What It's Like to Grow Up Without Breakfast Food
As a first generation Korean-American, I breakfasted on banchan and rice instead of cereal and milk
I’m pretty well-adjusted for a woman who didn’t grow up with breakfast. I am a first-generation Korean-American, born to parents who emigrated to New York City in the 1980s. The whole no-breakfast thing stems directly from my parents’ home country of South Korea. Quite simply, breakfast doesn’t exist there.
Or, more accurately, morning-specific foods don’t exist there. In America, certain food items like waffles, bacon, eggs, bagels, yogurt, pancakes, and oatmeal are obviously associated with breakfast. In South Korea, this is not so. I can’t tell if Korea’s lack of a.m. foods is depressing or next-level, but what Koreans eat after a night of slumber is exactly the same foods that they would have eaten the night before: a smattering of banchan (kimchi, spinach, bean sprouts, mushrooms, radishes, etc.), a side of meat, such as marinated beef or a whole roasted fish, perhaps a hot soup, tofu, a bowl of rice, dried seaweed. It might sound like a high-maintenance ordeal, but that’s just what the morning meal is, and it’s served as nonchalantly as a bowl of cereal. I didn’t fully realize how confusing the dinner-for-breakfast maneuver was until a childhood friend who had slept over made a mention of how she usually just prefers eggs for breakfast. (When my friend said she liked her eggs over easy, neither my mom nor I had any idea what that even meant. My mom served them scrambled.)
In my mind, the ritual of breakfast represented a standard of daily American-ness that I wanted obsessively to participate in. Like a lot of kids, I’d been heavily influenced by commercials that featured colorful, saccharine, processed foods passed off as wholesome breakfast. Despite my pleas, my mom rarely bought into them.
I was also transfixed by the more “traditional” affair of pancakes, eggs, sausage, and potatoes, as witnessed in countless Denny’s or IHOP ads. Everyone always looked so happy and satisfied eating breakfast. In TV shows and movies, the harried American mom or dad who took the time to make the family breakfast exemplified hero-status parenting, even if they characteristically floundered in other areas. In my impressionable young mind, breakfast was the one meal that good-hearted American folks engaged in, and I also longed for the charming American breakfast dream. But it was glaringly clear from an early age that my own family was not about that life. While other kids were eating Lucky Charms with milk, I was eating rice in water with soy sauce-marinated Korean cucumber pickles.
No disrespect—I love Korean food. It’s in my DNA, after all. But selfishly, I didn’t want to embrace the Korean morning meal as my version of “breakfast.” What I wanted was to assimilate into the traditional breakfast culture because it seemed like an effortless—not to mention delicious—way my family and I could eat more like Americans. I don’t doubt that my parents occasionally enjoy the flavors of American breakfast (they love bacon as much as most people), but it isn’t their go-to. Perhaps as a byproduct of being U.S.-born, I became infatuated with the idea of the morning-dedicated foods that others ate. Breakfast is the only meal where you can choose between savory or sweet, and you wouldn’t be questioned if you so decide to have, say, a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes with syrup and butter. The American breakfast is a symbolic and eventful moment—it’s when the day full of unknown potential begins.
My own affair with the American breakfast finally began during my late teenage years in New Jersey, where my family moved to from New York. Friends and I would get stoned and spend late-night evenings at any of the surrounding 24-hour diners where I would indulge myself with different plates of greasy and unfussy breakfast-for-dinner items. It was at those diner booths where I would eventually learn the nuances of egg styles and bagel flavors. I would eat lox for the first time and wonder how much longer I would have lived without it. I’d sample folded omelettes with every type of melted cheese oozing from the middle, and request home fries seared at varying degrees of crispiness. Even now, as a woman in her 30s, I often catch myself discovering the wonders of breakfast foods I didn’t get to experience as a child. The comforting thing is that breakfasts don’t change much. They’re as consistent and classic—the meal never gets old.
Looking back, the Korean morning spreads are specific memories that only a child raised by cultural immigrant parents could have. It’s laughable to think that frosted sugary goodies and cute toastables like Pop-Tarts or Eggos were what I once considered exotic, if only because they felt inaccessible. But over the course of a generous decade, my mom has made an effort to meet me in the middle of both our American and Korean breakfast desires. Now when I return to New Jersey for an overnight visit, the morning breakfast consists of the usual fare of banchan, but with a new side dish of soy sauce eggs reserved for me. It’s radically simple—literally scrambled eggs with a dash of soy sauce—and it’s damn good. Luckily, it’s the kind of breakfast item that pairs perfectly with either toast or rice. Sure, it only took me about thirty years to realize, but I’ve finally come to accept my version of the Korean-American breakfast for what it always has been: a mashup of cultures, and a pretty great meal, even with no waffles involved.