Korean Americans are rediscovering their ancestral cuisine and cashing in on the newest ethnic food trend.
ISSUE: Fall 2009
DEPT: Living Feature
STORY: Anna M. Park
Connie Choe-Harikul always refused to eat kimchi. When the second-generation Korean American was growing up she wouldn’t touch anything spicy. Even when her family went to the local Korean restaurant, she’d go out of her way to avoid all things piquant, often leaving her with few menu options.
Until she and her mother started an online business selling, of all things, kimchi.
“It’s pretty addictive,” says Choe-Harikul of the spicy fermented cabbage side dish ubiquitous in every Korean meal. “My husband [who is Thai and Caucasian] and I always keep some in the fridge now.”
Today, GrannyChoe.com sells homemade kimchi and delivers it anywhere in the U.S. And Choe-Harikul is one of an increasing number of Korean Americans who are not only reconnecting with their ethnic culture through food, but are carving the way for a Korean cuisine revolution in the already diverse American gastronomic landscape.
It’s a scene all too familiar for many second-generation Korean Americans. Little Jane Kim comes home from school with her best friends, Susie Smith and Jennifer Jones. It’s their first time at her house — she’s a frequent guest at theirs and she knows their routine: a warm hug, casual inquiries about school, cookies and milk, run upstairs to play Barbies. But as Jane walks through the door of her house, it hits her … like a ton of bricks. Except that bricks would have been preferable. Because bricks don’t smell like kimchi. Raw, pungent, garlicky — indescribable, really, at least to an adolescent. She doesn’t even turn around to see the horrified expressions on her soon-to-be ex-best friends. She knows. She just knows.
Exaggeration? Maybe. But Choe-Harikul can empathize. “Our house just smelled like Korean food,” says the 26-year-old, who was born and raised in the suburban city of Moorpark, Calif. Her Korean-born mother, Oghee Choe, grew up in Seoul making kimchi all her life.
“Full on burying it in the ground and everything,” says Choe-Harikul, referring to the traditional practice of burying kimchi in clay pots underground to allow it to ferment. Oghee continued the kimchi-making practice in the U.S., where she’d take over the kitchen with gigantic bowls and glass jars, digging her hands into the spicy concoction. “You could really smell it,” says Choe-Harikul.
“In a class of 450 kids in my high school, I was the only Korean student,” she continues. “Now it’s sort of cool to be more diverse and in touch with your heritage. But it was less cool when I was growing up.”
It’s not that second-generation Korean Americans don’t like the taste of Korean food. The distaste arose more from the embarrassment of the smell and of being “different” when their white friends visited their homes, says Kyeyoung Park, a professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was symbolic — practically an exclamation — of their “different-ness” at a time when all they wanted to do was fit in.
“It was a kind of secret,” says Park. “[Korean Americans] were super aware of how it would be perceived by others.”
Korean American Debbie Lee, a contestant on the latest season of the reality show The Next Food Network Star, says when she first tried Korean food at the age of 8 — after years of eating fried chicken, black eyed peas and other foods typical of the South where she was raised — she immediately took to it.
“Maybe it’s a genetic thing, but I actually liked it,” says Lee, though she admits to rinsing the kimchi in water at first. When she got older, she says she “really found a love for the flavors [and] for what it was.”
Indeed, Korean Americans are increasingly embracing their ancestral cuisine, and not just in the privacy of their own homes. In the past couple of years, Los Angeles has been hit with the blogosphere phenomenon Kogi BBQ truck, a mobile street vendor serving up soft tacos with Korean marinated beef called bulgogi. Founded by Korean Americans Roy Choi and Caroline Shin-Manguera, the taco truck spawned copycats Calbi BBQ and Bool BBQ. Even mega-chain Baja Fresh has added the Korean beef taco to their menu.
And while mom-and-pop Korean restaurants have always been around in the U.S., more “modern” and mainstream-friendly Korean restaurants have been cropping up in hip urban enclaves. Gyenari in Culver City, Calif., is run by second-generation Korean Americans William Shin, Danny Kim and Chris Kim; Simon Shin’s celebrity-frequented Shin BBQ is in Hollywood; and Korean Temple Cuisine in New York is owned by 20-something Jennifer Maeng.
“In general, Korean Americans have been a little bit slow in introducing Korean food [to mainstream America],” says Park, perhaps because they were trying to figure out a way to introduce their native food in a way that makes Americans “feel comfortable.”
But it wasn’t only the “Americans” they wanted to make comfortable. In many ways, Korean Americans, by embracing their food, are making peace with their bicultural, sometimes confused self-identity. “Korean Americans shared the transformative experience of first ‘acting white’ and then later affirming their Korean heritage,” says Park in her 1999 study of immigrant Korean American children published in Amerasia Journal, a leading interdisciplinary journal in Asian American studies. “Becoming a member of the ethnic community often becomes a first step to resolve the question of one’s identity or selfhood.”
Choe-Harikul found growing up the only Korean in a predominantly white neighborhood “confusing.” Lee, an Arizona native, also found it troublesome. “People would tease me and say I was a Mongol and crap like that,” says Lee. “I didn’t even know what a Korean was. You know what a Chinese person was because they owned the restaurant in town, you know Japanese, but what is a Korean? I prayed to have blonde hair and blue eyes every day when I was a little girl.”
It wasn’t until Lee moved to California that she began connecting with her Korean culture. Her grandparents had just immigrated and moved to Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Lee didn’t speak Korean and the neighborhood kids didn’t speak English. So Lee found herself stuck with her non-English speaking grandmother. They connected through the language of food.
“[My grandmother] would give me a smaller bowl of whatever she was cooking and she’d show me,” says Lee. “She’d take my hand and have me feel it and then have me taste it so I understood what I was doing. So that’s how I started understanding.”
But still, says Lee, it wasn’t until she was older that she began appreciating her Korean American heritage.
Through food, Korean Americans may develop an interest in other aspects of their Korean culture, says Park. “Korean food makes connections ethnically and culturally; about who they are and what they are,” she adds.
“Food is the easiest way for me to learn about somebody, including myself,” says Lee. “Understanding their food and flavors, and maybe a story that attaches to a part of their culture, is a great and easy way not only for me but for others to really connect with each other.”
Korean food was Lee’s entrée to making a name for herself in the culinary world. As a restaurant consultant and caterer, she’d sneak in “sesame oil and soy sauce anywhere I could.” In her Hollywood catering business, her Korean ssam, a lettuce cup with bulgogi and Asian style salsa, was her best seller. And though she may not have won her own cooking show on The Food Network, she made it to the top three with her “Soul 2 Seoul” cooking style. The publicity has given her new restaurant, Hot Dog Debbie’s, a boost. True to form, Lee will be taking the all-American dog and mixing it up with sides like kimchi kraut and what she calls Mama Lee’s spicy sauce, which incorporates kkochujang, or chili paste, as a base.
In experimenting with the food of their ancestors, Park says Korean Americans are redefining what America is about — an America that includes them. “When non-Korean Americans show an interest in Korean culture, that makes a young Korean American more comfortable, like [they’re not] something deviant,” she says. “I think that’s a great sign.”
And it explains why more Korean Americans are drawn to their ancestral cuisine, fusing and melding its flavors with those they grew up with. “People who aren’t even Korean know things [about Korean food and culture] now,” says Choe-Harikul, whose customers are mostly non-Koreans from New England and the Midwest. “I have to know these things and I have to keep asking my mom these questions, like what was it like growing up and making kimchi with your family.”
“Korean food has been that hidden food for so long and it’s been right there in front of you,” says Lee, who believes that Korean is the new Chinese. “I won’t be surprised if there’s some Korean P.F. Chang’s concept out there lurking around.”
Indeed, if a P.F. Chang’s of Korean food does sprout, it need only take a suggestion from Choe-Harikul on the best way to introduce the spicy fermented cabbage to Main Street USA. “Macaroni and cheese and kimchi,” says Choe-Harikul. “Even though it sounds scary, it mellows out the spiciness a little.”
As for that one-of-a-kind smell? Choe-Harikul has no secrets to kicking the kimchi odor. “You learn to love the smell,” she says.