Korean Thanksgivukkah?Posted: November 28, 2013
Thanksgiving has me thinking on the topic of comfort food. Growing up Korean meant that I had an entirely different idea of comfort food from my American friends. Rice porridge, oxtail soup, roasted seaweed. Boiled chestnuts, rice cakes, kimbap. And yes, kimchi. Raw, cooked, in soups, sautéed.
I’ve never cottoned to some of the most ubiquitous American staples. Cereal. Why would I take something crunchy and douse it in milk? Why would I drink said milk after being sullied by the rainbow colors of dry tasteless starch nuggets? Peanut butter. What’s the joy in having all the moisture sucked out of your mouth by a paste of roasted nuts? Bananas. Bland, slimy “fruit” that threatens to give you constipation if eaten too soon? Um, no.
My friends got dry toast when they were sick, which baffled my mind, because I’d been taught that bread is the last thing you should eat when ill. My mom would make rice porridge with water or broth, then spoon a tangy soy sauce and sesame seed oil concoction over it. I remember sashaying my spoon through the pools of sauce to get the most perfectly seasoned bite. There was an art to it, trust me. Sometimes there’d be little bits of minced veggies or meat on top. When I was really sick, it came plain.
Or soup. Soup with tender chunks of meat or ribbons of seaweed, heavily seasoned with ginger or garlic. Spicy, mild. Thick, or thin. In case you don’t know this, let me tell you: my people LOVE soup. There is not a single meal without soup, and it is the first thing that comes out when you’re sick. There is even a special soup you eat for hangovers. If there were a record for number of different soups in a cuisine, Korean food would take it.
For most of my very young life, I ate my mom’s Korean cooking and looked upon my friends’ houses with a mixture of confusion and pity. All that other food seemed unnecessarily filled with bread and sugar. Nothing was spicy. There was never any soup to go with anything.
It’s funny—the first memory I have of Thanksgiving stuffing is not marked my any other details but the stuffing itself. I don’t remember who made it, how old I was, or where I ate it. I do remember the crunchy top and the savory pudding-like bottom, the tender bits of celery and onion, the butter, and the slight aroma of sage. Moist turkey with cranberry sauce was an ingenious pairing. Thanksgiving was the first time I’d had crème fraîche dolloped onto my soup, and holy cow, why hadn’t I ever thought of that? And pie. Don’t get me started on pie.
Then came my introduction to Southern Thanksgiving when I worked at my first job out of college at a group home for young boys. The staff there would make spicy shrimp dishes, flaky biscuits, cornbread dressing, tender collard greens, macaroni and cheese doused in hot sauce.
My mother is an amazing cook, but never ventured much into Western cooking. Roasting meat was completely foreign to her—our oven was filed with kitchen towels and sheet pans. So my first venture into Thanksgiving-land was my first real self-guided culinary adventure.
It is an interesting experience as an immigrant child, when you learn to eat another culture’s food. It made me always feel like an observer, never completely understanding my friends’ food tastes in a visceral way, but to also appreciate that food in a way that my parents likely never would. Thanksgiving was the first time I recall straddling those two worlds through food.
My earliest Thanksgiving memory with my family illustrates this straddling between worlds quite well. We were having people over. I think someone else had roasted the turkey, but my mom had made most of the sides. The table was set, and my mom was cleaning up some last-minute dishes, and my dad asked, “Aren’t we going to put any kimchi out?” My mom said something a little incredulous. My dad’s response? “Don’t be silly. You can’t eat a meal without kimchi.”
Thanksgiving food soothes me by being the first comfort food that I made for myself. Now, I use it to create memories for our children. As I was sweating onions and celery for our stuffing, I thought about whether I should put out any kimchi. Why not, right? And might want to make some latkes while I’m at it.
Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Chanukkah. Happy Korean Thanksgivuk… No. It’s just too much of a mouthful. Enjoy your pie.