… As she cooked a roast one evening for dinner, I went up to the oven window with the light on and repeated “kogi” over and over (kogi is the Korean word for meat). Due to cost, the orphanage did not serve meat often… I had never seen so much meat in my life! I paired the kogi with pickled sesame leaves – peppery leaves layered with screamingly hot, spicy, hot pepper paste, resembling kimchee. No one in the house touched it. 🙂 Those two food memories are the anchor for my culinary journey and definitely explain my inclination toward all types of cuisine.
Growing up my mother cooked traditional American – meatloaf, tuna noodle casserole, pot roasts, lasagna, mashed potatoes. But I should mention two tiny tidbits about my mom — 1) she has an allergy to onion and 2) she has a Masters in Physical Education and Health, which meant that lots of nuts and berries and flat flavors were served. I love my mom to the moon and the stars and as I have grown older and started my own family, we have grown closer and I appreciate her in such a different way. But, her food was far from adventurous and distinct, and I think she would agree with me (she worked full time and raised three kids!). Anyhow, this should paint a picture of what my American cuisine tasted like. 🙂
Small Town, USA did not have much diversity – one chinese restaurant, a couple of pizza joints, a health food store, and then sometime in the early 90’s a sushi restaurant. I didn’t know anything else, so I never felt like anything was really missing. But when I turned 18 and was about to head off to college, I began to feel a twinge of uncertainty and a feeling a bit like a fish out of water. For the first time in my life, I had questions and felt lost as though my life were spinning out of control. Before leaving for school, I met with the woman who facilitated my adoption and rather than feel more at peace, I ended up feeling more lost.
And then I met husband. I was a freshman, he was a Junior. And before you go thinking that this was a love-at-first-sight story, it was far from it… He is first-generation Korean, which scared the bejesus out of me. I had met very few Koreans in my life, and certainly had never dated one! So naturally, I avoided him like the plague for several months. But his refreshing spirit, energy, and warmth won me over… Something about him was comforting and made me feel safe.
But it was not until I met his family that the pieces really started to fit in place. Some of the things that I thought just made me weird or unique started to make sense. For example, I am not a fan of breakfast food. If I had a choice between a steak and a pancake at 8:00 in the morning, 10 out of 10 times I would pick the steak. For as long as I can remember, my family would make fun of me. But who cared? While I happily chowed down lasagna or pizza for breakfast, my brother’s would be downing bowl upon bowl of cereal swimming in milk. (I, on the other hand, would perform acrobatics to get out of drinking milk.)
So, it was to my absolute delight and amazement that Koreans eat for breakfast what they would eat for dinner! Rice, roasted seaweed, marinated beef, dumplings, soup, kimchee… This was the norm! Strangely, I felt like I was home, again, but in a different way, for different reasons. I began to understand myself and felt like I had found a place in this world. And this became the beginning of my love for food and exploring tastes and different types of cuisine. My upbringing and my heritage collide, meld together – many of my childhood memories are tied to our family dinners and their accompanying warmth, and many of my adult experiences revolve around an expanded palette and desire to explore.
This is what food can do… It can make you feel at home, put a smile on your face when you’re having a down day, create memories and connections to people, and help you to discover something about yourself in the process. I will always remember when I had my first bite of authentic Korean food, the smell of Chinatown in San Francisco, the taste of hotdogs in NYC, the freshness of tuna in Hawaii…
And this is what my blog is about. Yummy food and the memories/experiences that help to shape each recipe.