“What would you rather? Kimchi or cheese?” a Korean acquaintance asked me at a mahjong party not too long ago.
The Hong Kong Chinese Auntie who taught me and my Egyptian Australian friend the game was teasing us for being too obvious with our emotions when we play.
“Aiyoo! We can see what you want from a mile away!” she laughs at us.
“I am Korean!” I jokingly explain. “Don’t tell me to hide my emotions. We are a group of people who feel things!”
“Hey, I’m Arab. I hear you, man!” chimes in my friend.
I had forgotten there was a “real” Korean at our table who may have felt I overstepped the mark; who perhaps believed I was not qualified to make such statements as I had grown up in the West.
“Kimchi or cheese?” was the diagnostic question she quickly tossed at me.
It is a question I’ve heard before and I knew its context. Kimchi is from Korea. Cheese is from the West. It is also a term that can be used pejoratively by some idiots to point out Westerners.
“Oh, they stink of cheese,” some bigots say of people like me.
There is also a phrase in Korean. “Ne-gi-hae.” It’s that uncomfortable nauseous sensation you get in your belly when you’ve eaten too much cream. It’s that fatty, greasy taste in your mouth that is longing for a sharp, fresh palate cleanser.
People who have grown up eating cream and cheese instead of fresh and spicy Korean dishes and ban-chan, may find what I’m talking about difficult to understand.
So what would I choose? Kimchi or cheese? The question asked for more than my food preferences. Once again I am asked if I am one of them or an outsider.
I wished I could say I loved kimchi. I wished I could say my love for the ban-chan excluded all other food from other cultures. I could have gained an ally. I may have been welcomed home.
I couldn’t say it. It wasn’t true.
I am a Korean who has grown up in a diverse and open country. I have come to love not only cheese and kimchi, but wat tan hor, pho, aloo gobi, tabouli, hummus, a medium rare eye fillet steak, sushi, sashimi, Yong tau fu, Yorkshire pudding, and I cannot wait to try more of what this country and her people have to offer.
As cultures arrive in Australia and mix, I love how talented chefs have harnessed ingredients sourced from around the world to make food that can only be found in this country. It has elements of the old world, a nod to its history, but unfettered by centuries of tradition it charts a new course that is ours.
The best Australian pie for 2018 was awarded to a Cambodian migrant, Chan Khun, who for the past eight years slaved over creating the country’s tastiest pie. His winning entry was a Malaysian inspired seafood satay pie. The prospect of eating it may seem a little scary to some Australians, Malaysians and even Cambodians, but I love that it exists and would like to try it.
“I choose cheese AND kimchi,” I answer.
“No. You must choose only one,” she replies.
I don’t like this game. I cannot choose only one. I’ve come to love too many and too much.
I look around our table. I see my Egyptian Australian friend laughing on the other side of the room. I see Korean, Singaporean Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, Anglo Australian, Korean American friends all gathered together, enjoying each other’s company, getting ready to play mahjong after a pot-luck dinner of baked fish and paella.
I cannot choose only one. I love them all. Even this young Korean woman who has arrived from one of the most homogeneous cultures in the world has a place here in Australia should she want it.
I also want to say to her that the Korea I’ve seen moves incredibly fast. The country changes at lightning pace, absorbing the new and incorporating it into their own. The kimchi or cheese distinction was a mindset I hadn’t seen for some time.
I don’t think this ability to adapt and change is new. I want to tell my Korean friend the origin of her country’s modern-day kimchi. While the Koreans have been pickling vegetables since 37 BC, the common spicy variety that is eaten and known as kimchi today exists because of the Portuguese.
Chili, now a standard ingredient in the dish, was unknown in Korea until about four hundred years ago. Chilli peppers that came from the Americas were introduced to East Asia by Portuguese traders in the early seventeenth century. I understand that four hundred years can seem like a long time, but for a culture with a history that dates back more than 5,000 years, it’s a relatively recent addition.
My innovative ancestors absorbed the new, the foreign, and incorporated it into something that would be passed down through the centuries and woven into the fabric of their identity. I wanted to tell my Korean friend the exchange of cultures happens in her country too.
With almost two thousand years of vegetable pickling, there are also many types of kimchi. Each with their unique flavours and stories. And I can’t help wondering what my Korean friend would say if I asked her to choose only one type of kimchi.
But I don’t. I didn’t know her well enough.
I just tell her I can’t choose and that I like rendang curry too.
Other featured images are by Alexander Maasch and Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash