Do You Watch What You Eat?

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?


  1. Bora December 5, 2009

    tell your kids that at a gourmet food stand in San Francisco, they’d have to fork over $10 for a small bowl of that very same kimchee fried rice mom makes at home (minus the spam).

    • Kathy Khang December 5, 2009

      $10?!?! That is so wrong…and without spam?!?!

      But the trade-off is that you have such things as gourmet food stands that sell kimchee fried rice… 😉

  2. t-hype December 5, 2009

    Been following your posts since the Deadly Viper thing but this post couldn’t have been more timely.

    A friend and I were dining at a restaurant in Seoul last night and having a wonderful meal until somebody ordered 청국장 (Cheonggukjang). I had heard rumors about the smell but it certainly IS the gift that keeps on giving! We finally asked our waiter what the smell was because we were trying to determine if it was going to go away or if we should leave the restaurant! lol.

    As for racial slurs, I was walking down a sidewalk in LA (also as an adult), when a car full of folks (I didn’t see) were apparently provoked by my brown skin and yelled “n*gger” out the window. Idiocy abounds.

    Your blog is cool.

    Keep writing. ^_^

  3. madeperfectinweakness December 5, 2009

    this blog entry made me chuckle to myself because it reminded me of when i used to take “fragrant” foods with me for lunch during my elementary school days. i remember my mom questioning me as i was scooping heaps of rice into a tupperware container and pouring ladle-fulls of kimchi chigae over them. my mom would say things like: “you know that smells a lot”, “people are going to say something to you”, “your friends are going to think you’re weird”, and my favorite, “what are you doing?!?”

    i admit, i got some weird looks and comments here and there, but i didn’t care. my “stinky” food rocked!

    it’s so interesting though, because now that i’m in grad school, people seem to appreciate the ethnically diverse food that i bring for lunch. whether it be indian, korean, or chinese food, my classmates think it’s cool that my food smells differently than a plain ol’ pb&j.

    plus, i got one of my old college roommates (she’s white!) addicted to that shredded radish kimchi thing.

    as a 2.5-generation korean (my parents are 1.5, so that makes me 2.5?! haha), i find that korean food is one of the more easily accessible korean things that i can relate to and put cultural pride into (plus, it’s darn good!). so i’d say, bring on that kimchi!

  4. Jen December 6, 2009

    Your blog is such a blessing to me. I can barely stand to read the “ch” word and think back to growing up in the 70’s/80’s. I once had my entire school bus shouting racist words and phrases at me as I walked off the bus in 4th grade. After I got off the bus, the driver pulled off to the side of the road, and I could hear him screaming to get the kids to settle down. Thank heavens times have changed. A few years ago, my son took a giant – I mean giant – plate of kimbap (made the traditional way) to school. When I picked him up after school, I saw this very tough looking older boy approach him as he walked to my car. I thought for sure he would be teased somehow, but instead my son opened the cover of the plate, and the kid reached in and took the last few pieces with a smile and a “thanks.” When my son climbed into the car, I just let out a giant sigh of relief as I drove him home. There’s hope for our next generation yet…

  5. Kathy Khang December 6, 2009

    @ t-hype – yes, idiocy abounds and knows no boundaries. During the” Deadly Viper” there were a few comments on other blogs telling Angry Asians to essentially go back to where we came from and deal with the racist garbage that happens in Asia. I spent a summer in Korea during college and while I looked like everyone else (minus the nose job) I was constantly reminded that I was an American.

    BTW, how is your cute dog? 🙂

    @ madeperfectinweakness – I would agree with you that there are many more settings in which “fragrant” foods (love that!) are much more acceptable and even a barometer of one’s openness to culture. College campuses generally being one of them. I remember many years back when a ice cream/snack shop on the campus of my alma mater went Korean-owned. Imagine my shock when I walked in and could order a brownie sundae or a bowl of bi-bim-bop!

    But I have to admit that I’m a bit uneasy about smelling like my food. You know, that perpetual garlic-tinged smell. Even altoids won’t help…

    @Jen – I remember being bullied on the bus, too. I used every nasty Korean word I used. Too bad we weren’t riding the same bus. During those elementary school years I often wished for a friend who could understand the fear and confusion. Let’s keep praying for this next generation!

    • t-hype December 8, 2009

      thanks for asking about little 뻬뻬로. she’s as cute as ever!

      Speaking of cute AND fragrant food, I should add that people shouldn’t worry too much about “food breath”.

      Last week, my super cute salsa partner inadvertently let out a kimchi-laden burp while we were dancing. HILARIOUSLY embarrassing. Didn’t hurt his cuteness quotient at all…just made him all the more memorable! 😉

  6. tori December 7, 2009

    Kathy, I have enjoyed reading your blog. A male friend of mine introduced it to me and I haven’t stop reading since then. I appreciate your honesty and choice of topics.

    Growing up in a rural African-American home we fried a lot of our food. One of them which happens to be one of my favorites is fried fish both whiting and catfish. I remember being embarrassed as a kid if I had a friend come over the day after my mom had fried some fish or even if I had to run out side to pick something up or interact with people I remember being paranoid about the possibility of smelling like fried fish.

    Today when I go home to my mom’s house I look forward to her fried fish. Since my younger years we have become more proactive about decreasing the smell of the fried fish in the house by boiling vanilla and cinnamon on the stove.

    • Kathy Khang December 7, 2009

      Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog!

      I love fish and seafood in general. I would have come over in a heartbeat and enjoyed your mom’s fried fish! Have you found that “Southern” cooking has gained enough acceptance and a level of familiarity that you are more comfortable with those “embarrassing” smells or does the memory of the embarrassment still affect what you will cook and serve to friends and guests?

      • tori December 14, 2009

        I feel that had I grown up in a southern rural town versus a northen rural town it would have been different and more accepting and familiar to people. The town I grew up in was majority white and my family is multiracial too. My best friends growing up were white; therefore, fried fish, rabbit and chicken were not items that their mom’s would make.

        Personally, I have not taken on the challenge of frying fish or chicken. I have thought about it since I recently moved into a house with housemates and we operate on a rotating cooking list, but I am hesitant to fried items since I am the only African-American in the house. I wouldn’t want them to be uncomfortable…unfortunately I still have that mindset.

  7. Phantom Dentist December 8, 2009

    I too remember frequent rides in the bus through junior high, with someone yelling “banzai” every few minutes from the back. Being the only Asian person in the bus besides my brother, not hard to figure out who it was directed at. Haven’t thought about it in years, but even thinking about it now riles me.


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