Ordinary yet Extraordinary – Sarah Kim

Each family has its own special dish/snack with a secret recipe that is passed down generation to generation. It may be something special as a ping a mien noodle or something as common as spaghetti and meatballs. My family has a special yet common dish that we hold dear to- Japchae.

Japchae means “mixed vegetables” in Korean. The jap means to mix and the chae means vegetables. It is made from cellophane noodles and various vegetables stir-fried together. Meat was introduced to the japchae years after its invention and is always used in japchae today. It is a traditional celebration dish served at parties and special occasions like weddings and birthday parties.

My grandmother learned to make japchae noodles from her mother back in Korea and then passed the recipe on to my mother. Japchae is my grandmother’s favorite food since she first had it when she was 7 years old. The recipes to make japchae are readily available on the Internet today, yet my grandmother never liked these recipes and she disapproved me making japchae following an online recipe. When I see her making the noodles, I do not see a big difference in the procedure and I never understood the difference. It was such a common Korean food and readily available everywhere. I did not think that my grandmother had to spend an hour in front of the stove trying to cook this when we can go to a grocery shop and buy a pack.

Every year during Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving Day, our family serves Japchae as the main dish. The whole family gathers and shares the just-cooked japchae. As we have the first bite, I hear my sister thanking my grandmother saying “Grammy, it gets better every year!” followed by a bunch of Mmmm! and “Wow.” This was such an ordinary, annual thing that I did not put much thought into what this food meant for me and my family until my freshman year at Emory University.

Eight-hundred and sixty-eight miles away from home, the Chuseok in 2017 was uneventful. I had a hard time adjusting to my studies. A few days later, I received a package from home. It was wrapped in different boxes and cold. My family had sent me a surprise gift-container full of Japchae with a little note saying “Hwaiting!”- a Korean phrase of support and encouragement. All my worries faded and all I felt was a sense of security. This ordinary food became an extraordinary one that day.



I chose to imitate the short memoir “Ping A Mien, a Chinese Family Noodle Story” because there were many parts of the memoir that resonated with me. According to Susannah, “Ping an mien means “peaceful noodles” in Chinese. In Mandarin, ping an translates to “peaceful,” and when sending someone someplace far away, you say zhu ni yi lu ping an, or “wishing you a peaceful journey.” I remember when I leave my family to go on a trip for a few days, my grandmother would cook me a grand dinner to send me off. My grandmother believes that food is considered as a nourishment for the body and soul. A good meal is a hundred times better than taking medicine. Another part that resonated with me was the ending. Families can get into arguments and eventually they reconcile. My family is peculiar in that we reconcile through eating a meal together, especially a spicy one. I found this little odd similarity in the memoir and it reminded me of the time my mother and I reconciled after a meal. At first, the meal was awkward since we both did not want to see each other, but we were hungry. Then, my stomach growled. We both looked up at each other and laughed. After, we talked through our problems and reconciled.

The author elaborates on the following motifs: food is the language of love and affection and the preservation of family tradition. Susannah writes, “After I was all packed she handed me a bowl, and I fought tears, as well as feelings of anger, shame, and pride, as I gingerly ate small bites of every element: chicken, mushroom, noodles. She’d slipped two eggs into my bowl. I knew I’d be back.” After long, tiring fights with family, this simple bowl of Ping A Mien reminded Susannah of how much her mother loves her and always will. Moreover, Susannah decides to create this dish for her boyfriend when he leaves. She preserves her family tradition although she is just learning how to make the dish. Similarly, my family expects us to uphold the family traditions is place. For example, filial piety, respect for elders and parents, is very important in our family. In Korean culture, we use honorifics to adults or people we are not familiar with. We wait for elders to take their first bite of the meal and then everyone else start to eat the meal. I discovered that the Korean culture is influenced by Chinese culture, which is why I made a lot of connections with this memoir.

The emotional tie Susannah had with Ping A Mien is the cultural DNA embedded in the piece and parallels mine, my emotional tie to Japchae. Susannah shows us that Ping A Mien is more than a type of noodle dish. The dish is a memory and evokes a sense of nostalgia, which make it a comfort food. It provides a sense of familiarity and brings you back to your roots. As Professor Ristaino mentioned “I am one of the first members of my extended family to earn a Ph.D. I teach at Emory University, but deep inside I am working class, blue collar. I have immigrant blood running through me.” This is what Japchae means to me.


Picture from https://www.koreanbapsang.com/japchae-korean-stir-fried-starch/


Works Cited

Chen, Susannah. “Ping An Mien, a Chinese Family Noodle Story.” Chowhound, Chowhound, 5  July 2014, www.chowhound.com/food-news/152845/ping-an-mien-a-family-noodle story/.

Dana, Yeon. “Versatile Japchae, a Dish for Special Occasions.” The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea – Inside Korea > Food, 23 Sept. 2010,english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/09/23/2010092300228.html.


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