As with everybody, my introduction to food arrived inescapably from my mum; down the umbilical cord came the remnants of kimchi and instant noodles. They were the foods she craved during her pregnancy, the foods she would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, elevenses, midnight feasts and any other meal she could invent in between. I am certain those flavours, bound with the dopamine they helped encourage, blended together with the security of the womb to create a feeling; a first memory. To this day, noodles and kimchi are my go-to comfort meal.
My mum is Korean and my dad English. They met while my dad worked on a nuclear power station just outside Busan. He was an engineer who travelled the world: a few years, countries and power stations later my little nuclear family arrived in England.
Kylie was at number one, luminous socks were a thing, and there weren’t many mixed-race, half-English, half-Korean kids kicking around rural Northamptonshire in the 1980s. Our family stood out. My brother and I had moved early enough in our lives to feel English but our appearance couldn’t be ignored, and sooner or later we would be crudely reminded that our faces didn’t quite fit and somebody would ask if we were Chinese. Often they wouldn’t wait for an answer, instead their fingers quickly pulled up the edges of their eyes as they bucked their teeth and tik tok’d their heads from side to side while whinnying a nonsense accent. It was confusing more than it was insulting. I was English, I spoke the language, I went to Cubs and Sunday school, yet these kids found it impossible to see beyond my face. It was maddening and embarrassing. I didn’t want to be different. No child does.
Self-preservation dictated I shut out as much Korean influence as I could. It was easy enough; there weren’t any other Koreans for miles. If I did meet other Korean children it seemed they were adopting a similar tactic, attempting to compensate for their appearance by acting as thoroughly English as possible. I shunned the language, paid no attention to relatives and was embarrassed by the clothes that arrived from abroad which I immediately, and cruelly deemed unsuitable additions to my English uniform. There was one thing about Korea that I couldn’t ignore: the food.
During that time, the microwave and frozen meals were feeding the free market; food was fuel, time was money and people ate accordingly. On weekdays, as a busy family, we duly complied: breakfast was cereal drenched in milk and sugar. Lunch was packed into my Snoopy lunchbox; sandwiches built of spongy white bread, slathered with margarine. A satsuma, Ribena in flask, a packet of Hula Hoops, a Penguin and I was set. Dinner was quick, low-hassle food that could be poured from a tin, zapped in the microwave or baked from frozen in the oven. Kievs, mini pizzas, frankfurters, fish fingers, potato waffles and Fray Bentos pies. It was the fodder of children with working parents.
The weekends were for Korean food, the sizzling garlic and beef of bulgogi, the silky texture of tofu bobbing in thickly spiced jiggae, and for the sticky, steaming rice that ghosted through our house with its subtly sweet aroma. If weekdays were for feeding, weekends were for feasting. My mum would draw on an entirely different larder: bottles of sesame oil and soy sauce, jars of bright red chilli flakes, sesame seeds, seaweed sheets, dried vegetables, dried roots and dates. Thick fermented pastes were pulled from the fridge along with fluorescent pickled daikon and bowlfuls of fresh vegetables: mushrooms, spring onions, lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, spinach, broccoli, carrots, a harvest of contrast, texture and flavour. Clip top jars of kimchi at different stages of maturity were fetched in from outside. Young and refreshingly cold mul kimchi all the way through to older, fizzing kimchi with its jowl trembling flavour. All were checked, snipped with scissors and perfectly plated into banchan.
My brother and I scurried around the kitchen, buzzing about the food before it was ready, dipping spoons into scalding soups, plucking pieces of meat from stir-frying woks and sniping crunchy spring onions from spicy salads. It was delicious, untameable chaos. Inside that house, around that table with chopsticks in hand, I revelled in being Korean.
It was only in those moments that I really understood anything to do with Korea. Away from the food I had no tangible link, no memory or kinship to the place or the people to whom I was related. My mum tried; she wanted desperately for us to feel the beating heart of the country she was so proud of, and to love the family she missed, but she was fighting the non-negotiable forces of children growing up and all the angst and insecurities that involves. Now, when I think back, I feel a profound sense of regret, having never considered my mum’s feelings.
My mum had fallen in love with a visiting Englishman, and left behind her own mother who had lashed her young body to her back when, as a refugee, she had fled from Seoul to Busan at the beginning of the Korean war. She left her dad who had conjured food and shelter throughout the three years of bloody conflict, and her little sister whom she shared a bed with during cold winters. She left behind all that was familiar in exchange for a new passport and a new life.
To be an immigrant is to be lonely. When you can’t fluently speak the language of your adopted country it’s frustratingly hard to communicate. Traditions and celebrations, the oddities and idiosyncrasies of a country make no sense. It’s exhausting to be a foreigner, and there are times when you just want to let your guard down, to have a break from the constant, overwhelming effort of trying to assimilate. In those moments food is often the most potent and accessible form of escape.
My mum was cooking to cure homesickness. Preparation and consumption was a form of therapy. The more mundane the practice the more familiar she was with it and the more evocative the feelings of comfort became. She doggedly adhered to methods she had learned from her mother; the washing and stirring of rice, the preparation of ingredients, the attention to colourful and proper presentation. It was an act of remembrance, meditation strong enough to ease her mind.
These meals were never an easy task. She would convince my dad to pack up the family Ford Escort and travel the hour to either Leicester or Birmingham, where excellent east Asian shops sold the noodles, kelps, pastes and sauces she needed. After we had cleared the shelves we would head to the markets. Over the years my mum developed a great rapport with the stallholders but it took time for the chatty, know-it-all men to see beyond the Korean lady with the basic English who asked for pieces of meat and fish that were usually binned or sold as dog food. It was sometimes painful to watch her trying to convince the butcher she really did want the beef bones with remnants of cartilage and ligament left on them and that it wasn’t a phrase lost in translation. Growing up English I understood the sarcastic, mocking banter the stallholders and their mates directed towards my oblivious mum. Learning English as a second language she had no idea of the meanness and casual racism directed her way.
It was the culmination of experiences – some malicious, others awkward – that made me push any semblance of being Korean into the shadows. At that time, in that village, all I wanted was to have a centre parting, to eat microwave chips for tea and to care about football. I wish now that I had been less insecure, had somehow managed pride in being Korean. I wish I could speak the language. I wish I was closer to the Korean side of my family.
Thankfully we live in a changed time, in an evolved country that is accepting of different cultures and revels in the foods that have arrived with them. But I think it is vital to note that for every trendy Korean, Italian, Mexican, Indian, Thai or Chinese restaurant out there, there was someone who had to endure whispers, sideway looks or racist abuse while doing the shopping. Those who suffered insults because their food smelled differently and who faced snide comments when collecting seaweed from receding tides. Those same people were at the vanguard of our eclectic modern food scene. Urged on by isolation and appetite they have added to our nation’s cuisine, helping it progress from basic meat and two veg.
I too have changed, and couldn’t be prouder to consider myself in some part Korean. Maybe life would have been easier being a little English boy with Anglo-Saxon features; I’ll never know. But what I do know is that throughout my childhood, while others were eating the bland flavours of convenience, I was eating some of the most delicious and exciting food available in England, prepared by one of the best cooks I know.