My two oldest children have forsaken their Korean roots by letting me know of their disdain for kimchee in all its forms. For those of you who are not familiar with the staple of Korean cuisine, kimchee is a fermented, spicy cabbage side dish. It has a strong smell and unique taste, which varies depending on what your family recipe adds to the kimchee, how long it has fermented, and what type of cabbage or radish that is used.
I love kimchee. When my kimchee has fermented a wee bit too long, I chop it up and throw it in a skillet with some cold rice and spam and make kimchee fried rice for a late-night snack. Or I’ll throw it in a pot with some short ribs and tofu and make a stew to eat with rice.
But because of the smell of kimchee, and the smell of several other Korean staples, I watch what I eat and when I eat it. Yesterday I was so excited to find out that Peter was going to make it home in time to pick up the boys from school because I could stay at home for the rest of the day…which meant I could eat some Korean food for lunch and not worry about the smell that seems to stick to my taste buds and even my hair.
It’s a little silly, I suppose, but I am aware that we relate to others through all of our senses. I remember one of my piano teachers used to sit during our lessons with her plate of bleu cheese. I had never seen or smelled anything like it before, and it would be at least two decades before I could bring myself to eating blue cheese. The smell always reminded me of that piano teacher with little fondness.
Childhood memories also included being teased for being a chink and being followed by boys taunting and threatening to send me back to where I came from. Do I carry those memories into adulthood? Absolutely. Because as an adult I remember walking along the street having a car load or truck load of “Americans” slow down so I could hear them scream similar things. Being proud of who I am and fitting in has always been a tricky dance.
So when friends came over I would die inside when my mother would offer some food. I would think, “Please, don’t open the fridge. It stinks.” My kids don’t have to worry about that. My father-in-law gave me his kimchee refrigerator, which in some high-identity/low-assimilation homes would be used to actually ferment kimchee. In our home, and in other high-identity/high-assimilation homes is used to store the stinky foods, including kimchee. I used to keep juice boxes in their too until I realized the waxy paper juice boxes were absorbing the smell.
My kids are all over the map when it comes to food. There are a number of Korean dishes they frown upon, but all three of them have at one time or another taken lunches to school reflecting their Asian/Korean roots. I would often hesitate when they asked if they could bring the leftover seaweed or oxtail soup to school, but I try desperately to not make my issues theirs. Our thermoses get good use, especially in the winter when the novelty of school lunches and the bitter cold of the winter settle in because “gook bap” beats a hot dog any day.
But their courage is not always mine as I think about digging into a bowl of spicy tofu seafood soup two hours before the school bell rings. Chicken teriyaki is safe. Even California rolls or a plate of pad thai is “safe”. But kimchee? In a world where there are people who die because they do not have enough to eat, it seems rather silly to be worried about how I smell after a meal but I do…maybe more often than I should?