May 16, 2022

Creating a Sense of Home and Community Through Food

Learn from health equity champions about the power of food to build bridges and cultivate family connections.

Fresh ingredients for making kimchi

Sharing a meal is one of the most approachable ways to enjoy nutritious foods and get to know our own and other cultures. In the children’s picture book Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix, authors Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee vividly tell the story of how the famous chef Roy Choi made unexpected food inspired by his Korean heritage and the multicultural community of Los Angeles. The book explores relatable experiences of looking for a place to belong. As a child, Roy finds that sense of belonging in food made with sohn-maash, a Korean term for being handmade with love and care.

Author and food ethnographer June Jo Lee and publisher Philip Lee of READERS to EATERS, along with restaurateurs Peter Cho and Sun Park of Han Oak and Toki in Portland, have shared their thoughts on creating a sense of family and community through food.

How can food help us build bridges and cultivate family?

Putting Your Story on a Plate

Hot pot from the new menu at Han Oak Restaurant

Peter Cho and Sun Park run Han Oak with their family as an extension of their home in Portland, Oregon. Sun says, “As a restaurant, if we can feed you and you have enjoyed your meal, then we’ve connected. Our perspective and personal ‘narrative’ on a plate has been served and enjoyed and that is fulfilling. I really love Peter’s new menu, and our amazing staff provides warm and thoughtful service to our diners — diners of all ages, race, backgrounds, and beliefs who sit side by side, collectively and harmoniously, enjoying thoughtfully prepared food. Food is one of the few necessary and universal enjoyments in life. It offers a valuable opportunity to connect and build bonds with anyone at all. At the very least it brings everyone into the same room with a positive and unified goal.”  

This past Lunar New Year, the Cho family received a special gift of a Chinese Lion Dance to bless the restaurant. Sun was thrilled to learn about the White Lotus Foundation and the program they are building for AAPI youth: “The performance was beautiful, the drums were thunderous, and the colors were so vibrant. A crowd quickly drew, and we were all mesmerized. When it was over, I was stunned to see cheerful AAPI youth emerging from these enormous costumes! Their confidence and powerful movements had demanded the attention of curious adults and families blocks away. I can’t wait to sign my boys up, so they know what it feels like to be giants.” 

The timid Korean child inside of me admired their strength and saw their potential and it was absolute fire! – Sun Park

Learning What’s Good to Eat

Author and ethnographer June Jo Lee as a young child

June Jo Lee is a food ethnographer who studies food for brands and companies and a children’s book author with a deep connection to her work. She says, “Learning what’s good to eat is an essential life skill. It was my first lesson in life, and a bridge that connected me to my family, my cultures, and the world beyond.”

June Jo reflects, “For me, my mother’s kimchi is the first flavor I remember. Her kimchi is the first bite I want when I visit her home in Seoul and what I ask her to make when she visits my home in San Francisco. Growing up in Palo Alto in the late 1970s, and being teased by school kids for my ‘slant eyes,’ ‘flat face,’ ‘weird name,’ and ‘stinky food,’ I learned to hate my mother’s kimchi. When people asked me, ‘Where are you from-from?’ or ‘What are you?’ I heard the deep-seated judgment in their voices that I did not belong. Like my immigration green card stated, I was an alien from outer space. I was ashamed of what I was. Of my Korean mother. Of my mother’s kimchi.

Book cover of Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix

“But, I also loved my mother’s kimchi. Her kimchi meant I was home. Safe from the sting of kids and the othering of grownups. A place where I simply was, without the identity markers that kept me an outsider. So for me, kimchi was a hot mess of feelings — my tricky food. Chef Roy Choi and The Street Food Remix is my first picture book. I wrote it for that six-year-old kid in Palo Alto who was teased for eating her mother’s kimchi and Korean snacks such as roasted seaweed, and who didn’t know where she fit in. As a kid, Roy Choi always knew he could come back home to ‘kimchi, rice and tofu stew.’”

“During my book talks, I share with kids my experiences of food as a bridge to make more friends, or as a wall to keep others out.” – June Jo Lee

We Are a Family of People

Philip Lee describes family and community in multiple ways: “When it comes to bridging food and family, I think of two kinds of families: First, there’s the immediate family of parents and caregivers, children, and grandparents, sharing meals and conversations. Family meals are so important not only in nourishing the bodies, but also our minds in connecting with each other. According to researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education, family meals can be an important part of language development.

“The second kind of family food bridges is the family of people. Everyone eats and has a food story to share! I truly believe that one of the best ways to understand a culture is by learning about their food history and traditions because almost everyone takes part. This explains why my wife June Jo Lee and I started READERS to EATERS.”

“Food is so foundational to our experience, no matter young or old, or where someone is from. We hope to share these stories and spark curiosity and understanding of one another.” – Philip Lee

Tell us about a food that makes you feel at home.

Flavors that Won’t Steer You Wrong

Caviar and roasted seaweed on jook at Han Oak

Sun Park describes jook as, “one of the most comforting bowls of food for me. It’s satisfying any time of day, cozy when you’re chilled, a warm hug to an achy stomach.” Sun describes this porridge in its most basic form with only two ingredients – sticky rice and water or stock boiled together in a pot until it looks and feels like congee or risotto.

“The optional add-ons are endless and depend on your cravings or leftover options in the fridge. I season with a drizzle of sesame oil, soy sauce (or gluten-free tamari), salt and pepper, and toasted sesame seeds, crushed between my fingers as I sprinkle to release the aroma. This is a classic Korean combination of flavors. You can use this to combo to season anything and it will almost never steer you wrong.” Sun recommends this jook recipe from Korean cooking sensation, Maanghi.

“Jook is one of the first solids a baby will eat and maybe my last when I’m old and gray.” – Sun Park

Comfort Food that Always Returns You Back Home

June Jo's homemade kimchi

For June Jo, “A dish that always returns me back home is rice with kimchi stew. It’s a warm comfort dish I’ve grown up eating in Seoul, Houston, Palo Alto, Austin, Cambridge, Honolulu, Seattle, and San Francisco. It’s a simple dish that I can make when I don’t have much in the fridge. When I don’t have much of an appetite or am too tired to think, I can always count on kimchi stew. When I come home after a hard work trip, I make kimchi stew. Sometimes, I add instant ramen. Also, an egg. I can always find my happy, safe place—my home—inside a spicy, steaming pot of kimchi stew.”

This is how June Jo prepares kimchi stew at home:

June Jo Lee's new book Sandor Katz and the Tiny Wild
  1. Add some (up to you how much) old kimchi to a hot pot with fat (I usually go with olive oil or Miyoko’s unsalted “butter”).
  2. Sauté the kimchi until soft. Add some sesame oil and sauté some more (while worrying about the smoking point of sesame oil).
  3. Add stock or water, and umami shortcuts (a mix of Yondu Korean soy sauce, Taki mushroom salt, and dried anchovies).
  4. As the stew boils, chop and add tofu, garlic, onions, scallions.
  5. Taste. Add more umami and salt until it tastes good.

June Jo’s new picture book biography, Sandor Katz and The Tiny Wild, comes out in June 2022 and explores kimchi and fermentation as “a magical bridge that connects all, ALL — people, plants, and the tiny wild.” She says, “My next book (and the one after that), will also taste like kimchi.” You can prepare kimchi at home by following this kimchi-making video with June Jo and Jacqueline Biggs Martin.

Enjoying Your Happy Food

Publisher Philip Lee as a young child

For Philip, char siu bao – steamed roast pork buns – feel like home. “When I was growing up in Hong Kong, my favorite food was char siu bao. It’s the perfect food for a kid as it fits warmly in the hand so well. But more than the delicious, sweet pork and chewy bun, I loved it because it was a celebration food. We would have it at weekend family gatherings at dim sum restaurants, or my parents would get me one when I did well in school as a reward. It’s my happy food!

“When we moved from the suburbs of Seattle to San Francisco, Chinatown became just a short walk away, so I can go to my favorite Dim Sum Bistro and get one — or two! — char siu bao as a treat and bring back all the wonderful feelings of home.”

The past two years have brought profound changes and challenges to every point in our foodways, but food still has a unique capacity to bring people together. Thank you to all our health champions for sharing their stories and food’s bridge-building power.

Want to enrich family meals and build your own community connections through food?

Check out these resources and activities:

Celebrate AAPI Heritage Month with more stories, conversations, and family resources from Kohl's Healthy at Home.

Kohleun Adamson

Manager, Culturally Responsive Communications | Alliance for a Healthier Generation