Coming Together at the Table: How Food Bridges Culture Gaps

Sharing good food and drink © Yeongsik Im/Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Cynthia Chen McTernan is a lawyer and the self-taught home cook and photographer behind Two Red Bowls, winner of the 2015 Saveur Blog Award for Most Delicious Food. She has been featured in Food & Wine, SaveurBetter Homes and GardensGood Housekeeping, and Huffington Post, and has collaborated with West Elm, Crate & Barrel, King Arthur Flour, Food52, Urban Outfitters, and more.

I imagine that it’s scary for most to meet your in-laws for the first time. For me, a Chinese girl from South Carolina meeting my husband’s Korean family in Hawaii, it turned out to be even more daunting than I’d expected. Somehow, before I met my future Korean family, I’d assumed — naively — that being Chinese would help me learn how to fit in and make a good impression. But, without even realizing it, I was making a common mistake, implicitly assuming our east Asian cultures would seamlessly blend and have more in common than would set them apart. Of course, that was an oversimplification, and I forgot that just because your homelands are neighbors doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically find your place in an entirely new family — and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’ll understand a word of what’s going on when more than a dozen in-laws around you are speaking to one another in a language you don’t speak. So I had a lot to learn.

I met most of my husband’s many relatives for the first time at a Christmas party on one of my earliest visits to Honolulu. I found myself surrounded by aunties bustling furiously around my mother-in-law’s kitchen, arranging large platters of kimchi pancakes (bindaetteok) on serving plates and setting up griddles to fry short ribs (galbi). They chatted to one another in seamless Korean as they worked, weaving around each other to turn on burners at the stovetop, tie on aprons, and unearth serving plates from various cabinets.

Amid the rehearsed choreography born of years of family parties and shared history, I felt both nervous and lost. But there are things that unite every good dinner party, after all. Every Tupperware, once emptied, needs washing — so I washed them. Every dish, once plated, needs a serving spoon — so I helped add them. Korean dumplings, or mandoo, might have looked a little different from the potstickers I knew from my childhood Chinese potlucks, but they were pan-fried all the same — and I felt like my first foray into my new family began when I looked up to find an auntie beckoning me, smiling, to help cook them. We cooked the mandoo until brown and crisp, then plated them; she showed me how to make the dipping sauce to go with it, then turned to the rice cooker, billowing steam as she opened it. “Look,” she said, conspiratorially. “If you fluff it up like this, it won’t get soggy.” I won’t say that this was the moment I became a member of my husband’s family — but by the time we sat down to the feast, a spread of everything from spicy ahi poke to salt-and-pepper shrimp, kimchi stew, and Korean fritters (jeon), I did feel just a little more at home.

That was, as it turns out, just the beginning, and I found that food was the gateway that helped me learn from others who would one day become my family, and share a bit of who I was with them, too. As I spent the coming months getting to know my mother-in-law — who is, for the record, the kindest and most cheerful woman I’ve ever met, and someone who’d welcome me with open arms if I’d come from another planet — I found that learning how to cook with her created a bond between us. In teaching me how to make her kimchi fried rice and cold spicy noodles (bibim guksu), and how to make bibimbap with ground beef instead of bulgogi as a homestyle shortcut, I found a window not only into my new family and their traditions, but into my husband’s childhood as well. Bibim guksu on a balmy Saturday afternoon called back my husband’s childhood weekends, and kimchi fried rice, crackling quietly in a pan, weekday evenings when he’d come home late from school and help himself to leftovers throughout the night. And, every so often, if I was feeling adventurous, I introduced dishes to my in-laws that I’d grown up with and learned from my own mother, like garlicky bok choy and fragrant fish braised in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and scallions.

Perhaps the real lesson is that, regardless of what language we speak, or where we grew up, we all need to eat — and food can form the cornerstone for so much more than a meal. Food was, at least, my way of understanding my husband’s past, connecting that with our present as a couple, and carrying that through to our eventual future with our son (and in a few months, baby girl too). Whether it’s a cookout in my hometown in the South, redolent with smoldering charcoal briquettes, a family gathering at my husband’s Honolulu apartment, laden with japchae and pork bulgogi, or something completely new, like a Thanksgiving dinner with our toddler who is Chinese, Korean, and Irish, but loves eating Shanghainese lion’s head meatballs alongside Japanese curry — food represents the traditions and loved ones from our past and present, and it can represent things that are totally new to us, too. At its core, it can bridge all kinds of distances, geographical or cultural, to bring us all around the same table.