Best Way to be Introduced to a New Culture? Eat the Food

When people ask me what it's like to be Indian or to describe what traditions I follow, I take them out to an Indian restaurant or I let them eat a home-cooked meal made by my mother.

To be open-minded and willing to try a foreign dish is one of the most humbling and benign ways to be introduced to a culture. The practice of cooking and preparing a meal can really say a lot about what that culture values and what they may bring to American culture.


While working on my business profile of Super H Mart in Naperville, Ill., I decided to take time to try some free samples that were out for the shoppers and visit the food court called H Plaza. I decided to speak with some customers and cooks to see what new foods I can try and their views on their culture's food in American society.

 Han Ma Um Snacks  (Photo by me)

Han Ma Um Snacks (Photo by me)

From what I learned, some of the Korean families I spoke with said that Korean food is widely unpopular in the United States. When I asked them why, they couldn't come up with an answer. So I went to the cooks of the Korean vendors at Han Ma Um and Kimchihana and their responses were "Americans think our food has too much going on" or "Americans really like salt and sugar but not other flavors." When I asked them what they meant by "Americans," they primarily thought of Caucasians. There was a bit of a stereotype occurring here, so I went back to the customers, but now I spoke with Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Filipino Americans, along with a few white families.

 Kimchihana  (Photo by me)

Kimchihana (Photo by me)

Here were some interesting responses I received from the different families:

Japanese family: "We like Korean food, but it is too flavorful for us. We like their barbecue because it's similar to our style, but their other food doesn't take breaks in richness."

Indian family: "Korean food is very healthy and has interesting flavors, but we like more spice in our food."

Chinese family: "We like food that is more cooked and savory. We tend to eat more salt than Koreans."

German/Irish family: "We actually love Korean food. We come here often, and we like the diverse flavors. We also really love fried food like french fries and chicken, but it's nice to come and eat a more wholesome meal."

By no means is this a representation of larger ethnic groups, but it was easy to see that different Asian ethnicities have preferences and Caucasians aren't limited to just "salt and sugar." The cooks had a bit of a skewed impression of how they viewed Americans, but they did say that they appreciate the effort of all ethnic groups coming to try their food.

When it came to trying out the actual cuisine, I learned some interesting concepts they cherish when it comes to eating. For instance, they do in fact value health, which is why much of their meals consist of a large course of small portions of food. One of my favorite Korean dishes is plain kimchi with a small side of rice, but a traditional way of eating a meal is starting with banchan, which just means small portions of food served with white rice. I ordered bapsang, a meal consisting a small bowl of rice and banchan - my meal included baechu kimchi (traditional scallions and Chinese cabbage kimchi), miyeok guk (seafood soup), kongnamul (seasoned bean sprouts and fresh vegetables) and dubujjim (tofu main course with savory sauce).

This may seem like a lot of food, but it really was set up as small side dishes. I ate my to-go meal in less than five minutes, but it was actually very filling and not hard on my stomach. Perhaps this is what some of those families meant by healthy?

This was officially my first time trying a Korean meal, aside from simple kimchi dishes I eat at restaurants or make at home.

Before this experience, one of my favorite Korean dishes to make at home was pajeon, a savory scallion pancake (not exclusive to breakfast). As you may all know by now, I've been exposed to Asian culture in many ways throughout my life. One of the ways I know so much about Japanese and Korean traditions is through cooking shows. I get Asian channels from my cable provider, so I try some new foods this way. I remember learning about pajeon when I was around 10 years old. It's been one of my favorite foods ever since, and it's a really simple dish to make.

For those interested, here's a quick recipe and instructions on how to make this eastern-style pancake.

Pajeon - Scallion Pancake:

Ingredients (for 1 serving):

  • About 7-10 Scallion Stalks (a.k.a. green onions)
  • 1/2 cup of Flour
  • 1 tsp. of Soybean Paste
  • 1/2 cup of Water
  • 3 tbs. of Veggie Oil
  • 1/2 tsp. of Sugar

Directions:

1. Wash scallions and set to dry.
2. Once dry, cut the stalks in half to make them even in size. The pancake will be about 3-4 inches in length.
3. For the batter - mix flour, water, sugar and soybean paste until it's creamy like regular pancake batter (make sure it's not too runny).
4. Heat up a non-stick pan and then add the veggie oil to the pre-heated pan.
5. Place scallions side-by-side on the pan to look like a rectangle.
6. Gently pour batter evenly over the scallions.
7. Let the cake warm, gently press on it occasionally. When you see the bottom turn golden, flip it.
8. Once that side is golden as well, flip it again. Leave on low heat and keep it warm for another minute for extra crispiness.
9. Serve hot with your choice of sauces.

  Courtesy of Seasaltwithfood

Courtesy of Seasaltwithfood

Unlike Korean food, Japanese food is widely popular in the U.S. due to sushi and Japanese barbecue. Since seafood is their main staple, much of it is incorporated in many dishes. Most of which have never been seen before throughout the West, which gives it that appeal.

As a pescatarian, I adore Japanese cuisine because seafood is my main source of protein. I'm well-versed with Japanese food also because I used to watch a lot of Asian cooking shows and anime.

Some dishes that I really love, outside of sushi, are udon, yakisoba, authentic ramen, sashimi (another raw fish dish), a hot-pot dish known as sukiyaki (served with different vegetables, meats, tofu, noodles and a soy based broth. In my experience, all of these dishes take the time to cook.

Aside from the variety of foods to make, Japanese culture has unique rituals when it comes to eating, an etiquette that is very particular. Before every meal, Japanese people say "itadakimasu" which means "thank you for the meal." It's like the French saying "bon appetit" except for the Japanese, it holds a deep meaning of gratitude for all the effort put into gathering and preparing the food. Even presentation of food is a necessity, as well as complimenting the dish. At meals end, they would say "gochisousama" which means "that was a feast," in order to respect the preparer and show gratitude again. Eating meals together and sharing food is another value the Japanese hold dearly, so most often you'd see groups of people eating together.

This form of showing manners is so prevalent that I learned very quickly from just consuming their media.

At Super H Mart, there was a Japanese vendor at the food court, as well as samples to try. Sadly, there wasn't anything new for me to eat. Sushi, as most places, was pretty popular at the H Plaza as well.

If you're like me and have a tough time making complex dishes, here's an easy, minimalistic dish to put together that is oddly delicious.

Tamago kake gohan - Egg on rice:

Ingredients (for one serving):

  • 1/2 cup of Rice
  • 1 Egg 3. 1 tsp. of Soy Sauce

Directions:

1. Steam your rice in any method of your choice.
2. Crack the raw egg into a bowl and mix with soy sauce.
3. Pour hot rice into bowl, make a small hole in the middle of the rice so the soy sauce and egg mix roll into the hole.
4. Gently mix the sauce with the rice until evenly distributed and enjoy.

*Add veggies or other sauces to your liking.
**You can also put the rice in the bowl first and crack the egg over the rice. Your choice!

  Courtesy of Serious Eats

Courtesy of Serious Eats

For those of you who are looking into learning a new culture and intermingling with different ethnic groups, food is a good place to start. From there, ask people about preparation and cooking methods, and you will begin to understand a different perspective very easily.