Korean food is very good. This is not something I feel up for debate, and living in Korea, the place where Korean food is from, I am regularly ensconced in the highest quality, most authentic versions of it I can possibly eat. Koreans do Korean food very, very well, and they all generally enjoy it a great deal. The problem, of course, is all of the other foods: Chinese and Mexican and Indian and Turkish and Thai and Canadian… all of these foods are reprocessed and filtered through local Korean tastes, and Koreanized in just a certain way. Those times when I tire, when I want something outside of the Korean wheelhouse of cuisine, I am bereft. When I want the food of home, it’s just not here.
Of course, this always happens to food when it travels: flavours are too diverse, or too bizarre, or too likely to rip the roof of some milquetoast local’s mouth, and thus they need to be toned down. Despiced. Undelicioused. They need to be boiled down and blended and fused into what is acceptable locally so that it will actually sell, so that it will be palatable, marketable. It happens everywhere, but then you get used to these localized versions, and when you confront other versions, it is jarring and bewildering.
And so while I love and regularly stuff my face to the brim with Korean dishes, there are others that haunt the back of my mind. Meals and snacks and street food and wrapped up things I can carry-away. Things from around the world, or from just in my hometown. Things that aren’t here.
And in turn, I want. I desire and hunger and thirst and crave. I want all of the foods from home and the foods from all the other places. With other people from other countries, I can discuss this like a deep and pressing social issue in Korean culture. With Americans I can prattle on about the dearth of Mexican, with the British I can cry out to the heavens about where to find some good curry. Even with some of my Korean friends who have travelled, we talk about and whine about the lack of proper Vietnamese, of the desperate, unending journey for the a decent shwarma. Our conversations become spirals of depression and desire, and we leave the discussion hungry and wanting, even if the talk is occurring over dinner.
The problem is worsened when talking to people from the same hometown, the same neighbourhood. The tastes and scents of home, the general concept, are no longer enough. Rather, with these individuals, you can harken to incredibly specific dishes, exact locations, flavours to be matched and acquired in spaces that you both know. To restaurants and cafes and bars, to their signature dishes, to the drinks that go with them, to the size of the portions and the smells wafting from the kitchens and the taste of the meal on a warm summer afternoon.
Surrounded by other misplaced Toronto people, I can make reference to a particular slab of pub nachos, and the other party will vividly describe the toppings, the dips, the exact molecular consistency of the guacamole, which is not just guacamole, but really manna handed down from above. Another friend can hanker for a specific bowl of phở, and we can rhapsodize about the proper side dishes, the appropriate levels of Sriracha, the exact right diameter and depth of the bowl depending on our hunger, the heat outside, and our feelings of self-worth. With these individuals I can mentally trace the path between Little India and Little Italy, I can name all the best Vietnamese joints stashed both inside of Chinatown and without, I can whisper the names of pubs and know, know that they know what is on tap there, too.
With these hometown people, I can think of hometown food. We can talk and yearn and whine and hunger, we can describe delicate meals in explicit, graphic, and terrible detail, and outline perfectly the vista one might see while eating such a meal. With these people I can construct mutual sense memories: we torture one another in festivals of synaesthesia, our words transforming into tastes on our palates, smells climbing through our noses, the sounds of clinking glasses and furious forks and knives and chopsticks and fingers. The want is all the more exquisite for its specificity, desires driven on the density of detail.
Because, of course, so much of our sense of home, both upper and lower-case H, is defined by food. By shared meals, by shared beverages, by mutual love for taste and discovery and exploration. By the preparation, by the finding, by the sharing. By coming together with people we like to engage in something we like together. Home food is about transportational sense connections, about a hint of a flavour, the look and feel and shape of a dish sending you back in time and space to where you might have had it before, to the people you might have had it with, to the place you were in.
With other people from your hometown, these things are known implicitly. They know the food and they know the places to get them, and as such they can match your rhapsody in grandeur and depth of feeling. They are just as hungry as you.
It’s not just the meals at home, the ones cooked by your mother and father and grandparents and family, though it is also those. It is the tastescape of your city: the street you watch from the windows of your favourite diner, the radio station that plays in that pub down the street. The smells wafting out from the kitchen and into the street. The feel of deck chairs or booths or couches or lounges, and the cool wind on a patio in summer. Every taste that rolls over your tongue, that bursts up through your palate, that reminds you of where you are.
Home food is all of these things, and sometimes you just yearn for the taste.