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Love at First Slurp

By: Stephanie Roh

I am what you call a banana. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I grew up in a small town in suburban New Jersey, and was one of the few Asians among a sea of Italians. At school, Asians were never considered “cool.” Being cool in New Jersey meant looking like the characters from Jersey Shore or being über-outgoing. In contrast, Asians were known as the quiet nerds in the AP classes that never break out of their shell.

When I told people I was Korean, I was asked “oh, so do you like K-pop?” or “North or South?” I was embarrassed and angry that cheesy pop music and dictatorship were the only things people associated my Korean identity with. In my rebellious attempts to fit in, I shunned Korean culture. I never wanted to learn Korean, I didn’t want to visit Korea, I never joined my grandma watching her Korean dramas, and I listened to strictly American or British music. It turned out that after all these efforts to fit in, I was more confused about my identity than ever.

As I grew up and met more diverse groups of people, I noticed that the people whom I admired most were those who were unapologetically themselves, regardless of what other people thought. I realized the only way people will accept me is if I accept myself first, Korean-ness and all. I so badly wanted a culture to be proud of and call my own. Going into college, I decided I would leave this suppressed version of myself behind. I thought about how ridiculous it was to have spent my whole life shunning my cultural background when I could have been embracing it. But how I was going to embrace it, I wasn’t so sure.

Eventually something clicked when I started cooking my junior year. All the recipes I tried were very basic at first: chicken tenders, stir fries, pastas. Once I got more comfortable in the kitchen, I was whipping up mushroom risottos, Thai curries, parmesan-crusted salmon, French Onion soup, you name it. I loved eating food that I put so much care into learning the process of making.

One summer day in a bookstore in Chicago, I stumbled upon a beautifully designed cookbook called “Cook, Korean!” by Robin Ha. Contrary to traditional cookbooks, it was described as a “comic book with recipes.” How trendy! It was my first time giving any thought to Korean cooking. While browsing the pages of adorable drawings of animated cabbages and ladies in hanboks (traditional Korean dresses), I smiled because I recognized so many dishes that I grew up eating — japchae (a sweet concoction of glass noodles and vegetables), pajeon (chewy scallion pancakes dipped in soy sauce), daegujeon (pan-fried battered flounder), sundubu-jigae (spicy soft tofu stew). I attempted a few of the recipes and they came out alright, though nothing to call mom about.

Out of all places, I had my first Korean culinary breakthrough in Copenhagen, Denmark during my semester abroad. I was picking up a few snacks at the only Asian grocery store in the city center called “Den Kinesiske Købmand” (The Chinese Merchant) when I spotted a packet of Korean rice cakes in the freezer. On a whim, I bought them and decided to recreate the tteokguk (beef broth soup with rice cakes) that my mom used to make for me every New Year’s Day (an age-old Korean tradition believed to grant the consumer good luck for the year and gain a year of age). I invited a few friends over to share the soup with me, hoping that it would come out well.

The tteokguk recipe was from Maangchi, a website run by the Korean version of Martha Stewart, Emily Kim. The dish turned out to be very simple to make. You boil thin strips of beef and a tremendous amount of garlic in water for about 40 minutes until you get a fragrant clear broth and then add salt, pepper, sesame oil, green onions, and lovely-smelling fish sauce. Then, you cook the rice cakes until they start floating (that’s when you know they’re done!). The most important addition is thinly cooked salted egg yolk cut into tiny hearts like my older relatives used to do at our Korean Thanksgivings, and voilà! When I tasted it for the first time, I had one of those Ratatouille Anton Ego flashback moments where you see your whole childhood flash before your eyes. It reminded me exactly of my mom’s home cooking and it made me quite emotional and impressed with myself. My friends, who hadn’t tried much Korean food before, loved it. It was then that I realized I could get really good at cooking Korean food, and make it my new passion!

After the tteokguk success, I was confident enough to learn how to make my own japchae, daegujeon, pajeon, tteokbokki (hot and spicy rice cakes), gamjajorim (sweet soy potatoes), and yukgaejang (spicy beef soup). I learned that Korean food is so much more versatile than just bibimbap and kimchi that are recklessly tossed around with abandon (although those are delicious too). But it’s also about treating each ingredient with care and balancing a mélange of flavors — salty, sweet, spicy, sour — and textures — slippery, crunchy, and smooth! Whenever I could, I shared my newfound cooking repertoire with family and friends. I served my mom my version of tteokguk and she was overwhelmed with pride. My daughter has finally grown up!

It was food that allowed me to embrace a culture I almost lost. I am now so proud that I come from a country with such delicious food. So much so that it was one of the reasons why I finally wanted to travel to Korea and discover my roots. After some nudging, I successfully convinced my dad to take me to Korea for the first time as a post-graduation gift next June. You know you are a real foodie when your motivation to travel halfway around the world is a bowl of noodle soup!

My relatives making food!

About the Writer: Stephanie Roh is a senior from Weehawken, New Jersey and her favorite city is Copenhagen. She adores their design and architecture scene, fashion brands (Stine Goya!), sourdough bread, elderflower juice, and most of all cycling!

About Guac: Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.

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