Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | PBS series “Kimchi Chronicles” is a journey of food and identity to Korea
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PBS series “Kimchi Chronicles” is a journey of food and identity to Korea

We’re addicted to the Food Network because we’re amateur foodies who believe deeply that food is the gateway for most people to learn about other cultures. I’m always amazed when I find people who are closed-minded about trying different types of cuisines, and I’ve always lived by the rule that if somewhere in the world, someone eats a dish, I’m willing to try it… at least once. Living by this rule, I’ve had some funky food, including insects, plants that you wouldn’t think are edible, slimy sea creatures that I’m not sure other sea creatures would eat, and animal parts that would probably make a PETA supporter faint.

We love all kinds of cuisines from around the world, and obscure indigenous specialties from around the U.S. One of our favorites is Korean cuisine. You can trace a lot of Japanese culture to China or Korea, including food. Yakiniku, grilled marinated thin-sliced beef, is Korean bulgogi (my favorite). Gyoza dumplings are either Chinese potstickers or Korean mandu. Kimchi is, well, it’s a purely Korean original: Pickled napa cabbage that’s deeply infused with hot chili pepper and briny salt. It’s a staple of Korean cuisine, an ubiquitous side dish, delicious and really healthy to boot. My mouth starts watering just thinking about it.

Erin and I even cooked up our own Soon Doobu Jjigae spicy tofu soup one night, and look forward to trying more Korean recipes.

Growing up in Japan, we had kimchi pretty regularly. My mom used to make it (she hardly cooks anything anymore) when I was a kid. Its pungent odor would fill the house and embarrass me once we moved to the states if my white high school buddies visited, but I even got my giant football player friend Bubba to try kimchi. Like some other Asian dishes, it doesn’t taste as stinky as it smells.

A new PBS series, “Kimchi Chronicles,” explores the richness of Korean food in a fascinating way that’s part-travelogue, part food program and part a journey about identity. The series has been rolling out in some markets, but here in Denver it premieres July 2 on Rocky Mountain PBS (Channel 12 in Denver)

What makes the show so intriguing to me is the star, Marja Vongerichten, who is wife of superstar New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Marja is hapa — she was born to an unmarried Korean woman and an African American G.I., and put up for adoption. By the time she was in college and interested in finding her birth mother, her mother had moved to the U.S. herself, and the two now have a close relationship.

Marja cooks Korean dishes and has introduced the flavors of Korean food to her husband, who’s incorporated those flavors in some of his innovative cooking, even serving hot dogs at one of his restaurants with a kimchi relish, or steaks with a ggojujang (chili paste) butter. Sounds great to me….

The Korean government underwrote the couple’s travels to South Korea with a camera crew in tow, capturing them eating their way across the country and trying everything from the well-known and familiar to the obscure and challenging. But the series isn’t just about food, and not just a tourism promo for South Korea. It’s also about culture and identity, and for Marja, it’s a personal story that has emotional resonance. It’s about the smells and tastes that are buried deep in her consciousness from childhood, before she crossed the Pacific and was absorbed into a new culture and a new family. But those earliest memories are still there, and ready to be accessed with a little prodding.

We know many Asian adoptees, including Koreans. In Colorado, a terrific non-profit organization, Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, sponsors weekend-long camps all summer that are intensive (and fun) opportunities for adopted children from 10 communities (not just Asian, but Russian/Eastern European/Central Asian and African/Caribbean) to immerse themselves in their birth cultures. Korean adoptees have been part of the American family fabric since the 1950s, when adoptees were more likely to be raised as white and American without much contact with their roots. It’s great to know that adopted children today have options to be aware of their rich heritage.

At an adoption conference last year, we heard Rick Reilly, and award-winning sports journalist who lives in Denver, and his adopted Korean daughter Rae talk about their family’s heartbreaking efforts to find Rae’s birth mother (they did, but were only able to meet her briefly), so it’s great to hear about Marja Vongerichten’s ongoing and open relationship with her mother in New York.

I’m looking forward to following the Vongerichtens’ culinary and culture tour of South Korea. I’ll definitely set our DVR to record the series.

Maybe we’ll cook up some Korean dishes before we settle down in from of the TV. M stomach’s growling already!