Image Description: A title reads “Mandu + Tamales, Cooking Rituals” at the top center of the piece. It has four watercolors, including one tamal, three mandu, and illustrations of how to make both tamales and mandu. There is text between the watercolors which read “making tamales alongside great aunties + mi bisabuela at christmastime, bridging the gap created by my inability to speak spanish.” and “making mandu with my mama’s fam for the new year, bridging the gap between us diasporic, mixed koreans and the homeland left generations ago.”
I have a longstanding appreciation for the humble dumpling. While ingredients and appearance may change, the dumpling is one of the most simple and ubiquitous food forms across the globe: a flavorful filling enveloped by a warm dough.
My dumpling-making memories from childhood revolve around two types in particular: mandu and tamales. I would sit with elders and cousins alike immersed in the ritual of measuring out both dough and filling, assembling, sealing, and repeating. Sometimes there would be conversation or laughing, other times it would be quiet., It wasn’t often we would get together to make dumplings, pretty much only during the holiday season.
Even if we didn’t see one another often, I was told that we shared heritage and blood, and year after year the ritual felt familiar. Despite this, I always feel an uneasiness being in such large groups, with people I rarely see and barely know but am supposedly related to. Even outside of these “family” spaces, in groups I share community and identify with, I constantly find myself thinking about how I am perceived. I wonder if my Mexicanness is legitimate if I can’t speak Spanish. Do the really distant cousins wonder why there is some Asian girl making tamales? Am I as Korean as my friends whose parents and grandparents grew up in Korea? Is it bad that I’d never heard of or eaten tteokbokki until this past year? Is my mixedness legible to other mixed folks?
My ethnic identities are rarely if ever fully seen or understood by most people. I am Korean. I am Mexican. I am Japanese. I am not half this or a quarter that. I am each of these things fully, none of them negate the other. My experience of each identity is informed by the others. My Mexicanness is Japanese and my Japaneseness is Korean and my Koreanness is Mexican, etc. My mandu and tamales recipes interweave layers of these identities, they are seasoned by all my anxieties. M dumplings are a little bittersweet.
I’ve been trying to find more ways to share community and conversation about mixed identity. I think a big part of that will have to revolve around food, particularly dumplings. I envision rituals, making momos or empanadas or samosas where for just a little while none of us have to explain ourselves or our identities. Instead we can trust in the fact that our recipes speak for us, that they represent who were are and all that we come from. Even If we don’t know each other well or don’t speak the same language or if our recipes differ. We can rely on that same old formula: dough, filling, seal, repeat. We can share in the act of making and infusing our unique stories into the food that will nourish us together.
— a version of the accompanying image was printed in the Mixed Race Queer and Feminist Zine, Volume 2, titled, “What Brings You to the Kitchen Table?”–