Essay: The Search for Taste

One of my goals this year is to write more creatively. Writing food reviews is fun, but I feel like I need to expand my writing focus a bit. Here is an essay that I wrote about growing up as a Korean/American Adoptee.

Milk, peanut butter and jelly, cookies, and an apple were what my American mother packed me for lunch when I was in elementary school. At first, this kind of lunch wasn't what I was accustomed to and often made me sick. Now even though my body rejected these foods - stomachaches, allergies, cavities- I forced myself to eat them because I truly believed by eating these foods, I would become American.
I was born in Daegu, Korea and I lived in Korea for the first 5 years of my life. Then a family in Delaware, USA, adopted me. Looking back, it’s so strange that before my life in America, I was in an orphanage sleeping in a large room with 20 other children. It’s almost like living in a parallel universe because here I was in a cafeteria holding a white bread sandwich. Before arriving in Delaware, my taste buds were accustomed to pungent kimchi, salted vegetables flavored with sesame oil, scalding hot soups and stews, and broiled fish.

In America, I avoided Korean food because I feared it would turn me "Korean." So I ate foods that had an equivalent taste in America. I would eat bowl after bowl of salad topped with Catalina dressing because the dressing had a tart, slightly spicy, salty taste. Mexican salsa quickly became my condiment of choice and I would pour this over the most unlikely of dishes, including fish sticks and macaroni and cheese. Drops of Tabasco sauce would go over everything-especially pizza.  I even put Tabasco on sauerkraut for it seemed distantly related to Kimchi. And more than once, my mother and father would often find large jars of pickles with only green vinegar inside and that my hands would have a briny, dill scent.

Throughout my life I was looking for a missing flavor and I this was one reason why I returned to Korea. There was one memory that was embedded in my mind and I sought that taste. When I was 5 years old, I was awaiting adoption in a Seoul orphanage. The orphanage was huge and there were hundreds of kids living there and I was hoping to be adopted by a smiling American couple with a big house and fluffy dog just like everyone else. Whenever a Westerner came into the orphanage, we would all try to look as cute and happy as possible in order to have a picture taken. We believed this picture was our key out.

One summer day, I was in the cafeteria and I got a big bowl of cucumber seaweed soup and I was gingerly trying to make it over to my table without spilling the contents of the bowl all over the floor. While I was slowly walking over-my eyes focused on the shifting liquid in the bowl- a number of kids ran past me. They were all screaming. Then I saw a flash of light bounce off the soup in my bowl.
I looked up to find a tall, blond haired woman taking picture of the all the kids. Since I was right there, I did the only thing I could think of. I smiled and held up my bowl of soup. She paused; I saw her look my way. She then aimed the camera at me and snapped my picture. Then she lifted my bowl of soup, and took a sip.

Throughout my life, I have searched for the flavor of that soup- salty with the taste of the sea and the green, sunshine taste of cucumber. I rediscovered this taste when I was reunited with my mother. The taste I was looking for was chilled cucumber seaweed soup (Oi Naengchae). She must have known that this was the taste I was searching for. She told me I would eat it all the time as a young boy and I would often cry for it. Hmmm…crying over the taste of soup- that seems a bit extreme. But so does searching your entire life for a particular taste. I knew I returned to Seoul for a reason.

Come take a cooking class or take a Culinary Tour in Seoul!

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