Embracing food from dino nuggets to kimchi

Home-cooked meals, Asian-American style

lf17-AlyLee

Of all the things I look forward to about going home, grocery shopping with my mom is chief among them. There’s something about my foodie-soul that just loves to look at potential snacks with someone who has the means to buy them. Thus when my mother announced she was making a Costco run when I was home for Thanksgiving, I squealed with excitement.

On this particular grocery trip I was feeling especially nostalgic as I walked through the frozen food aisle with my mother. Boxes upon boxes of Bagel Bites, Dino Nuggets and Toaster Strudels large enough to feed all of the Kardashians and their babies filled my peripheral vision. The sight of those colorful packages sent me back to the days of coming home from Waynewood Elementary, kicking my shoes off at the door and running to a kitchen heavy with the aroma of stegosaurus-shaped chicken enriched with niacin and reduced thiamine mononitrate. When my mother asked, “Do you think your brother might want some of this kid food for when he comes home on Wednesday?” I nodded nonchalantly, hiding the pudgy, sentimental tears I shed inside.

Why did I feel so nostalgic over a seemingly meaningless thing? I contrasted those childhood days with the first day back for Thanksgiving break. When I came home from the University for Thanksgiving, I kicked my shoes off at the door, hugged my mom and dad and ran to the kitchen longing to smell the pungent stench of my mom’s kimchi stew. My 8-year-old self would have gagged at the vaguely feet-smelling aroma of the quintessential Korean dish. It seemed not only had my taste buds grown up, they also became a lot more … Asian?

Growing up in an almost exclusively white neighborhood, sometimes well-meaning friends would ask me what my family ate for dinner. They always had this wide-eyed look, like they were waiting for me to divulge the secrets of how my family stole the next-door neighbor’s dog for our weekly stew. I would always reply with, “pizza,” or “chicken nuggets” or sometimes “tacos.” They were always surprised. “Oh,” they would say, “that’s what I eat with my family.”

“Yup,” I’d reply, “We’re just a typical American family.”

And it was true. My mom hardly ever cooked rice. We didn’t have the typical kimchi naengjanggo (special kimchi refrigerator) other Korean families had. My brother and I used to request noodles with butter. When we had the occasional Korean meal, my parents had to force-feed us. Maybe my mother was trying to protect my brother and me from the social isolation eating strange food would subject us to. Or maybe my own naïve mind recognized this myself, and I subconsciously trained myself to reject the Asian part of my taste buds.

It wasn’t until I moved to a different city with a lot more Asian people that I suddenly found myself craving kimchi and rice over macaroni. Maybe it was some biological transformation of my taste buds that hit when I hit puberty, but it was probably more of a growing acceptance of my Asian identity. That new environment made me realize it wasn’t weird to eat different foods and that I actually liked this kind of food a lot. Even without the change in context, I think a natural part of growing up is simply realizing the importance of where you come from. The sight of those frozen foods in Costco made me realize how much I had truly grown.

Now when people ask me what kind of food my family enjoys, I proudly say “kimchi jjigae” or “jjajangmyeon” or sometimes “haemul pajeon.” And it’s true. As if my whole family rediscovered our roots, we now eat Korean food much more regularly than before.

Still, when people ask me what my family eats for Thanksgiving, I give them the whole spread — turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, cornbread, etc. After all, the best part of being Asian American is getting to enjoy all that both Asia and America have to offer.

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