Following is part of a series of articles and columns examining international marriages in Korea. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org - Ed.
By Olga Min and Matthew Lamers
Food is one of the most essential elements of culture. Some people like foreign food, while others can hardly adapt to different tastes. For international couples, what to have for dinner isn`t always as easy a question as it sounds.
For one couple - he from Korea and she from Kazakhstan - the food they eat is a meld of their cultures. On Friday night its plov, but on Saturday they eat kimchi-bokembap. Plov is a popular dish in Central Asia.
Plov consists of boiled rice mixed with carrots, onions, beans and meat. Kimchi-bokkeumbap is a Korean dish with fried rice and kimchi.
"Korean and Kazakh food varies a lot. In the beginning, it was not easy to get used to this difference," said Marina Kim, the young Kazakh woman with a Korean husband.
Kim has been married for two years. She has two children; a daughter and a newborn son. After a year and a half of studying culinary books and lessons from her mother-in-law, she is only now confident in her Korean cooking skills.
"Besides Korean food, I regularly cook some Kazakh dishes at home. First, this food was certainly strange to my husband. He found Kazakh food too oleaginous (oily). But now he eats it with pleasure and says it`s savory. He even helps me in the kitchen. When I usually prepare Kazakh food, he makes some improvements. He adds Korean seasoning, such as red pepper or ginger, to make it taste like Korean food. So we have a Kazakh plov, which tastes like Korean kimchi-bokembab. This is our family know-how," said Kim.
Although plov and kimchi-bokkeumbap are both made of rice, they taste quite different. Plov is a little oily and salty, and kimchi-bokkeumbap is spicy. Kim`s family prefers spicy plov, a unique mixture of Kazakh and Korean culinary recipes.
Another couple, Joe McPherson and his wife Eun-jeong, said they make compromises about what to eat.
"There are many (dishes) I love that she doesn`t, but that`s because I`m an adventurous eater. Comfort foods like green beans and mashed potatoes I crave at times. Eun-jeong doesn`t like them because they`re too soft. We incorporate by letting me have my cooking days, and we try to include the leftovers with the banchan," said Joe. "Some foods she couldn`t stand at first, like cilantro, she has acquired a taste for. The same is true for me."
McPherson, an American, runs the popular food blog Korean Food Journal (www.zenkimchi.com).
He said couples of intercultural marriages tend to incorporate their different cultures into what is made in the kitchen.
"A notable compromise is when we both want curry. My wife wants the east Asian yellow curry. I want an Indian curry. We throw in a little of both Japanese curry and Pakistani curry powder, and I have a few jars of mango chutney and Indian-style pickled garlic on the side."
But sometimes compromise is impossible.
"If she absolutely hates what I want, she`ll just let me cook it while eating her food, and I eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. She lived in Canada for a while and understands the homesickness for foods," McPherson said. "Eun-jeong gets stressed because I want either meat or pasta at the end of the day, the same way she wants rice. She`s happy with just rice and kimchi. I`ve learned over time to reduce my meat consumption and enjoy little pleasures like Korean stewed fish and doenjang jjigae."
And when you have two cultures living under the same roof (and in the same kitchen) twice as much space is needed to store the ingredients, groceries and other produce. The McPhersons said that a big challenge is that they need twice as much space in the refrigerator than couples from the same culture. "I have amassed a collection of sauces and spices. She keeps various dried fish, seaweed and pickled vegetables. We`ve just bought a larger refrigerator to accommodate it all."
Playing around with the recipes is part of the fun. He puts soju and a dash of Spanish smoked paprika in the kimchi jjigae. She adds her own ingredients to his spaghetti recipe. More notorious results include bulgogi burritos and spice-rubbed samgyeopsal.
And for breakfast on Saturday, it`s kimchi bokkeumbap - with bacon and cheddar cheese. The McPhersons said they have also started a taco night. "As long as I make the seasoning, she makes everything else. We do it at least once a month. Actually, when we eat non-Korean food it`s because Eun-jeong is tired of it. I don`t have much time to cook during the week, but I try to do something special on the weekends, usually something that`s cooked `low and slow` all day."
What`s Joe`s favorite Korean food? Pretty much everything, he said, adding that he sealed the deal on his relationship as early as the first date. "Eun-jeong decided I was a keeper when I made my special spaghetti on our first date. She likes my pasta dishes and the way I make steak."
What a person eats says a lot about their personality and history. There is much to be learned about family history by taking a close look at what is made in their kitchen, how it is prepared, and how (and with whom) it is consumed.
"I`ve learned that my wife comes from a family who made most foods from scratch. When I was growing up, making casseroles out of cream of mushroom soup cans was popular. She`s diligent and creative with a touch of adventure. She`s proud of her food culture, even if she gets tired of it sometimes."
They said they have both learned to like each other`s food and actually desire them. Foods with memories launch little stories that add something new in the understanding of each other, they said. "We still have language barriers. We smooth them out through cooking."
Another couple, Hyo-jung and Evan McCaw said they have similar experiences.
She loves meatloaf, which they make once a month, and he enjoys exploring the underbelly of Korean cuisine (from a foreigner`s perspective), like dog meat and live octopus.
Hyo-jung and Evan also said they take turns cooking Western and Korean. If they have Western food one day, they have Korean food the following day unless there are leftovers from the previous night.
They also repeated what others had said: Being in an international marriage, cuisine culture helps to understand their spouse better.
"I think food says a lot about its country and I try to learn to cook the food from my husband`s country to understand him better. I feel like I become the part of his country when he likes the Western food that I make. But ironically, when I see him having food that I don`t like, such as oatmeal in the morning, I realize he`s from a different country with a different culture," Hyo-jung said.
These days, she cooks from a cookbook Evan`s aunt gave them. "I guess this helps me narrow the cultural gap between them and me. When I share the recipe ... with my mother and sister-in-law, sometimes they tell me the story related to the food. I share the recipe and the family`s memories at the same time."
But there is one universal challenge.
Married couples will do anything for each other; they`re perfectly willing to move to the other side of the world, study a new language from scratch to communicate with the in-laws and try dog meat or poutine.
But when it comes to breakfast, there`s no room for compromise.
"I usually cook oatmeal in the morning for myself. Sometimes my wife cooks for me, but she hardly eats it. Instead, she has some leftover Korean from the other night like miso soup that I don`t want to have in the morning. Since we have a very different appetite in the morning, we`ve compromised to eat differently," said Evan.