Korean food is one of my greatest loves, a love I felt I had always known but had yet to meet, like a soulmate.
Adopted from Korea at a year old to Switzerland and then relocating to England aged four, I grew up in Southend, Essex. My Mum has lived much of her adult life abroad so we were lucky and enjoyed a more eclectic diet than many of my schoolmates who would find it a little strange coming over for dinner and having risotto with a green side salad instead of fish fingers chips and beans. We would also visit family in Switzerland annually and enjoyed the mountain foods and cheese laden dishes, which I enjoyed very much though the heavy dairy content left me feeling queasy.
As a child I loved spending time in the kitchen with my Mum, assisting, or hindering in the preparation of our meals. Like many children, I cunningly used my assistance as an opportunity to taste ingredients and pinch things from the chopping board before they made it to the pan. My Mum says she found it strange that my favourite things seemed to be raw root vegetables. I loved helping make soups and stews and would always volunteer to chop or peel, so I could sneak pieces of diced turnip or swede into my mouth. Another love of mine from a very young age were pickles. I could eat a whole jar of gherkins as happily as a chocolate bar, I loved spicy food, garlic, seafood and fish. Of course I have a nostalgic love of British fish and chips, but I always have to have a ‘wally’ with it and I’ve always felt the dish was lacking a little kick!
With no Korean people and certainly no Korean restaurants in my locality my experience of Asian food until I was in my twenties was generally from the local Chinese take away. I imagined that Korean food would be much like Chinese food. Wrong!
In 1999 and in my early twenties my life changed forever, for many reasons, but one particular thing re-entered my life which filled a gap left empty since infanthood. The tastes of Korea returned to as I ordered kimchi, bulgogi and sundubu chigae from a confusing hand written menu board in a huge Korean food mart in the suburbs of Washington DC. I sat and stared in awe as several small dishes with various red coloured pickled vegetables were placed in front of me followed by an cow shaped iron skillet of sizzling beef, a small metal lidded bowl containing sticky rice and a black stone pot containing a vibrant red bubbling stew with a golden yolk sitting in the centre. My eyes feasted, my mouth salivated and my nose inhaled the intoxicatingly spicy, sweet and sour flavours.
This was most certainly not Chinese style, this was something new, but this was also something familiar. This was something I had known a long time ago. My lost love. I picked up my metal chopsticks and began to put the food in my mouth. I let the flavours of my past absorb intoxicatingly into my palate. I could feel my eyes welling up. Mouthful after mouthful I filled with emotion, sadness for years spent without the food of my heritage, and excitement and fulfilment in finding and knowing again these tastes, aromas and textures. Childhood tastes and habits of munching turnips, pickles and spicy food could now be explained. My silver spoon and my slender chopsticks didn’t rest until the table was clear. Anyone who has dined with me knows this habit remains. I tend to eat Korean food in a manner that would imply the food may be taken from me at any moment.
It is possible that my love of Korean flavours is intensified by a psychological need to reconnect with my birth country and my lost cultural heritage. I know I was only a year old when I left Korea for my new home. Some may say that it would be unlikely that I would remember tastes of my birth country but I do know how I feel when I eat Korean food. I know I look forward to a meal with anticipation and yearning, I know it makes me excited to see a table laden with little dishes of spicy delights, it warms my heart to see a bubbling bowl of chigae, It makes me smile to wrap a crisp leaf around some hot, sweet marinated beef, it makes my heart beat faster and my tongue tingle. That sounds like love to me. Korean food may have been absent from my life for years but once rediscovered, like a soulmate it has made me feel more complete and wholeheartedly continues to feeds my soul.