When I think of my mother and grandmother, food is the first thing that comes to mind. I have fond memories of my mother and grandmother spending the entire day making kimchi. I remember how they would sit on the bare kitchen floor with a giant bathtub sized plastic bowl filled to the brim with cabbage. My favorite part of this memory is getting to taste the kimchi sauce. I also remember watching my mother making kimbap (which is like sushi, but better). My mother would spend nearly half of the day preparing just one meal. It took such a long time because of all of the side dishes, plus the main dish, and the rice, that she had to make. And then when it was a holiday meal, then it would take days to prepare. First, she had to go to the Korean store and gather all of the ingredients and then she would start cooking all of the banchan (side dishes) as well as the main dish.
Needless to say, eating Korean food is a big part of the Korean culture. I would even argue and say that the food is the most important aspect of the Korean culture. When I think of my life growing up half Korean, I mostly think of the food. There are other things too, of course, like the stories, superstitions, and language. But having grown up as a hapa in American society, food is definitely the one constant that I can use to connect even when I might not be one hundred percent fluent in the language or customs. I’ve found that food is the one thing that has connected both sides of my family. Learning a new language or a new custom can be hard, but it’s not so difficult to try a new dish.
Why Food is the Most Important Aspect of Korean Culture
Food is primarily a means of survival. It is a human need. We can’t survive more than a week or so without it. Food is as essential to human survival as the air we breathe or the water that we drink. But unlike the air that we breathe or the water that we drink, food has another component as well. Food has a social component. Food is what helps us to bond and connect with people.
In the Korean culture, this is even more evident in the fact that food is used as a means to bring people together. Koreans often prepare big family meals. But unlike western culture which consists of individual plates for every member of the family, Koreans sometimes share their food. Each person would have their own bowl of rice and stew, and then there would also be numerous banchan, or side dishes, for everyone to share. There might also be a giant platter of bulgogi or something else in the middle of the table as well for everyone to eat from.
Bonding and Connections
This very act of sharing food does the important job of bonding and bringing people together. There really is no greater feeling than eating together. The western concept of eating from separate plates with no sharing involved sometimes feels very separate and individualistic. You are together, but at the same time, separate. But in the eastern culture, you are not just together, but part of each other.
I think sharing food helps to connect and bond people in deeper ways. As a child, I have seen my Korean grandmother grab a small bit of banchan and put it tenderly on my spoonful of rice. This isn’t to convey that I’m not capable of picking up my own food with my own chopsticks, but as a measure of tremendous love. I have seen my Korean grandmother feed both me and my parents, not because she wants to baby us, but because of love. I have also seen my mother show me love through food. My entire life, she has cooked for me, putting love into the food that her hard working hands have made. Some people may show love through words and hugs, but she showed love through her cooking and food.
Eating and Preparing Food
In the Korean culture, the very act of preparing food is just as important as the gathering around the table to eat. As noted above, preparing Korean food is often a long, tedious, and even complicated process, as my mother has often complained numerous times. But despite the complexity of preparing Korean food, it is part of the culture. Preparing Korean food takes a long time and that is OK. It is OK because it is a means to get to know the Korean culture. The Korean culture is not just about eating, but the very act of gathering the ingredients, making the food, and also connecting with the people who are cooking.
I have many memories of my Korean grandmother and mother making kimchi, bibimbap, and kimbap. I have memories of my mother using a bowl and a wooden utensil to pound the garlic cloves. I also have memories of my mother teaching me the correct way to rinse and cook the rice in the rice cooker. All of these memories (and more) serve to highlight that the very act of cooking the food has made it an important part of being half Korean.
Expression of Cultural Identity
Like language and customs, food is absolutely an expression of cultural identity. If you were to ask me what it’s like to be bicultural, I would cite the food that I grew up eating and the food that I saw being prepared before my very eyes. Unlike language and customs which might be hard to fully use or experience in a non-Korean society, food is transportable. Food can be eaten and prepared anywhere, and not just in Korea. Food can be used as a means to not just nourish your body, but to celebrate a birthday or a holiday. Food can be used to comfort and nourish the soul in ways that are more than just surviving. But most importantly, food is an expression of who you are.
Have you ever heard of the saying, you are what you eat. That is what food is to me. I am what I eat. I have become the person that has been influenced by the food that I ate. The food that I ate growing up didn’t just nourish my organs, but provided a means to showcase what I do. It has given me a unique experience, different from most people around me. It has given me the capacity to embrace this side of my identity as one that is ultimately a benediction.
In conclusion, food is an important aspect of Korean culture. Food is important because it provides a means to bond, to connect, and to find who you are. Food does this through the very acts of cooking, eating, and sharing food. Food is never a means to just survive, but something more. Food not just gives us the fuel to life, but the arsenal to be something more.
So, the next time you sit down to eat, don’t just eat the food. Be a part of the making of the food. Be a part of the people who you share the food with. Get to know the food in a way you’ve never done before because you are most certainly what you eat.