Korean Thanksgivukkah?

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.

Growing Up

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.

Until Thanksgiving…

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.

Food and the Immigrant ExperienceMmm... Deviled Eggs

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.

13 Comments on “Korean Thanksgivukkah?”

  1. momshieb says:

    This is just wonderful! I remember growing up in my Italian American family; we always had ravioli on the table on Thanksgiving. There was no way that my grampa was about to eat a roasted turkey!
    Some of my students were talking about family favorites on the holiday: they named samosas, curry, Chinese noodles and, yes, kimchi! Why not? The Pilgrims ate venison!

    • jisun says:

      I loved hearing about ask those different foods! It is funny, ice had this conversation with many people with immigrant families, and it is always the men! I always used to think of it as needlessly stubborn, but maybe they’re actually to be credited for keeping tradition with the homeland. :)

  2. Oh, how I loved this post! I was just thinking earlier today how I LOVE the “process” of Thanksgiving dinner. Smoking the turkey, sauteeing onions and celery, making pies and proofing the rolls. To me, the process is even more fun than the eating! The joy comes from watching my family devour what I’ve made over a period of two days and showing their appreciation by emitting the almost inaudible “ummmmms” that come with each bite.
    But enough about me….I must know. What is/are Kimchi Latkes? I know I could google, but your writing is beautiful and I’d rather read your version than something from Wikipedia!
    Many blessings to you and your family!

    • jisun says:

      Yes, the way you describe it is the way it is with me as well. The process is the most fun and rewarding. Kimchi Latkes aren’t an official “thing” I don’t think. I use the title because our family is mixed ethnicity, but ppl do really eat kimchi latkes. I really should put up a recipe, eh? This blog generally has nothing to do with food but you wouldn’t believe how many search hits I get for ppl looking for a kimchi latke recipe!

  3. Choosing says:

    Now I am really hungry! :-) We do not celebrate Thanksgiving in Europe, but there are a lot of different traditions of what to eat for Christmas. And the ‘Christmas cookies’! Every family has their own selection of different cookies or tiny cakes that just belong to the season. To be honest, I have not mastered the art yet … and still rely on my mum and mother-in-law, who always bake a lot! Mmm, the smell of vanilla and cinnamon!

    • jisun says:

      I’ve always loved the European cookie traditions. Something about it seems so communal and warm. We do a bunch of Christmas-specific meals as well, which means that by the time the new year rolls around we are all stuffed to the gills. ;)

  4. Marie says:

    I love this. Food has so many family cultural memories wrapped up in it. Hope you guys had a delicious thanksgiving! xo

  5. i’m the same way ! growing up, i always had rice soup (porridge) when i was sick. so now every time i make it, my husband comes home and asks, ‘wait.. are you sick?’

    i loved how you described food here. how your dad remarked how you can’t eat a meal with kimchi, how you were ‘sashaying your spoon’ through your bowls, how now thanksgiving has a different connotation to you as a mother. beautifully written. =)

    btw, have you ever seen the korean drama, ‘Gourmet’? It’s a kdrama that’s less on the drama, and more on the food. not just about the world of chefs and cooking, but its really about why food is important to us as people and how it connects us with one another. a must watch if you ever have time. =)

    • jisun says:

      Ha, that same thing happens to me when I make it, the husband immediately thinks I’m sick!

      I’ll have to check out that show, it sounds right up my alley. But darn you for adding something new to my list of addictions! :D

  6. Mardra says:

    What a sensory filled post. Good work with that – holy wow.

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