"What is that?" my friends asked, peering over my red and white Hello Kitty lunch box, or dosirak, with great curiosity.
"Oh, it's just some...fish," I answered quickly, avoiding eye contact and feeling my cheeks heat up as I desperately stared at the fish cakes, willing them to disappear. I didn't even have the heart to say "fish cakes" in full because I knew those wouldn't go over any better.
Those stir-fried fish cakes, or eomuk bokkeum, were my very favorite Korean side dish, or banchan, to have along with rice. Sautéed with thinly sliced peppers and onions, and topped with sesame seeds, eomuk bokkeum are salty, sweet, and utterly addictive. And they're super popular with kids. Well, Korean kids.
"That doesn't look like fish," they said, going back to their own deli sandwiches and Lunchables.
Oh, how I loved those Lunchables! The infrequent days I'd get to take a Lunchable to school were the ones when I could rest easy, fitting in among my friends without fear of being called out on my fishy lunches of unknown origin.
Even then, at 9 years old, I was keenly aware of what was considered standard fare and what...wasn't. That sense of what “wasn’t” was sharply honed in the cafeteria. The best lunch, as far as I was concerned, was a discreet one that could be thrown into a brown paper bag with a scrawled note from Mom on the outside.
When I was pregnant, I devoured parenting books on food almost as quickly as I would French pastries. I flew through titles like Bringing Up Bébé, French Kids Eat Everything, and How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Much, determined not to raise a picky eater. It turned out I didn't end up relying on these books as much as I thought I would.
When it came time to start introducing my daughter Lana to her first solid foods around the four to six month mark, my mother came to my aid in sharing ideas for tasty, nutritious fare. I started off feeding Lana single items, like steamed carrots, zucchini, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes (especially Korean goguma, or the Japanese white-fleshed variety). I'd eventually move on to Korean-style rice porridge (ssal-mium and later, jook), a great vehicle for various vegetables, ground meats, and pieces of oily fish.
As she got a bit bigger, I'd finish off the jook with a touch of dark toasted sesame oil, a quintessential Korean pantry staple. I quickly learned that Lana would eat anything seasoned with the nutty, earthy chamgireum—especially items I thought might be more challenging, like broccoli, eggplant, or burdock root. It delighted me to no end that she was eating (and thriving on) the same food I ate when I was a little one.
During our life before Lana, my husband (whose mother is also Korean) and I would normally cook a variety of cuisines in any given week at our leisure, ranging from Italian to Spanish, French to Japanese, Korean to American—that is, when we weren't ordering in or eating out at least two or three times a week (living in New York makes it too easy!). Having a kid forced us to cook at home more often, but I wasn't mad at it: It was far more healthful and economical, and we really started to enjoy the ritual of eating in.
Life with Lana also had me honing my weeknight repertoire, where I started leaning in on the Korean- and Japanese-inflected foods of my youth. I relied less on recipes and tackled cooking more from a blueprint point of view, where dinner components largely stayed the same: a bowl of mixed grain rice, an easy vegetable or tofu side or two, a broiled fish or steamed egg dish, sometimes a soup if I really had my act together. (It gives me no greater joy knowing that Lana's favorite food is miso soup with rice, incidentally one of the easiest "meals" to throw together if you already have cooked rice on hand! She requests it several times a week.)
These days, Lana's lunch box often looks a lot like my childhood dosirak. I may not pack it with pungent items from the previous night's dinner, but she does prefer a hot lunch with a rice base to a deli sandwich. That's not to say that she doesn't love her pasta Bolognese, pizza, or fries, of course—she is a kid, after all.
I also know that times have changed—and so have I. The homemade lunches of my youth were loaded with a charged symbolism for me, as a Korean-American kid who just wanted to fit in with my white classmates. It didn't matter if my dosirak contained all of my favorite foods; those were foods best enjoyed in the comforts and privacy of home, not in the open free-for-all of a school cafeteria.
I’m glad Lana doesn’t have to hide who she is.
My family doesn't live near us, neither does my husband's. So cooking and eating Korean food represents much more than choosing a preferred culinary genre for our home; it ties us to the flavors of our past, of the meals we don't get to share with our extended families, and to the shared culture we're proud of and want to pass on.
I'm happy to know that Lana's "home palate" is one modeled after my own, rooted in the tastes of Korea with plenty of space for other influences. Beyond that, I hope she'll be able to look back at these meals with fondness not just for the flavors, but for the feeling of love and care—and unconditional acceptance—that went into them.
Did your cooking habits change at all after having kids? Share your experiences with us below.