From plate to palate during National Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

  • Published
  • By Capt. Lisa Citino
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Throughout my life and preoccupation with where I am and where I'm going, I tend to forget where I've been. In May, National Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month is an opportunity for a collective cultural rebirth, and for me there's no better reminder of my heritage than food--from the plate to my palate.

My culinary tale begins with Kimchi--a fermented concoction of any vegetable variation (mainly cabbage), spicy red peppers, scallions, a liberal amount of garlic, salt and trace ingredients. A Korean national treasure and ambassador of the exotic, this side dish complemented every meal on my family's table. From a makeshift mixing vat to earthenware or glass jars, my mother mixed the ingredients and stored our dietary fiber for days or weeks before I could sample it unimpeded.

Grown in shallow puddles called paddies or on dry terrain, rice is a significant main staple for most of the human population, as it was in our home.

Born to a Korean mother and Hispanic father, I never went without a bowl or plate of rice but always favored the steamed white to the Spanish variety. And compared with today's precooked, instant-food world, rice preparation in my home was complicated and a test of my loyalty and patience.

My mother painstakingly ensured every flawed grain was discarded. And in an almost compelling and foretelling manner, she would explain how one seemingly harmless seed could contaminate the entire pot. For a fleeting moment, I'd wonder if this was a cautionary tale for me, the rice ritual an act of contrition for all my misadventures. With occasional defiance and perhaps pity, I'd secretly let a few of the inferior seeds find their way into the sieve, then pot and finally through somebody's alimentary canal.

Submerged in water and eaten like cereal or rolled in lettuce or Nori, a thin, dried seaweed sheet, rice was my friend and neutralizer when my tongue was on fire from an accidental intake of hot peppers.

Many Saturdays I awoke from an afternoon nap to the mouth-watering Kalbi--short ribs dredged in an infusion of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, scallions, sugar and a sprinkle of sesame seeds for good measure. Bathed overnight in its blessed brine and sizzling on the Hibachi grill, it was our family affair, a visceral and almost sacred experience.

Though Kimchi, rice and Kalbi are only a few examples from my mother's expansive menu of dishes I still can't pronounce, they had the greatest impact on me. Every dining room experience was anecdotal with memories of the Korea my mother knew. Her stories delivered a deluge of emotions, joyful and at times somber.

Having left Korea when I was three, my only memories of my birthplace were my mother's. She spoke of the homeland's expanding cities and her rugged, mountainous backbone. Ears bent and eyes intent, my sister and I learned of a place we left behind. Every palatable experience taught us about the people and family, whose histories chronicled hardships and poverty, but always filled with resolve and happiness.

To friends and strangers unfamiliar with the Korean diet, I used to describe it as "in-your-face flavor like Chinese food, but refined like Japanese." My mother would later tell me those words would never adequately or accurately capture this complex cuisine that has changed through many years of political and social trends.

In our fast-food culture, hindsight is the window to my future. Though I've spawned no progeny of my own, I appreciate this month and time as an opportunity to honor and pass on age-old customs to others.

Along with fellow Asian-Americans on base, I encourage Team Hurlburt to help celebrate a culmination of cultures during Hurlburt's "Ohana Luau" on Friday, May 28, 1 to 4 p.m. at the Gazebo (next to the child development center). The event will include a pig roast, cultural demonstrations, arts and crafts, games and prizes. For more details, contact Staff Sgt. Mele Tufaina Westlund at 884-7809 or 884-7806.