I forget exactly when my personal love affair with kimchi began – I only know that my affection has never wavered. There is always a jar in my refrigerator, and I have spent many, many late nights in New York’s Korea Town, slurping jap chae noodles and sneaking the last bite of bulgogi.
The first time I read through the script for Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, I was impressed by the language, the violence, the brave and shocking imagery . . . all the ingredients that make this play wild and theatrical. But, in my second read of the play, I was struck by the delicious references that Young Jean Lee makes to traditional Korean foods. It was then that I had my “a-ha!” moment – this was a playwright after my own heart.
For our first official dramaturgy meeting with director Marissa, my co-dramaturg Mina found a terrific Korean barbecue restaurant. Sitting at a table covered in tiny banchan plates and stacked high with library books, we started to pull together the initial research plans for the play. Fueled by the heat of spicy red peppers, I may have wildly requested the responsibility of researching Korean cuisine.
Of course, an inquiry into Korean food traditions turned up fascinating information about certain values: often, blends of spices are used in cooking not only for purposes of deliciousness, but for medicinal and holistic reasons. The composition of a plate is important in Korean cooking, and a “correct” dish will have ingredients in a careful arrangement of red, green, yellow, white and black colors.
What was most engaging about the research, however, was an article I found in an anthology of writing about Asian-American experiences. Entitled, “Food and Ethnic Identity,” the article talked about “indispensable foods,” “emblem foods,” and “insider foods.” Food items that are “indispensable” are the ones that make a meal feel complete – staples like rice, or tortillas or bread. “Emblem” foods are the ones that seem to represent a culture’s dining habits to the outside world (kimchi is a pretty good example). “Insider” foods are things that are typically only palatable to members of a certain cultural group, i.e., Scandinavian fermented fish, or Southeast Asian durian fruit.
Reading about these different food categorizations made me think about the way that Young Jean Lee uses edible examples to make some points in this play. References to mudfish, pig ears, mung beans – – all these things either include, or exclude members of the audience in a simple, primal way. Are you hungry for these things; do these references whet your appetite, or gross you out?
We are what we eat, and though we may live (especially in northern California!) in a gourmet culture of infinite cooking shows, food blogs and food “porn,” consuming distinct cultural foods is often a charged experience. So it can be a polarizing, or reflective thing to think about your own eating habits, and what cultural light they cast you in. Young Jean Lee articulates this point in several moments of the play, and it’s made me think about the foods of my own childhood and home. And also, after spending time with this play, I will never, ever think of stuffed tofu the same way again . . . but you’ll have to come see the show for the “insider” understanding of that one. . .
–Rachel Viola, dramaturg for Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven