Keerai Puttu: From Thin Air

Keerai Puttu: From Thin Air

Written By Meenusha Satkunanathan

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Growing up in Montreal, my two sisters and I always thought that we had three parents. This is because we grew up with my grandmother who we call Amma. Amma means mother in Tamil and this was not the correct way of addressing a grandmother. However, the correct term appamma (grandmother) is simply inadequate to reflect the role that she plays in our life.

My mother immigrated to Canada at the age of 16 with the rest of her family due to the war in Sri Lanka. Getting here had been a struggle for her because the predominantly Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka destroyed many Tamil individuals’ passports and documentation. As a result, my mother’s brother forged her a passport, which she used to come to Canada as a refugee.

Similarly, my father immigrated to Canada at the age of 17. My father had gotten involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil Army at a young age because of the outrageous treatment of Tamil peoples by the Sinhalese government. As a result, one evening, the Sinhalese army came looking for my father to capture him. My grandmother, who was a widow and a mother of three boys, immediately gave him some of her gold jewellery along with some money and sent him out the back door to flee. My father then fled to India and travelled across Asia, Europe, and finally sought refuge in Canada.

Amma was sponsored to Canada exactly one week before I was born and has been a part of our lives from that day back in 1996. Tonight, since my parents were out of town, this meant that amma was in charge of the house.

Saturday evening came along and my sisters and I were starving. It was exactly six o’clock when we came running into the house after spending hours out in the sun. As a religious woman who spent her days going to temples every evening in Sri Lanka, when the clock struck six, my grandmother would be sitting in the prayer room doing her daily puja (prayers). Thus, as we stepped into the house, we heard the sound of a bell ringing from our prayer room.

We then rushed to the bathroom, washed our face, feet, and hands, and sat next to my grandmother for five minutes. Although we tried to stay until the end as we normally would, our stomachs kept rumbling in loud roars so we left the prayer room and headed for the kitchen.When we opened our fridge, we saw that it was nearly empty. There was some milk, oranges, grapes, strawberries, and a tub of plain yogurt. I knew that none of these things would be enough for us to suffice the growing hunger in our stomachs.

Knowing that we couldn’t do much to put out the flames burning inside our stomachs, we sat by the table and waited for the clock to strike six-thirty so that my grandmother could come out of the prayer room. Every minute we waited in hunger, felt like an endless hour of agony. We would constantly walk back to the fridge and check for food as if it would magically appear even though we knew that there was nothing in there.

At last, my grandmother walked down the stairs and asked, “who wants dinner?” with a growing smile on her beautiful face. We yelled “amma we might die if we wait any second longer!” She then laughed and headed to the backyard. A few minutes later, my grandmother walked in from the backyard with a bowl filled with spinach.

Being the owner of an abundance of farmland in Sri Lanka, my grandmother loved to farm. Although the winter in Montreal didn’t allow her to grow crops all year round, nothing could stop her from growing her crops in the hot summer months. My sisters and I always thought that growing crops was nothing more than just a hobby for my grandmother and that it served no particular use. However, this changed on that day.

Upon entering the kitchen, she quickly broke a coconut she brought from the puja room and shaved the insides into shreds. She then grabbed rice flower and mixed it with hot water. Immediately after, she kneaded the dough using a silver cup so that it would be chopped into little clutters. Next, she cut the spinach into fine little threads almost, as fine as a strand of hair, and chopped up a few red onions. She then took a basket like cone and filled it up, layering each of the ingredients on top of one another.

As the water collected in our mouths from watching the preparation of the food, we waited patiently in excitement and felt some relief. It was now time for the final step. She took the cone, placed it over a pot of boiling water on the stove and covered it with a cloth. A few minutes later, like magic, she placed three plates on the table and served us this warm soft mixture of white flower, coconut, spinach, and onions, which she called keerai (spinach) puttu. It didn’t end just there, she swung open the fridge and took out the tub of yogurt and placed a scoop on each of the plates and exclaimed, “Eat my little darlings!” In that moment, our grandmother was god-like and we realized how blessed we were to be her grandchildren.

We immediately dived into our plates of keerai puttu and ate every last bite of deliciousness prepared by the hands of our dearest amma. The dough was as soft as a pillow and looked like little clouds sitting on our plates. The taste of the coconut and spinach was incomparable to anything we had tasted before. It was as if we could taste our culture in a plate of food. As we sat together eating, I felt like there was no one else in the world that I would have loved to share the pleasant meal with other than my sisters. This was the day we learned that what is special about my grandmother is not just that she is so kind, but that she has the knowledge and skills to scramble up a meal from what we thought was nothing. We never saw true magic until that day.

Meenusha Satkunanathan was born and raised in Montreal, QC. She is a third year student at the University of Toronto Mississauga completing a double major in Criminology and Sociology.

 

 

 

Gnocchi: Nonna Elsa’s Authentic Italian Cooking

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Gnocchi: Nonna Elsa’s Authentic Italian Cooking

Written by Olivia Bagnarol

They say that there is nothing like an authentic home-cooked meal, and compared to my nonna’s (grandmother’s) cooking, nothing truly compares. I grew up in an Italian family and I gained profound knowledge of the difference between authentic Italian cooking and Americanized versions of Italian dishes. Italian dishes were authentic, in the sense that the majority of our food was homemade and not store-bought, such as sauces, cheese and cured meats.

My nonna and nonno (grandfather) immigrated to Canada from Northern Italy after World War 2 in order to provide a better life for them and their future family. My nonno was the first to move to Canada along with his brothers and they were all employed as bricklayers. Soon after, once my nonno had enough money to make a living, he brought my nonna over as well. They grew up in an Italian neighbourhood in North York, Ontario, and while they were far away from their homeland, they still kept their Italian culture and traditions, which they were able to pass on to future generations.

I was fortunate enough to be able to learn these Italian traditions of food, religion, and language through my grandparents. When I was 5 years old, I used to visit my nonna’s house every Sunday for lunch and as soon as you stepped in through the front door, you could tell by the aroma and banging pots and pans coming from the kitchen that you were about to have a meal that no restaurant could ever measure up to. Whenever my nonna witnessed me finish my entire plate, there was this look of pure joy on her face, as she would say “Questa e la mia ragazza!”(That’s my girl!). I always ate whatever she put in front of me, and to this day, my eating habits have not changed.

Visiting every Sunday for lunch was quite bittersweet. I indulged in simplistic yet flavourful Italian meals one day, and then bland Canadian school lunches the next. It was quite a transition from a full plate of salsiccia con cima di rapa (sausage with broccoli rabe) to a tiny lunch box consisting of an egg salad sandwich or a thermos full of macaroni and cheese.

One day my nonna was making something that I have never seen before. As I quietly came towards her kitchen as she was boiling a pot of potatoes, I asked her what she was making and she enthusiastically replied “Gnocchi!” Gnocchi (NYOK-EE) is a pasta dish that consists of small dumplings made from potato, semolina (derum wheat) flour and egg.

While my nonna did majority of the difficult preparation for the dish, I sat by the counter and observed. When all the ingredients were mixed together, it formed a big batch of dough that had a similar consistency to play dough. My role in this preparation was to roll out the dough into ‘little snakes’, as she would call them, and then cut the dough into little tiny pieces that resemble a dumpling.

Just when I thought the process was over, my nonna grabbed a fork and started to make indents in each tiny dumpling, not to mention, we made over 100. The purpose of these indents was not just for decoration, but it supposedly helped absorb the pomoadoro (tomato) sauce that would soon after be added to the dish. My nonna transferred the dumplings over to the side of the stove and she put on a pot of water to boil. Once the water was boiled, she added a few dumplings at a time and I watched with excitement as the dumplings rose to the top of the boiled pot. Most of the time during this process, I remember my nonno (grandfather) in the background yelling “Si e finito?” (Is it finished?). You could tell by the look in my nonna’s face that she was ready to lash back and say “ How dare you ask me when it’s finished, I don’t see you helping!”

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The final step to this dish was to add in the sauce, which I had to run to the basement and grab a fresh jar from the cantina (cold cellar) and sprinkle a little bit of parmiggiano-reggiano cheese on top. As we sat at the kitchen table as a family with the Price is Right or some Italian soap opera on in the background and were about to eat, I looked down at my plate of gnocchi and was proud of the appetizing dish that my nonna and I put together.

It has been nearly two years since my nonna has passed away and I am grateful that I have been able to carry on her recipes and traditions with me. Since she passed, I have been on the search to find a restaurant that serves a plate of gnocchi that comes a close second to hers.

Olivia Bagnarol is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying sociology and geography. She is interested in the field of health care and disability studies and considers herself to be quite the “foodie.” Check out her instagram account @_thefoodbaby for various recipes!

For an authentic plate of gnocchi and various Italian dishes, Olivia recommends The Grand Chalet, located in Milton.

Bigos and Bibimbap: A Cross-cultural Journey

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Bibimbap. Photo credit to Daniel Go (www.flickr.com/photos/danielygo)

Bigos and Bibimbap: A Cross-cultural Journey

Written by Malgosia Wenderski

Gazing upon a dish called bibimbap that exuded an aroma of vegetables and sweetened pork, I felt content for the first time since I moved out from home. In the Korean eatery Seoul House, I thought to myself, “why have I not ever considered Korean food before?” As a girl of Polish descent, the food I have eaten at home mostly consisted of Polish traditional food. Lightly salted and soft boiled potatoes, grilled sausage with juices dripping from the first bite, pork cutlets, carrot salads, and perogies with fillings of every kind were some of the dishes I grew up with. My favourite dish was bigos, which is called “Hunter’s Stew” in Canada.

I remember one Sunday afternoon, after church mass, my mother prepared Bigos in a tall steel pot just for me. “This is a lot of work so you must help me cook it!” she said teasingly, with lifted eyebrows and a smile. Adding each ingredient individually, first the sauerkraut was boiled with cabbage. Subsequently dropped into the pot were carrots, mushrooms, chopped kielbasa, onions, garlic, and salt and pepper, all to simmer and cook for an hour. The scent of the finely chopped medley would seep through all the rooms, and always make me anticipate the first bite. But the part that made me happiest was the 5 white dinner plates with cutlery and drinks set on the kitchen table, with my family, sharing amongst the loud conversations and laughs.

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Bigos. Photo credit to Roger (www.flickr.com/photos/rmh40)

But a new era was approaching where I would miss out on hearty Polish dishes, and my mother’s presence. I was to spend my first year of University on campus, a place not so far, but simultaneously, a world away.

A friend in an introductory to psychology course, Mila, was someone I confided in. An international student, she moved to Canada to complete her last years of high school and begin University. She experienced all the heartache of being away from family, and the struggles of being all on her own. Not only did she tell me about both student and life hacks, she was an impressive foodie who knew all the greatest restaurants in Mississauga. One day she asked, “ever tried Korean food?” This question caused me to begin my adventure.

We walked through a hidden street parallel to Burnhamthorpe road, not too far from our University. Descending into Seoul House, there was a comforting aroma of sweet grilled pork and unfamiliar spices. It was dim and quiet, layered with red lanterns, black wooden geometric walls and gliding waiters. We were guided to an isolated room behind red drapes, with landscapes of painted villages, with carriages, markets and characters speaking with one another. Settled down, a long leather-banded thick menu was presented to us. The menu included a lot of dishes with meat, rice, and vegetables prepared in a variety of ways. Mila suggested “the bibimpap is what you should try if this is your first time eating Korean.” Before I could even see the large black pot enter the room, I could smell the scent of sweet marinated pork.

This dish, with its bed of rice, rainbow of gleaming vegetables, and succulent pork caused me to focus on each ingredient and isolate its scent. The tradition was to mix it all together, but I did not want to ruin the artwork of the chef who so carefully placed everything in harmony with the other ingredients. Fumbling with the chopsticks, I lifted a piece of marinated pork to my mouth and tumbled it with my tongue to savour the soft, spicy and sweet taste. I never knew I would like spicy food this much, compared to Polish dishes that were lightly spiced with salt and pepper.

“It’s good right?” said Mila, grinning as I looked up. Accomplishing the task of capturing all the ingredients between the pair of wooden utensils, I tasted crunchy carrots and beansprouts, with tender mushrooms and spinach, with light clusters of fresh rice and sweet spicy pork. Thoughts raced to my mind that for the first time did not include missing my parents, Polish food, or the possibility of failing school. Instead I thought, where has bibimbap been all my life!? Could I make this stuff in the tiny kitchen of my dorm?!

From then on, Mila and I explored ethnic restaurants as school challenged us. We went to regain comfort in each other’s company, to indulge in new aromas, and to bring back good experiences to share with our families. But never would I step foot in a Polish restaurant, because I was loyal to only one place: home.

 

Malgosia Wenderski studies psychology and sociology at the University at Toronto. She is the founder and host of the Collegiate Talkshow, and passionate about social psychology, inequality, and mental health.

 

Editor’s Note: For Korean restaurant recommendations, see Won Ki Lee’s Diaspora Food Memories blog post Bittersweet Makoli: Rice Wine and the Memory of Family.

If you want to try Polish food in Toronto, we recommend Cafe Polonez.

 

Irresistible Bofrot: Remembering Ghana and My Mother’s Smile

Remembering Ghana and My Mother’s Smile

Written by Leigh Ann Asare

When I was 6 years old,  my mother Beth wanted to leave Canada and go back to Ghana. She left her home at 12 years old and let’s say her experience in Canada was far from good. When her parents died, she was left in the care of her brothers. They sent off to Canada to marry her young. By sixteen, she was a mother. By nineteen she was married and a mother of two. At twenty, she was divorced and remarried in her thirties. She then had two more children. She then lost custody of her first two because she was twenty without a job.

My mother felt disconnected from Ghana because she had been away for almost 30 years.  Canada did not feel like home because she felt she did not belong. At 40, she was ready go back for good. Now I can understand why she wanted to leave but the selfish 6 year old me was angry because I was leaving my best friend Natasha behind.

My mother, my brother Steve and I packed our bags and furniture and went off to Ghana. I remember being sad because I was going somewhere entirely new to me. We landed and it was nothing like Canada. “Mommy, I want to go home!” I yelled and cried at the airport. It was hectic for her since she was travelling alone with two minors. All she could say was “Nana, tena ase (sit down, in our native language Twi).”  My uncle picked us up from the airport and took us to his house in Accra. My uncle lived in a big house, almost like a mansion, so people assumed we were rich. It didn’t help that I was Canadian – if you were Canadian or American, you were rich.

My mother took us out to roam. The culture was different. Children were shoeless and dirty and yet the happiest I have ever seen. They were outside in the sun, playing Ampe, a traditional jumping and clapping game, while I was asking to stay inside and watch an episode of the cartoon “Sailor Moon.” Strangers treated us like family. They would welcome my mother by saying “auntie akwaaba (welcome).” Sellers would ask us to come to their stations. There was a sugar cane stand, an orange stand, a coconut stand, a hair braiding station and many more. We walked past the stations and my mother would smile because I could tell it took brought back vivid memories. I was too young to remember her upbringing but I could see how pleased she was.

Then, she stopped at one stand, excited about this vendor. A lady wearing an African cloth known as Kente with a matching headscarf was frying breaded dough balls. Another lady would mix flour and roll it into balls. To Ghanaians, it was called bofrot. The name varies across West Africa. Nigerians called it puffs puffs. Bofrot is similar to a timbit except that it is hot and oily and triple the size. While the other two prepared the bofrot, Auntie Vivian sold them. Vivian, an older woman, walked over to me to ask what my name was and I ignored her. My mother told her why I was upset. Vivian took a step back to her station and grabbed a bofrot to give to me. At first I declined but the aroma of the bofrot made it hard not to try it.

I took my first bite and it was so soft, greasy and delicious.  I remember this moment because it was one of the best and last times I spent with mother before she passed away. She was so happy to be home and that is one of last images I remember of her.  I connected bofrot to Ghana and my mother.  Even though I have not been to Ghana in thirteen years, I have an image of my mother standing and smiling with the bofrot. I am going back to Ghana in December. Although I am terrified because I have not been there since age 9, I am excited to feel my mother’s presence by all the bofrot stands I come across.

Leigh Ann Asare is a sociology specialist in her fourth year at UTM. She enjoys learning about gender inequality, sexuality, homelessness and social policy.

The author recommends The Suya Spot in North York, ON.

Pani Puri: Journey from Ganga to Niagara

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Photo credit to Apoorva Jinka (www.flickr.com/photos/apoorvaj)

Pani Puri: Journey from Ganga to Niagara

Written by Aesha Patel

I grew up carefree in the heart of one of the most populated cities in India: Ahmedabad. I loved my life there. We lived in a bungalow with marigold exterior walls, and a huge porch with a big wooden porch swing. We were an average, middle class family of 5, but we were happy. One day after I got home from school, my mom and dad sat me down for a serious talk. As the breadwinner of the family, my dad had decided that we would be moving to Canada. He wanted more for my future, to raise me as an independent and successful woman. I think he believed that he would not be able to achieve that goal in the India, because of sexism. Being 9 years old, I did not understand the repercussions of their decision.

The transition of moving from a big city in India to Toronto was not easy. In Toronto, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment painted with white walls, comprised of two chairs, one table, and a mattress. It did not take long for me to realize that I really missed home. The Indian food that my mom made was not the same as it was in India. It tasted bland; just like our new home. I was devastated by the drastic change in my environment, and I blamed it on the food.

On the third day, I woke up crying, and I told my dad that I wanted to go back. When he asked me why, I told him it was because our food in Canada did not taste the same as it did back home. With a mix of amusement and worry, he told me we would discuss the matter once he got home from work in the evening. My parents chatted in the kitchen that morning in hushed whispers, and my dad left for work. Undoubtedly, I was upset that entire day, waiting for my dad to come home and tell me we could go back to India.

Instead, we would be going out dinner. I dejectedly got ready, confident that my parents would not be able to fix the matter as I ate flavorless food. We walked for two blocks until I began to smell warm naans cooking in a tandoor – it smelled divine. The neighborhood in which the restaurant was situated was quite ordinary. There were houses on one side of the street and plazas with a Chinese spa on the other. Soon, we approached the brightly lit banner that read “A1 Sweets.” We entered a very small, but cozy, Indian restaurant. As soon as I walked in, I felt as if I was back in India. People were conversing in Hindi. The sound of utensils clinking in the background, the entire room was filled with the smelled warm naans. As we sat down, my dad ordered our favorite dish, pani puri.

Once the dish arrived, I pushed my thumb into the puri to create a hole, and filled it with the potato stuffing and sweet chutney. Then, I dipped the stuffed puri into the cold spicy mint water. The entire puri barely fit into my mouth, but as soon as I bit into the crispy puri, my mouth was filled with multiples tastes of spicy minty water, sweet chutney, and chaat masala. In that moment, I felt as if I was eating pani puri from a street vendor back in India.

My parents and I had a mini pani puri eating competition of our own, and I am certain they let me win. That night, I became open to the idea of calling Canada my home for the first time. I understood that I could get good food anywhere, but my home was with my parents. As long as we were together, it did not matter where we lived. After that, I never asked my dad to move back to India. Today, it has been 12 years, and so I am glad my dad did not give into my silly demand.

 

Aesha Patel is a 22-year old Criminology undergraduate student, studying at the University of Toronto. She has lived in Toronto for a very long time, but there is still a little bit of India inside.

For the best pani puri in Toronto, Aesha recommends Bombay Chowpatty on Gerrard St.

Those who want to know more about global diaspora of Indian middle class can see the book:

Radhakrishnan, Smitha. 2011. Appropriately Indian: Gender and Culture in a New Transnational ClassDurham, NC ; London : Duke University Press.

Doubles: The First Taste of Trinidad

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Photo credit to lulun & kame https://www.flickr.com/photos/kamekame

Doubles: The First Taste of Home

Written by Nerissa Harrypersad

Being born and raised in Mississauga, Ontario, I have observed the transformation of the city as it has come to contain increasing amounts of businesses. Unlike previously, it now has restaurants of all kinds. Although I was born in Canada, my parents, who were born in Trinidad and Tobago and emigrated to Canada, always ensured that I knew my Trinidadian roots. This included being knowledgeable of my culture and the types of food that Trinidadian people eat. But as a young child, I was not familiar with even a single Trinidadian restaurant in Mississauga. I had heard of Trinidad’s most famous dish — doubles — but did not know how I would get to try it.

At the age of six, I went on my very first family vacation to the island of Trinidad and Tobago for my uncle’s wedding. I remember getting on the plane with great anticipation to meet my family in Trinidad for the very first time. The most wonderful feeling was leaving Canada’s freezing winter to feel the warmth of the Caribbean. Walking down the steps of the plane, I felt a heat wave hit my body, where it was humid and the temperature was over thirty degrees Celsius. As we arrived through the doors of the airport, the air conditioning refreshed us as we waited in line to be cleared by the border security officers and pick up our luggage. We then walked through a sliding glass door where we could see my aunt, uncles, grandparents, and cousins all waiting for us with smiles that could be seen from miles away. Little did I know what was coming next.

My family walked us to a small food vendor with a sign that said “doubles!” It was about a five-minute walk from the airport. The smell of fried dough called bara, and curry chickpeas called channa, was in the air along with the mouth-watering smell of pepper sauce, or hot sauce as Canadians would say. I watched the doubles being made in front of my eyes, with the baras being fried freshly in a frying pan and the channa smoking hot in a pot. I had never watched doubles being made before — my mom had never attempted making it for me at home because she did not know how.

The owner of the vendor, and also the cook, pulled out a small piece of wax paper and held it in the palm of his hand. He then put one of the fried, flat, round, yellow baras (also the size of a palm) on top of the wax paper with his palm supporting it underneath. Next, he put two full table spoons of channa on top. He then topped it off with a small spoon of pepper sauce and sandwiched it with another bara. He folded the wax paper to fully cover the doubles that he had assembled, and twisted the paper on the two ends to keep it in tact. The cook then handed the doubles to me.

I held doubles in my hand for the first time. The oil had seeped through the wax paper and my hand had gotten greasy the moment it was handed it to me. The smell and the warmth of the doubles had given me complete temptation to open up the wrapper and eat it right away, which is what did! Opening up the wrapper was messy as some of the channa had fallen out of the baras and onto the wrapper. As soon as I took my first bite I learned what I had been missing and why Trinidadians were proud to be inventors of the dish. It was a savoury spicy taste blended perfectly with curry and balanced by the baras.

At that moment, I realized now that I had eaten doubles I could call myself a true Trinidadian. Of course, every Trinidadian knows of doubles, or had tried it sometime in their lives. All the talk about doubles that I had heard growing up prior to that moment had been true, and I was finally able to experience it! Tasting doubles in Trinidad meant that I got the real experience of being in Trinidad and living like a Trinidadian.

Currently there are a handful of Trinidadian restaurants located in Mississauga. Leela’s Roti and Doubles has become my favourite doubles joint because it tastes exactly like the very first doubles that I had in Trinidad. Because of restaurants like Leela’s, I am now able to eat doubles at a moment’s notice. I consider myself a real Trinidadian now because I can now proudly say I have  eaten doubles!

 

Nerissa Harrypersad is currently a senior student at the University of Toronto- Mississauga, completing a Specialist in Sociology and a Major in Criminology. Raised by Trinidadian parents and coming from a rich Trinidadian culture, she is particularly intrigued by other cultures, while consistently learning something new about her own culture every day. She loves the study of culture and what it means to come from a particular ethnic background.

Please check out Nerissa’s Restaurant Observation on Leela’s Roti and Doubles

Editor’s notes:

Check out this short film on doubles, Doubles With Slight Pepper, by Ian Harnarine. (Harnarine, Ian. 2011. Doubles With Slight Pepper. Couberg, ON: Canada).

You should also check out this the documentary Dal Puri Diaspora (2012) by Richard Fung if you are interested in this related dish and its legacy in Trinidad. (Fung, Richard. 2012. Dal Puri Diaspora. Toronto, ON: Canada.)

Miso Soup and a Hidden History of the Nation

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Photo credit to Mokiko https://www.flickr.com/photos/bohnenhase/

 

Miso Soup and a Hidden History of the Nation

Written by Hae Yeon Choo

 

“This was a huge mistake.” Frustrated, I murmured, walking into an airport hotel in Tokyo. Back in 2005, I was barely making $1000 a month as a teaching assistant in the US, and it seemed natural to go with the cheapest flight when visiting home in South Korea. One time, on the return trip to Wisconsin, A Japan Airline ticket with multiple transfers fit the bill — which oddly included a free overnight hotel stay at the Tokyo airport. What seemed like a perfectly good idea began to fade as the journey began: the flight from Seoul to Tokyo, a long line for the immigration control, an endless wait to retrieve the luggage, and then finally the one-hour shuttle ride to the hotel, all before the rest of the trip to Wisconsin the next morning.

The next morning, I woke up alone in a hotel room and made my way to the breakfast buffet. I grabbed an assortment of dishes and sat down in a corner, next to a table filled with loud chatters from a group of Japanese businessmen. Almost disoriented, I took a spoonful of miso soup, with a small chunk of soft tofu and seaweed. The salty broth down my throat warmed me up, and I was startled how much comfort it brought to me. It was a taste of home, which made me feel uneasy.

Growing up in South Korea, I didn’t imagine that the food we ate at home was any different from that of my friends. Why wouldn’t everyone else have miso soup for breakfast, umeboshi (pickled plums) as condiments, and sukiyaki (hot pot) for special family dinners? It was only after my grandmother passed away when I was thirteen, that I learned that she was Japanese, and the food she cooked in my childhood were standard Japanese, not Korean food. It’s part of family history that we rarely talked about.

Originally from Nagoya, my grandmother’s family moved to Korea, then a Japanese colony, as part of colonial settler migration in the early 20th century. Working as an “office girl” at a trading company, she fell in love with a young Korean man in the office—my grandfather, a self-made orphan who loved photography. I remember seeing her picture, taken by my grandfather and hung in his room, a young woman of remarkable beauty that neither my mother nor I inherited. She must have been a romantic to marry him, in a time that love marriage was uncommon. I was told that her family was adamantly opposed to their union, yet came around after she gave birth to a son.

When my uncle was born in 1943, Korea was Japanese colony, but the liberation of Korea at the end of the WWII brought her life an unexpected turn. While all her natal family members left Korea, she stayed. By the time my mother was born, Korea was an independent, postcolonial nation. It was at the height of anti-Japanese sentiments, and she had to hide the fact that she was Japanese. She hid this so well that even her own children didn’t know until they were teenagers. According to my uncle, it was only two decades later when the Japan-Korea relations were normalized and she visited her natal family in Tokyo. By then, she almost forgot how to speak Japanese. But it was in the privacy of home, in the kitchen, that she was able to cook the food that was familiar to her, and feed all of us: a hot bowl of miso soup, and donkatsu (pork cutlet) curry for my birthday, recipes that my mom inherited.

When I had the first sip of miso soup, in that unremarkable hotel restaurant, it brought me undeniable comfort due to feeling at home. With that came a deep sense of discomfort, however, and even guilt. Coming of age in the 1990s in South Korea I grew up deeply steeped in anti-Japanese nationalism. My school textbook taught me that Korea is an ethnically homogeneous nation, a statement that was only recently taken out because of a recent wave of inter-Asian migration to South Korea (this became a research topic I pursued as a sociologist). It took me years to accept that although I like kimchi stews as much as any Korean does, it doesn’t bring me comfort when I am sick or miss home, like a bowl of miso soup does.

How ironic that I was critical of assimilation as a migration researcher, yet my personal life was a living example of assimilation. As a 100% Korean, with only a few words of Japanese phrases I can muster (although I am told my accent is flawless) and no ties to Japan, how can I feel conflicted about feeling a very personal comfort from a bowl of soup? Could the nation be this unstable? What does it mean that someone is Korean, then? It was the hidden family history in the shadow of the national narratives, entangled in that salty taste of miso soup, that made me begin the journey that continues today—to find answers to that question, and to ask what it means to belong to the nation.

 

Hae Yeon Choo is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is the author of Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea (2016, Stanford University Press).

 

The author recommends a Japanese restaurant in Toronto, the casual hapa izakaya.

 

And for those interested in Japanese settler colonialism in Korea, see the following book:

Uchida, Jun. 2011. Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea 1876-1945. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press.

 

Bittersweet Makoli: Rice Wine and the Memory of Family

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Photo credit to Jungho Kim https://www.flickr.com/photos/hejhej_jay/

 

Bittersweet Makoli: Rice Wine and the Memory of Family

by Won Ki Lee

Growing up in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, I often remembered opening the fridge to see what was inside. One staple that never seemed to run out was a bottle of makoli, which was always replenished as soon as the bottle ran low. My father, being a connoisseur of makoli, loved visiting local makoli breweries and sampling their makoli. Makoli is a traditional Korean rice wine with sweet undertones and a smooth finish, and is typically served in a wooden or metal bowl. As a young child, makoli was one of those special, yet somewhat forbidden drinks. But because my father enjoyed drinking makoli so often, he occasionally let me enjoy sips of it when I was with him. I remember what my first sip tasted like; it was a taste that burned as it went down, a foreign taste that was somewhat awkward and hard to get used to.

One day when I was seventeen, my parents approached me and asked if I would like to study abroad in Shanghai. The night before my departure to Shanghai, back in 2008, my parents and I shared a bottle of makoli. This time, the taste of makoli was different, almost bittersweet, because although I was excited about the new opportunities that awaited me, I knew that soon I would be separated from my family. This marked my journey into foreign lands. When I first arrived in Shanghai, the experience felt foreign and awkward to me, just like those first few sips I had of makoli as a child. Every experience was new to me, from the language to the culture; even the air I breathed felt different. However, the more time I spent there, the more I got used to Shanghai.

About a year later, my parents and I decided it would be best for me to continue my studies in Canada. Once I arrived, I encountered challenges similar to those I faced in Shanghai. While I was adjusting to my time in university, I received a letter from the South Korean Military Manpower Administration calling me back for my mandatory military service. I was required to return to South Korea for two years in order to complete my service. While serving in the military, I entered a very sorrowful period. Although I was glad to be back in my motherland, I never had the opportunity to fully enjoy my time there. The pressures of military life made life harder for me and, even though I was back in my hometown, military demands prevented me from seeing my parents. The makoli I drank at this stage in my life burned as it poured down my throat; my drinks were tinged with a deep sadness. I yearned to be discharged from the military.

Once my service was complete, I returned to Canada to resume my studies. I have now successfully assimilated into the Canadian way of life. Recently, my parents flew over to Canada from South Korea. While they were here, we enjoyed many bowls of makoli together. This time, the makoli I drank with them tasted different — it had a warmth and smoothness to it which I had not noticed before. The sweet, tingly taste of makoli flooded my thoughts with vivid memories of my childhood.

As I drank another bowl of makoli, I realized that the taste of makoli had never really changed; instead it was my response to makoli that had changed over time through the many phases of my life. In that sense, makoli symbolizes the transitions of my life, my own right of passage from childhood into adulthood. Now whenever a bowl of makoli is pressed to my lips and that sweet nectar flows into my body, I deeply savour that once foreign and awkward taste, while also swallowing the tears caused by my memories of nostalgia, sorrow, and loneliness. This growing appreciation for makoli allows me to look back on how much I have grown from that little boy taking his first bitter sips by his father’s side into the man I am today. With every drink I take, I am filled with a sense of excitement towards the unknown and the new journeys I will embark on.

 

Won Ki Lee is an international student who flew over from South Korea and who is a passionate social science student at UTM.

If you want to try makoli in Greater Toronto area, Won Ki recommends Mandoohyang in Mississauga and Korean Village Restaurant in Toronto.

For those of you who want to know more about transnational Korean young men and male conscription in South Korea, check out the following article:

Song, Kirsten Younghee. 2015. “Between global dreams and national duties: the dilemma of conscription duty in the transnational lives of young Korean males.” Global Networks 15(1):60-77.

Single to Married: With the Help of Gulab Jamun of Course

 

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Photo credit to hey skinny https://www.flickr.com/photos/heyskinny

Single to Married: With the Help of Gulab Jamun of Course

by Hana Ijam

My henna night, on December 2012 in Lahore, Pakistan, was filled with colourful surroundings, light, and music. Never did I imagine that I would be getting married and that too at the age of eighteen. I guess our Pakistani background might have a small role to play in saying “YES”, or maybe it was entirely due to the man I was sitting next to. My fiancé, Ali, and I have known each other since childhood and, after our engagement, have grown to love one another. The initial arranged marriage did frighten me a little but here I was, the happiest bride enjoying my wedding events. The guests were busy, some talking amongst themselves, some singing, some dancing and amidst it all some sitting next to me and my fiancé, greeting us, wishing us all the best for the following day, our wedding day. However, this traditional night remains incomplete without mentioning the Mathai (South Asian sweets) or my particular memory of the gulab jamun.

As I was sitting amidst 500 or so guests, and they approached towards the stage, the environment was joyous with laughter everywhere. While all the guests were waiting their turn to greet us, a round dish filled with a variety of colorful Mathai available in different colors, shapes and sizes was placed in front of us. The tradition required the guests to feed us some Mathai as one would be fed cake on his or her birthday. In this joyous moment, family and friends came forward to my fiancé and I one after the other, each picked up a piece of Mathai, and fed it to us.

I recall my mother and father coming on stage and sitting next to us, both extremely emotionally, just as I was. My father looked down at the dish and in it were variety of Mathai’s including, Cham Cham, kalakand, barfi, jalebi and my favorite gulab jamun. He then — knowing my preference — smiled and picked up the gulab jamun. Gulab jamun, which is a round sweet, has a brown outer layer, yet is of wheatish color inside, with a delicate feel to it. My father fed some to both my fiancé and I. The round jamun dough drenched in sugar syrup still reminds me of the taste of cardamom and saffron. Once placed in the mouth the sweet and juicy gulab jamuns melt right onto one’s tongue. It’s as if the smooth texture and sweet taste yells joys out onto one’s taste buds.  My mother, following my father also picked up a piece of gulab jamun and brought it close to my mouth. As she was proceeding, I saw her eyes tearing up and in that moment, I realized that this was it, it was time to finally get married. Eating the gulab jamun from her hands took me into what seemed to be a dream; the moment I was waiting for was finally here. The juicy sweet taste, the softness of the gulab jamun, brought back many childhood memories of when my mother would cook the same sweet dish for me. However, this particular night had much more meaning attached to it.

The Mathai, particularly the gulab jamuns, now bring back many memories. The Mathai was fed for a reason, the sweetness was presenting the significant happiness present on the occasion, while the people feeding it were acting out their cultural role of conveying their consent and acceptance of what was the expected norm of marriage. Attendance at the wedding was considered incomplete if the guests failed to perform this tradition. The gulab jamun thus served a cultural significance which had in itself immense meaning and depth in form of celebratory customs. The night was incomplete without it.

Amidst of all the wedding chaos, it also brought forth confirmation to the fact that, yes, I am getting married. Though my husband did not join me to live as a couple for another year, the sweets had transformed me.  With each bite, I accepted the truth of what seemed like a fairytale or a dream; I went from single to married. It reminded me of my childhood while also confirming that I am no longer a child. I am now an adult with the responsibility of carrying forth a marriage, the journey of respect, love and dignity. This journey may not be easy, but it is as sweet as a gulab jamun.

If you want to try gulab jamun in Mississauga, Hana Ijam recommends Shirin Mahal.

 

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Pakistani Wedding

Something for those who are interested in transnational marriage practices in Pakistani diaspora, see:

Mohammad, Robina. 2015. “Transnational shift: marriage, home and belonging for British-Pakistani Muslim women.” Social & Cultural Geography 16(6): 593-614.