CELEBRATING IDENTITY THROUGH FOOD
Posted on December 06 2023
There can be no denying that the food we eat as children shapes our identities as adults. Particularly when your adult home is thousands of miles from your childhood one.
Here two (brilliant) food writers, Susan Jung and Su Scott, explore the impacts of their own culinary upbringings. And how these influence the way they eat with their children.
It’s almost impossible to listen to Susan Jung - former food editor of The South China Daily - discuss the meals of childhood without feeling hungry.
Whether it was a weekend meal for twenty cooked by her grandmother, or a mid week dinner, everything was prepared with great care - the steamed crabs, the raw clams in salt with mandarin peel.
The whole family pitched in, dividing-up the work of the kitchen. “When my parents cooked together, my mother would focus on dishes that involved braising and steaming and my dad would focus on stir fried and barbecued dishes”, she says. “My dad was the oldest of 8 children and often helped my grandmother cook, and so he mastered the wok from an early age”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the same for Susan. Observing her parents cooking left her with an awareness for food and flavor, and a keen sense of culinary intuition. “My sense is that when children grow-up around cooking they absorb and learn it from their environment”, she says. “It’s harder to learn this when you start at the age of twenty”.
“I always wanted to help my mother cook," she continues. “I always wanted to know when the fish was done or the eggs were steamed.”
But according to Korean-born food writer Su Scott, it’s not just the micro experience of the home kitchen which can instil a passion for food. The macro, societal level can be just as important and impactful. “Food in Korea is a very core part of our existence”, she says. “It’s not just to feed our hunger. It’s a way to socialize. It’s so natural and everyone knows how to make a reasonably tasting meal”.
There are practical - as well as cultural - benefits to a childhood so steeped in cooking and food.
Knowing how to cook the food of your homeland also, it seems, makes us more adept at cooking more broadly. “It helps me work at ease with leftovers”, says Susan Jung. She might, for example, pan fry the remains of last night’s lamb and serve it alongside some Kimchi and left over rice for a simple take on Bibimbap. “When you are hungry, you can become as creative as you want”, she adds.
Nevertheless our relationship with the food of our childhoods isn’t always easy and continuous. Moving countries and living in new environments can, for example, strain the bonds we hold with our heritage.
“Society in Korea is very conformist”, says Su Scott of her decision to emigrate to the UK. “My father was very strict and I wanted to experience the World”.
The move to London proved a positive and happy one; but it did lead to an ebbing away of Scott’s Korean identity.
“You lose your identity before you realise it’s happening”, she says. “I loved the UK and just wanted to integrate. When you move to a new country there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to be a nuisance or inconvenience”.
Gradually she began turning away from the experiences of her childhood. “I loved London”, she says. “Fully immersing myself and willingly losing my Korean heritage. I removed myself from my community with no Korean friends”.
It was the birth of her daughter - now aged eight - which led Scott to reconnect with her heritage. “When my daughter was born I needed something immediate. I wanted to taste something that tasted like home. To feel my roots before the memory faded”.
In that moment, the simple act of preparing her mother’s Kimchi stew seemed to transport her back to Korea. “The sensation brought me home”, she says. The flavours and textures of the stew conjuring a vivid memory of her father.
Naturally Scott - whose book Rice Table was published earlier this year - is keen to ensure that her daughter’s cultural inheritance is as rich as her own.
“My daughter is beginning to take a real interest in Korean culture”, she says. “My daughter often reads through my book and she is very proud. She’s not embarrassed of eating Korean food at home, though she refuses Kimchi because she says it tastes like stinky cheese”.
For Susan Jung instilling and passing-on a passion for food requires parents to shift their attitudes towards feeding children. They should be included in meal planning and present when food is being cooked.
“Throughout my childhoods there was never any differentiation between the meals that adults and children ate”, she says recalling seeing the three course lunch menu at French primary school (including cheese).
“I would have been very happy to eat that”, she says.