Food is the center of my universe, which means I don’t think one or two meals ahead but several. A typical week consists of dining out many times, thumbing through achievable after-soccer-practice recipes, and planning multiple dinner parties at once. All of this fuels my hunt for ingredients, the more obscure the better—especially if the search requires four stops and driving across town. Some might call it masochistic; I call it inspirational.
This quest often delivers me to Denver’s vast lineup of ethnic markets. H Mart, Arash International Market, and Jerusalem Market are three of my staples. I walk through the doors and breathe in the musty spices, the exotic produce, the iron-y funk of fish and meat and cheese. As I walk the aisles and check off my list, I ask questions and stalk new-to-me ingredients.
Living in a city that’s nearly 70 percent white, I crave this exposure to different cultures and the authenticity and interactions that these spaces provide. It’s stimulating—and important—to step outside of my everyday existence. In the markets, I often don’t look like the shoppers around me; my clothes are different; and I don’t speak the common language. Even if it’s for a short time every couple of weeks, these experiences remind me of the world’s great diversity of cultures, cuisines, languages, dress codes, and religious beliefs.
“I hope [these moments] are the beginning of an open-mindedness that will grow within them.”
That diversity is something I want my children to be exposed to, too, because in Denver—and, really, in most places—it’s easy to live inside our respective bubbles. So I’ve started bringing my daughters (ages four and eight) shopping with me. Initially, they held their noses to block the foreign smells and curled away from the inquiring looks of other shoppers. They put on bored faces and urged me to hurry up. But now, after just a few visits, they jostle to be first in line for H Mart’s popped-in-front-of-us rice cakes; they place our order for plump figs, apricots, and olives at Arash; and they select spices like za’atar and bottles of pomegranate molasses from Jerusalem’s shelves. These are just moments, yes, but I hope they are the beginning of an open-mindedness that will grow within them.
On a recent excursion, the girls made a friend. I was making bo ssäm, a Korean dish in which pork belly is typically boiled, sliced, served with sides like kimchi, and eaten in lettuce leaves. We wandered H Mart’s aisles and enlisted the help of a manager. As he led us from shelf to shelf, he asked what I was cooking. When I told him bo ssäm, he stopped and looked from the girls to me and said, “These girls? They like it?” I nodded yes and showed him the recipe. He shook his head in wonder.
He walked us to the checkout line and asked if I’d tried the dish with pork hock. When I said no, he raised his index finger and asked me to wait for a few minutes. The girls unloaded the cart’s bounty onto the belt, and I paid. As we gathered the bags, our friend appeared with a cellophane-wrapped plate. He handed it to me, tracing the outline of the boiled hock, kimchi, and slices of raw onion, garlic, and jalapeño, and said, “Try it. It’s my favorite.” I thanked him and shook his hand. During the drive home, I realized we’d never asked his name, nor he ours.
The girls didn’t gobble up the hock (“too chewy”), but they tried it because the nice man from H Mart had said it was his favorite. I quietly considered that a victory because, even at the most basic level, my children are beginning to realize that food, with its supreme power to bring people together, is a language we can all understand.