There’s a scene in Netflix’s popular teen romantic comedy “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” in which Peter Kavinsky, the jock with a heart, is giving Lara Jean — his fake girlfriend — and her little sister, Kitty, a ride to school. He takes a sip of something Kitty calls a Korean yogurt smoothie and says, “Wow, this is really good.” While the majority of the audience might not have recognized the red top of the bottle, I knew exactly what it was. “Duh, Peter!” I yelled at the screen. “Of course it tastes good!”
And while the scene lasts less than a minute, the inclusion of yakult, a popular probiotic milk drink, and other Korean food items in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” made me realize how much I compartmentalize my love for Asian snack foods and more hearty and traditional Korean food. Sure, I like American potato chips, and I dabble in pretzels, but give me saewoo-kkang, ojing-eochib and yakult any day.
My first memories of a Korean grocery store are from growing up in Northern Virginia in the 1990s and drinking the Lotte brand yakult. After perusing the snack aisle and unsuccessfully trying to persuade my mom to buy me one more box of Pepero (Korea’s answer to Japan’s Pocky), I knew that at the very least she would always buy me yakult, which I nicknamed “yoggi” based on the Korean pronunciation “yoguruttu.” My older sister would happily carry our go-to drinks into the kitchen, where we would poke holes in the lids with chopsticks. I would drink one in the car on the way to kindergarten and another right when I came home from school. At the height of my yakult craze, my sister and I had a timed race to see who could drink 10 the fastest. The only rule: You had to use the chopstick method instead of taking off the red foil. Even though I lost in the end — if you ask me, my sister cheated by poking bigger holes with her finger and, no, I’m not bitter about it — I remember being on the verge of a stomach ache, but happy I could trick my parents into letting me drink more than two yakults at a time.
Over the years I slowly stopped drinking yakult, and my lunches included less Korean food (with my favorite side dishes, such as myulchi bokkeum and jangjorim) and became the standard ham-and-cheese sandwiches. While I never endured the type of bullying over bringing traditional dishes depicted in “Fresh Off the Boat” and discussed in David Chang’s podcast, a part of me was convinced that Korean food wasn’t appropriate or cool enough to have a place at the cafeteria table. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was denying my inherent Koreanness.
It wasn’t until I was stripped of my Korean food source in college that I realized how ingrained the cuisine is in my identity and happiness. Gone were the days when my mom would have soondubu jiggae, buchujeon and godeungeo gui ready when I came home after school. Instead, while I searched for Korean food in Williamsburg, Va., I tried to pacify my desire for steaming hot soups that warmed me to the bones by buying watery chicken-and-rice soup at the school cafeteria. While I was attempting to learn how to properly salt my food as a new college graduate, I sensed a growing presence of Korean food: fast-casual bibimbap eateries in malls, Korean food trucks that would dole out bulgogi with rice, and gochujang appearing as a glaze for veggies and meat in restaurants. Starting in middle school, when people learned that I was a Korean American, they would say, “Oh, wow, your English is so good” or “Are you from North or South Korea?,” but after 2014, the reaction shifted to “I love kimchi and Korean barbecue.”
You would think I’d be glad that more people seem to know about Korean culture via food. The problem is, it still feels like such a narrow scope. Korean food isn’t a trend; it’s a complex cuisine with a full history, regional differences — and even interpretations of other nations’ foods, as in Korean Chinese and Korean Japanese. Yet Korean food becomes part of the conversation only when it mirrors American food trends or makes an appearance in pop culture. And it’s misunderstood.
Take bibimbap, the topped-rice dish my mom would feed me anytime she wanted me to eat my vegetables. I didn’t start seeing fusion styles of it pop up left and right until after Gwyneth Paltrow filmed an irksome, disrespectful video with chef Lee Gross on how to make it in 2010. Bibimbap has an established history, but Paltrow doesn’t even try to pronounce the word properly. She calls it “a Korean rice dish, essentially” when it is exactly a Korean dish. The bibimbap recipe on Paltrow’s Goop site fails to mention its Korean roots, and includes in the mix broccolini, which would be fine if she at least acknowledged that it’s not a traditional bibimbap. Such videos treat Korean food as a spectacle, not a rich cuisine deserving respect.
Fusion can be just fine when done by chefs and writers who attempt to understand and pay tribute to traditions and culture, not when they just think it’s “cool” to marry two types of food. All global cuisines have layered histories, so it’s not fair to the food, culture or the people to glorify certain aspects of a country’s food history while casting off others — and understanding none of it.
That’s why I found the yakult scene, however short, in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” not just relatable, but almost invigorating. The movie, along with “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” depicts Asian food without over-explaining or exoticizing it, and seeing them has helped me realize that my Korean and American identities can and should coexist. One culture is not more correct than the other.
Yakult crept back into my life before “To All the Boys I Loved Before,” but I would be lying if I said my renewed interest in Korean food isn’t tied to the small burst of Asian and Asian American representation in the media. I’m rediscovering strong Korean flavors such as ssamjang with a greater appreciation. After some trial and error, I’ve learned how to make simple versions of Korean food, including dakbokkeumtang. Maybe one day I’ll graduate to making my favorite jjigaes without relying on measurements but purely using my taste buds — just like my maternal grandma. Until then, the next time you see me, I might be munching on veggies dipped in ssamjang, followed by a nice refreshing yakult.
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