My husband is a second generation Korean American and works as a Construction Engineer in the State Department. It’s been nearly a year since we arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with our two daughters, 6 and 5 years old.
I was born in Seoul and became a Korean American through marriage. I still remember my very first visit to Seattle to meet the in-laws. My mother-in-law had several refrigerators and freezers and was passionate about making her own salted fish roe. At that time, the thought of keeping so many kitchen items and groceries at home seemed like a cumbersome chore. Was making your own salted fish roe really worth it? It’s so easy to purchase this in Seoul. However, as we raise our own kids around the world, I understand my mother-in-law’s passion and reasoning behind such a cumbersome task. She was trying hard to raise her immigrant children with Korean traditions and culture through Korean foods while living in the United States as Americans.
My husband and I have encountered numerous challenges attempting to raise Korean American kids overseas with a firm sense of cultural identity: language barriers, time difference (some holidays are based on the lunar calendar), and limited availability of ingredients on the local economy, just to name few. Despite the challenges, we try very hard not to miss any Korean holidays and celebrate traditional activities just as my mother-in-law was determined to do.
In Korea, Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the year, and it is a day when the entire family gathers in hanbok, traditional Korean clothes, to do saebae, which is the most important tradition. It is an act of bowing deeply with respect to wish a happy new year to elders while saying Saehae bok mani badsaeyo. In return, smiling elders give envelopes filled with freshly printed money along with a blessing. It is a meaningful day as it is the start of the year. Extended families gather to give each other kind words and encouragement in the hope that the year will be full of joy and happiness.
The most representative and traditional food eaten on the Korean Lunar New Year Day is duk-guk, a rice cake soup. Duk-guk is made by slicing garae-duk, a long rice cake, into coin shapes and boiling them in broth. It is said that garae-duk will bring long life and wealth. Since ancient times, Koreans have traditionally shared rice cakes at important banquets. Rice was precious, and the act of making and sharing rice cakes meant celebrating an important occasion. The rice cake is a symbol and iconic food of celebration, health, and happiness. There is an old saying that you become one year older by eating rice cake soup on New Years Day.
And of course, there are a few sidekicks to add to the list of celebrational feast foods: bulgogi (sweet beef), japchae (stir fried glass noodles), and mandu (dumpling). Mandu is a regular on any celebratory menu — dumplings are delicious, and making them brings everyone together. The whole family reconnects as we sit around making dumplings. I believe that mandu acts like a family ‘glue’ – a reason we come (and stay) together!
My mom’s nostalgic kimchi dumplings on cold winter days inspired me to grow bean sprouts and make my own kimchi. I want my children to eat and make the same soul food I grew up with even though we currently live in Brazil. Kimchi dumplings are filled with a mixture of kimchi, bean sprouts, tofu, ground pork, glass noodle, and green onion wrapped in thin flour wrappers then steamed in a steamer.
Our humble hope is that our daughters learn more about Korean traditions by making dumplings on the Lunar New Year. We make a point to explain all the traditional foods and why we eat them. Our eldest daughter recently had a cultural program at school; she told her classmates about Korean holidays, rice cake soup, and the traditional clothing. My husband and I were pleasantly surprised to see her share and celebrate her cultural heritage with her peers despite her young age. She is embracing and forming her own unique identity.
As our family sails ahead on our State Department journey, we hope to continue to cook and share Korean traditional food with the same diligence and passion as my mother and mother-in-law. My husband and I hope that when our children think of family and home, their minds conjure rich memories of traditional Korean food. The food and our family traditions will strengthen their cultural roots and identity as they grow and become independent, no matter where we are in the world.
About the Author: Mihye Seo is a State Department family member who currently resides in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is married to Minyoung Her, a Construction Engineer with the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.