The comfort food delivered to elderly shut-ins through most Meals on Wheels programs epitomizes the traditional American diet -- roast turkey, perhaps, with sides of mashed potatoes, three-bean salad, creamed spinach and cherry-flavored gelatin for dessert.
In Fairfax County, though, those little foil trays might instead contain sauteed fish cakes, kimchi, sea-plant soup and seasoned fern sprouts.
For six years, the county's Meals on Wheels program has been offering a Korean meal to residents of the Falls Church and Annandale area who might be more familiar with the taste of bean paste and sesame seeds than Mom's famous meatloaf.
The program also expects to start offering a Vietnamese meal in the coming months and perhaps a vegetarian American meal in the near future, said Jan Kikuchi, supervisor of the county's nutrition program for seniors.
"When you are working with very elderly people, even if they have been here for many years, all those things that are comfortable and culturally familiar are very important to them," Kikuchi said.
In Fairfax, about 450 homebound seniors get meals delivered through the program, which provides hot dinners, cold lunches and some much-appreciated human contact. The food and the delivery are offered for free, or recipients can donate $3 to $35 a week.
Fifteen of the program's clients receive the Korean meal, which is offered three days a week in a limited area. Kikuchi hopes to expand that but is short of Korean-speaking volunteers.
Kikuchi decided to add a Vietnamese meal after noticing that many Vietnamese took advantage of other senior services, but not Meals on Wheels. The new menu, which isn't finalized, will be tested in a limited area, she said.
The Korean meal was introduced at the suggestion of Heisung Lee, a dietitian who is director of the Korean Senior Center in Vienna. She was troubled by the plight of one client who, despite being homebound, discontinued her Meals on Wheels service because she didn't like the food.
With the county's blessing, Lee developed a low-salt, Korean version of the all-American meat-and-potatoes dinner -- a meat dish, two vegetables, soup and, of course, kimchi, a favorite side dish of spicy fermented cabbage.
It's gotten rave reviews, she said.
"I think the elderly who have been here a long time have tried some American food," she said. "They say it's too rich, and especially people who like the hot, spicy food find it a little bland."
On a recent morning, Yong Park, 78, and his wife Wha Park, 75, sat expectantly in their Annandale living room, waiting for the Meals on Wheels volunteer to arrive with their midday meal. It's something they look forward to, Yong Park said.
He has a back ailment and eye problems, and his wife -- a very good cook in her day, she said -- is no longer mobile enough to navigate her kitchen. The couple has been receiving meals since 1996.
About 11:30 a.m., a Korean-speaking volunteer rapped on their door, handed over several tin containers and tall plastic tubs of soup, stayed to chat for a few minutes and then dashed off. Park carefully removed the lids of the tins, revealing a warm, aromatic meal of rice, fish and Korean vegetables.
The Parks said they liked the American meals when that was the only choice but were overjoyed when the Korean option became available.
"It's much better because the taste is familiar and similar," Wha Park said through an interpreter. "It's our own Korean food."
Anyone interested in volunteering with Fairfax County's Meals on Wheels program may call the county's Agency on Aging at 703-324-5411.