Kimchi Oatmeal: the mealtime modifications of a multicultural family

I’ve always been rather open-minded when it comes to food, and my eating habits have changed accordingly since moving to Korea. Marrying a Korean woman has added an extra dose of evolutionary pressure to my eating habits these past few years; likewise, my wife and stepkids have incorporated a lot of foreign foods into their gastronomical universe since I entered their lives. I was recently reflecting on what has changed for them and what has stayed the same as we strive to put a mutually agreeable meal on the table.

Breakfast

One of the biggest mealtime changes for my wife since marrying me concerns breakfast. A typical Korean breakfast might consist of some rice, kimchi, a little soup, and maybe some fish or meat. This is still what my kids eat on school days when my wife prepares their breakfast, but my wife now exclusively eats breakfast cereal (pumpkin and flax seed from Costco) topped with plain yogurt, honey, and seasonal fruit (usually strawberries or blueberries). She has loved this since the first time I whipped it up for her, and she is now convinced that she has to eat this stuff every day because it is the key to avoiding constipation, which she used to suffer from periodically before we met.

Our kids don’t eat American-style breakfast cereals, even the sweeter ones like Honey-nut Cheerios, which I loved as a kid and tried to introduce to them. I found that they don’t like sweet foods for breakfast in general, which is weird, because that is literally the only time that they will turn their noses up at a sugar-laden anything. The only big alteration to their breakfast menu are my Sunday brunches (scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, baked beans) and my toasted bagel sandwiches (egg, cheese, sausage or bacon, salt, pepper, ketchup), both of which they love.

Their individual tastes differ quite widely in other ways though. For example, Daughter One loves baked beans on toast; Daughter Three (aka The Eating Machine) will eat them if that’s what’s in front of her; and Daughter Two would sooner starve to death than put a single bean in her mouth.

Sandwiches

Another thing the girls eat now that they didn’t much eat before are sandwiches. Apart from my aforementioned breakfast sandwiches, there are a few others that they have come to love. Simple staples like grilled cheese and tuna melts are the runaway favorites, though Daughter One has frequently been observed slapping together a PB&J or a ham and cheese on toast when no one was looking.

The kids often ask me to make sandwiches for them to take on school trips, partly because they like them, but also because they like the attention they inevitably receive for bringing along such an exotic meal. It’s always a great reminder to me how strange and wonderful are the utterly mundane aspects of our native culture when I see peanut butter through the eyes of their awestruck Korean classmates. I try to imagine the cultural spectacle that would have ensued if a kid at my elementary school had pulled out dried squid, rice, seaweed, and a bowl of spicy kimchi for lunch. Total freakout.

Bread itself was something my wife didn’t keep around the house before she married me. To a lot of Koreans bread is still just something you eat as a snack, not a sometimes integral component of a meal (The Western proverb “Man cannot live on bread alone” would make very little sense here, partly because no one was ever under the opposite impression). To be fair, it was very hard to buy decent bread in Busan not very long ago. Now it’s much easier, and bread is steadily working its way deeper into the Korean food consciousness. It will never dethrone rice as the premier carbohydrate, but my family now understands what all the fuss is about.

Pasta and assorted Italian-inspired foods

Something like a pizza/pasta revolution has swept Korea in the past decade or so. When I lived in Ulsan in 1998-99, there was exactly one place to get pasta in a city of one million people, and it sucked. Now it seems like every street in Busan has a place selling pasta; some of course are better than others. Pasta has become so ubiquitous that it’s not unusual to see coffee shops with some sort of pasta on the menu. It seems that the Italians, along with the Chinese, have gastronomically colonized just about every country in the world. What’s not to like about that?

I love pasta and I cook it at home a lot, and to my great pleasure and relief, all of the girls have developed a taste for it: penne with pesto and vegetables, Spaghetti with chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, baked ziti, lasagna, spinach ravioli buried in parmesan cheese – they love it all. The most popular dinner request I get from the kids: chicken parmigiana with spaghetti. None of the restaurants in Busan can do that, as far as I know, and every time I make it I bask in major kudos, compliments, and karma.

Good beer

You will never find Korean beer in my fridge. The best Korean beer makes Bud Light seem bold and original by comparison, and a lot of Koreans are frankly admitting that Korean beer sucks as more and better imported beers become cheaper and more widely available. The convenience store downstairs now stocks at least ten beers that blow away the finest Korean swill, and the vastly greater variety of the beer aisle at the Home Plus down the street makes the thought of drinking Hite, Cass, or OB Lager seem downright masochistic. Call me a snob, but the plain truth is that in the year 2013 in Busan, South Korea, there is simply no longer any reason to drink Korean beer if you don’t want to, and I don’t want to.

Neither does my wife. She usually comes home late from work, and we often enjoy a beer or two and a snack before bed.  Asahi is our home staple, though a peek in our fridge will often reveal a few bottles of Samuel Adams lager, Hitachino Pale Ale, Anderson Valley amber, or a bottle or two of Hoegaarden. To anyone who has asked me how I manage to stay in Korea so long and so happily, I submit to you Exhibit B.

…and a few misses

My family hasn’t taken to everything I’ve put in front of them. Oatmeal leaps to mind. Only Daughter One will occasionally eat it, and even then only one particular type (Quaker Instant, maple and sugar flavored. Go figure.) The Eating Machine tried oatmeal exactly once and hated it, though she found it more tolerable after she added a few pieces of kimchi. To be honest, I’m not really crazy about oatmeal either. These days I eat it mainly because it’s healthy, it’s warm, and it’s different.

Baked clams were also a major dud, though the kids are funny about any kind of shellfish to begin with. They think the meat looks like a giant booger, though it’s not clear to me why that alone would necessarily stop a young kid from putting one in her mouth.

The one food that probably pains me the most to see them reject is blueberry pancakes. They’ll nibble on one – one – if it’s drenched in syrup, but that’s about it. And they never ask me to make them, ever. When I do suggest it, I’m unanimously vetoed. It’s still a bit baffling to me how any human being could fail to love pancakes, which serves as yet another useful reminder that the things we imagine to be human universals often turn out to be just one more instance of our cultural conditioning.

I still make pancakes, though not often, and we all understand if I eat mostly by myself. Now if I can just convince them that eating giant stacks of them are actually how we do it where I come from…

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15 comments

  1. My kids don’t really like blueberry pancakes either. Blueberry muffins are popular; bran muffins with raisins are the favorites.

    My kids refuse to eat rice in the morning. If they are staying at their cousins house they will just eat some fruit and then eat when they get home.

    My wife will eat oatmeal in things like cookies or breads but she tried one bowl of oatmeal and has deemed it non-edible.

  2. We had a family shindig at a condo over in your hood this weekend. Twelve Koreans, one honky. It’s generally a good time. I can handle everything except the breakfast. Usually it’s a night of drinking, then crashing. I always wake to the smell of a full-on jeong-shik wafting into the bedroom (no, first I wake to the sound of screaming babies). This time my bro-in-law went down to the north end of the beach to get some fresh raw fish. I think I can relate to how your daughters feel now. I love raw fish, I love kimchi chigae. Just not at 7 am. Maybe you should try serving those sweet blueberry pancakes at night!

    1. I’m the same way, Paul. I love Korean food; can eat pretty much anything they give me, but not in the morning. Breakfast is hard-wired culturally. Pancakes at night might just work though!

  3. Fascinating! I absolutely love the fact that you’re open to new cultures and have adapted really well. It’s great to hear that your kids and wife are open to western cuisine as well. I’m curious to know about the health impact of changing to a new food intake regimen and whether obesity or other health concerns (such as obesity, high blood pressure etc) are common over there as they are here because of our American lifestyle. Thanks for sharing, John. Great post. Cheers, cuz. Chris.

    1. Obesity is very low here, though I’ve managed to put on a few pounds, probably because of the more American parts of my diet. I thought it was kind of telling that the first time I saw two obese Koreans in the same place was in a Burger King. Don’t ask me what I was doing there. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting, cuz.

  4. Great blog, as usual, John. I love hearing what’s going on in your life with Aeran and the girls. I can see why the girls don’t cotton to oatmeal, though. It took me years to finally try it for myself. The only kind I will eat is instant Quaker Oatmeal with maple sugar and nuts. I think I would lose weight and be drop-dead gorgeous if I lived in Busan for 3 months and ate only Korean food. 🙂 I love reading your blogs, Johnny; I can see it everything you write about happening before my eyes. I also must tell you that I think you’re doing a phenominal job as “Dada”. You’re all so lucky to have each other. Love to everyone!

  5. Hey John (I’ve figured out that your real name isn’t Bosmosis, but I would be happy to call you either),

    I find your posts just fascinating, especially if I compare with my own situation, as an American living with a Tunisian in France. I also have a cousin who married a South Korean and who currently lives there. Sadly he doesn’t have a blog.

    In my own experience, we both agree on certain things to eat from American cuisine, certain things to eat from French cuisine, and basically everything to eat from Tunisian/North African cuisine (a secret: I eat pretty much anything as long as it’s halal, and I eat more Tunisian staples than he does… dates and shellfish and smoked fish come to mind. He is much much more picky than I am).

    Here’s what have been a hit from American cuisine: pancakes, French toast, cookies, cakes, apple pie, and fried chicken. You can kinda see a theme there (basically, if it has sugar, it’s delicious). Oh and we (I mean he) would never be able to live without bread (good French/Tunisian quality baguette bread) or tomato-based sauces. Or harissa (chili paste). Rice is pretty much out of the question, since it’s all the school cafeteria served him for four years in university. Eggs are an important life staple. (We are both poor students).

    Kimchi sounds fascinating. I’ve never tired it.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks again for dropping by, Colleen. And you can call me John.

      It sounds like you’re living in an interesting mix of cultures over there. I can’t say that I’ve ever tried Tunisian food (or if I did I wasn’t aware of it), though the things you name sound very okay with me. I thought it was funny that you like more Tunisian foods than he does. It really does pay to be open-minded, ESPECIALLY if we’re talking about food.

      Kimchi is … different. I really like it. Some people can’t stand it, some love it, and for most Koreans it’s a daily side dish with nearly every meal. I would definitely recommend trying it if you can find some good stuff from a Korean or Asian market. Eat it straight or fry it with rice or tofu. Good stuff.

  6. John I so enjoy reading about your life as husband, father and chef! One breakfast food you failed to mention was French toast. It was always a favorite when you boys were kids. Now that good bread is more available, you might want to try it.

  7. So interesting! Having just left Korea, it brought back memories of the struggles of finding food I liked! I didn’t like a lot of the korean food, and I admire you for having developed a taste for it. I suppose it’s just about what you’re used to. Your kids like very savoury food for breakfast, and I could not imagine it. Anyway, it’s interesting to read about the food differences and relate them to my experience. Thanks a lot.

    1. I can definitely be hard to find Western foods, depending where you live and what food we’re talking about. It’s gotten much easier over the years though. I like Korean food, but there are certain Western foods that I really need to have around because they make me a much happier person.

      Thanks for dropping by the blog. Keep in touch.

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