Many have experienced that “lunchbox moment” — those times, often in childhood, when someone is teased for eating food from their culture. These moments are powerful because food is an important part of a person’s heritage and identity.
Two children’s books on Korean food, “A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food,” written by Michelle Li and illustrated by Sunnu Rebecca Choi, and “Kimchi, Kimchi Everyday,” written and illustrated by Erica Kim, combat the “lunchbox moment.” Celebrating Korean food, the books show how it can be a source of pride and a cuisine everybody can enjoy.
I’m a Korean adoptee, raised by a white family. Eating and cooking Korean food has been a big part of how I’ve connected with my heritage. It’s been important to my 9-year old daughter Penny too, who lists kimbap, the Korean rice rolls filled with vegetables and meat, as her favorite food.
Penny and I read the books together to see what we could learn about Korean food and our identities as Korean Americans.
Li, who is also an adoptee, was known locally to Seattle audiences as a TV anchor on KING 5 before moving on to the NBC St. Louis affiliate in 2021. She became a national name in January 2022 when she shared a voicemail message from a viewer who criticized her as being “very Asian” for talking about the dumplings she ate on New Year’s Day.
The video went viral, and using the hashtag #VeryAsian became a way for Asian Americans to reclaim the phrase and share pride in their New Year’s traditions and identities. Li went on to found the Very Asian Foundation, which shines a light on Asian experiences.
In “A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food,” Li celebrates the cuisine that, she writes, “can be very bold, very spicy, and very fun,” not offensive like the caller who left the voicemail suggested. Just like it was on social media, the phrase “very Asian” in the title of the book is a celebration, not something to be threatened by.
After a short introduction, Li writes about 14 different Korean dishes, such as mandu, japchae, bibimbap and soondubu. She describes what they are, how they are eaten and their cultural significance. Colorful illustrations depict the food, sometimes showing people preparing or eating the food together. The groups of people are often multiracial.
With the diversity of faces on its pages, pronunciation guides and interactive questions that invite readers to imagine eating the dishes, the book shows that Korean food is available for everybody to enjoy, not just those of Korean heritage. Because my family is multiracial, this aspect of the book, which I missed the first time I read it, was moving to me.
Penny caught on intuitively to this theme. When I asked her who would enjoy this book, she said her cousin Avery, who has been learning about Korean cooking after eating it for the first time last year. She flipped through the pages of the book, making a “yum” sound resembling a low growl when she saw dishes she already loves or others she wants to try.
While Li’s book could be read by young children of all ages, Kim’s book on kimchi might be enjoyed most by younger children. For each day of the week, it describes in three-line poems a different way to enjoy kimchi. The different preparations include kimchi pancakes, kimchi stew and kimchi dumplings.
The illustrations show a young girl enjoying the food. Kim created them with cut paper art, using Hanji, a paper mulberry tree native to Korea — deepening the connection with Korean culture.
Following the pages with the three-line rhymes, a glossary page shows the names of and describes each of the dishes. The book then invites readers to try kimchi with non-Korean food, including hamburgers, tacos and a baked potato. Just as in Li’s book, Kim’s book imagines a home where Korean food can be enjoyed by all, outside of a traditional Korean context.
The Kickstarter page that funded the book says it’s “ideal for caregivers and teachers looking to introduce character diversity into a child’s or classroom library,” a challenge that must be familiar to Li, who is an elementary school teacher along with a writer and illustrator. It also says the book “will inspire other children to take pride in their cultural foods,” suggesting it’s meant to be read by all children, not just Korean Americans.
Penny once said to me, “Everybody gives me books about little Asian girls.” It made me laugh, because there were no books about Asian girls when I was young.
So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at Penny’s response when I asked her how the books made her feel about being Korean American. She answered “about the same.” When I followed that up by asking how she feels about being Korean American in general, she gave two thumbs up and a big smile.
Penny enjoyed the books and she saw dishes she wanted to eat. But maybe I was the one who needed to be told that being “very Asian” was wonderful and that everybody can enjoy Korean food together. Maybe I needed to marvel at the versatility of kimchi, without having to worry that someone’s going to think it’s stinky. Because these books bridge the divide of the “lunchbox moment,” I needed to read these books as much as my daughter did.