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.
With the year winding down, Audrey Magazine has narrowed down some greats of 2010.
Aarti Sequeira: The Next Food Network Star [Season 6]
We already told you that Aarti Sequeira won season 6 of The Next Food Network Star. She already has her own cooking show of The Food Network and is doing very well. She struggled a little in the beginning with her confidence, stating in an interview with us that she “didn’t think [she] had the culinary chops to compete with these people and challenges that were requiring you to cook in 15 minutes or something.” However, the judges really liked her for her unique take in which she incorporated her knowledge of Indian cuisine into classic American dishes. We will always remember her as a bubbly star who is very passionate in cooking.
Alex Wong: So You Think You Can Dance [Season 7]
Alex Wong may be one of the best dancers to have graced the SYTYCD stage. His exit due to an injury to his Achilles tendon was definitely one of the saddest moments on the show. This classically trained ballet dancer was a potential front-runner who many predicted would’ve won the show if it wasn’t for his misfortune. He gave America a strong first impression with a heartfelt contemporary piece to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” danced with Allison Holker and choreographed by Travis Wall. His best moment though, has to be his hip-hop routine with Twitch to “Outta Your Mind” by Lil Jon and LMFAO, choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon. Best wishes to Alex to full recovery.
Andy South: Project Runway [Season 8]
I love a designer who designs edgy clothes, and Andy South was definitely one of them. His signature looks all have a warrior-women resemblance. I was in disbelief that he managed to just braid and fold ribbons together to create a beautiful little black dress. He made it into the finale this season, but unfortunately, lost himself a bit at the end. Nonetheless, I am proud of his successes and hope he makes it far.
Kevin Wu and Michael Wu: The Amazing Race [Season 17]
Kevin Wu is an established Youtube star, better known as KevJumba. He has over a million subscribers on Youtube for his comedic videos. Michael Wu is his father and they went into the competition knowing their personalities are not the most compatible. Nonetheless, they managed to place 7th on The Amazing Race. Their best placement was third in Leg 2 and Leg 6.
Poreotics: America’s Best Dance Crew [Season 5]
This all-male Asian-American dance crew is best known as the winners of ABDC. Their name is derived from their specialization in popping, choreography and robotics, hence Po-reo-tics. They’ve been safe almost all season long, landing in the bottom two only once the week before the finale. Since the show, they made an appearance on Justin Bieber’s “Somebody to Love” video. They also formed Miniotics after their victory, which is a second sector of their crew that consists of dancers ages 16 and under.
I used to be Martha Stewart.
Or, at least I wanted to be. I wanted to spend my days handmaking paper scrapbooks, growing begonias and wild roses, and “antiquing” — scouring flea markets for my ever-growing collection of handblown green glass bottles.
I know. Sick.
Thankfully, I’m so over that phase of my life. (I couldn’t keep a desk cactus alive to save my life.) And it’s been ages since I last went to a flea market. That is, until the new L.A. Flea Market opened up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles last month.
Despite the fact that it was the hottest weekend to date in an unusually cool summer for us Angelenos, I had to check it out. Had flea markets changed since my last foray years ago? Would this one be different?
There were plenty of celebs and dignitaries at the grand opening. Shoppers hobnobbed with the likes of Zooey Deschanel, Kelly Lynch, Kate Linder and Shenae Grimes. Bloggers and journalists alike snapped photos as they snapped up goods. Local deejay Rick Dees held a Hollywood Yard Sale, 460 vendors hawked their wares ranging from clothing to antiques to gourmet goodies, live music wafted throughout, and a kids’ area (rock climbing, go-carts) kept the young ones busy.
My favorite part of the experience were the food trucks — 20 in all — gathered in one area like some dream-come-true buffet. Mandoline’s to-die-for banh mi or a chili dog? Indian or pizza? I even ran into my old friend Debbie Lee, runner-up of last season’s The Next Food Network Star, at her newest venture, the Ahn-Joo food truck. (Read about it in our upcoming Fall 2010 issue!)
But it wasn’t all just narcissistic self-indulgence. The flea market’s non-profit section hosted the UCLA Blood and Platelet Center, North East Trees Organization, and Dalmatian Firehouse. (More organizations, including the Dodger’s Dream Foundation, are participating in future events.) And Homeboy Industries, which helps at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to become contributing members of society through job placement, training and education, provided logistics and maintenance support. How cool is that.
The next L.A. Flea Market is this coming Sunday, August 29, and it sounds like it’s going to be better than ever. They’ve upped their amenities, including cooling stations, a beer garden, and a “Dodger Experience” where you can try their famous Dodger dog.
You know, I just may have to get into this flea market thing yet again.
When: Sunday, August 29, 2010. Thereafter: October 31, November 21, December 19, January 16 and February 20
Where: Dodger Stadium, 1000 Elysian Park Ave, Los Angeles, Calif.
Tickets: General admission is $5 starting at 9 am and includes free parking; preferred parking is $10; Early Bird tickets allowing 7 am entry are $10; V.I.P. tickets including early bird entry are $15; kids under 12 get in free. You can purchase tickets by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Info: www.thelafleamarket.com, 866.966.9495
In our Must-See Shows: Summer TV post last week, we highlighted contestant Doreen Fang of season 6 of The Next Food Network Star, airing on Sundays at 9 pm on The Food Network.
Well, we forgot to mention Aarti Sequeira, a contestant who is of Indian descent! The 31-year-old Los Angeles native was born in India and raised in Dubai. The CNN producer-turned-host of online cooking show “Aarti Paarti” specializes in Indian flavors incorporated into American classics.
Sequeira says her favorite food destination is Dubai for its diversity of global cuisine, including that of Iran, India and the Philippines. And if she had to make a special dinner, she’d make samosas, tandoori chicken, her mom’s potato salad, mango-dusted roasted cauliflower and coconut sorbet. Mmmm.
Catch Sequeira and the other contestants on The Next Food Network Star, airing Sundays at 9 pm.
Bemoaning the loss of Lost? It’s the same feeling we had after Friends and Seinfeld ended. Well, television execs are not giving up on you so easily. They’ve got a whole slew of shows set to premiere for the summer season, starting tonight. Here, some shows with some AA representation you may wanna watch this week.
Drop Dead Diva, Lifetime
Premieres Sunday, June 6, 9 pm
Former Audrey cover girl Margaret Cho returns as the title character’s sassy assistant Teri in the second season of the Lifetime hit series Drop Dead Diva. Here’s the premise: shallow wannabe model Deb dies in a sudden car accident only to find her soul resurfacing in the body of a brilliant, plus-size and recently deceased attorney, Jane (Brooke D’Orsay). Deb has to come to terms not just with Jane’s curvier frame, but with how to reconcile her beauty-queen ways with her brilliant new mind. D’Orsay does an amazing job conveying Deb-in-Jane, and based on some premiere photos, it looks like Cho is gonna take on a bigger role in the series.
Pretty Little Liars, ABC Family
Premieres Tuesday, June 8, 8 pm
You’ve seen the billboards. Four hot young girls, covered in dirt. Eye catching, to say the least. But what really stood out to me is the girl on the far right, actress Shay Mitchell.
Mitchell plays Emily Fields, an athletic girl who is struggling with her sexuality and the loss of her best friend. Emily, along with her now estranged, former BFFs, holds a deep, dark secret within in what appears to be the perfect little town of Rosewood. But they’re not the only ones with secrets apparently, as things start to go very wrong.
Mitchell, whose mother is Filipino and father is Irish-Scottish, is a native of Toronto, Canada. She’s been performing and modeling since the age of 5, appearing in the hit series DeGrassi: The Next Generation and Disney’s Aaron Stone. She is featured in the music video for Sean Paul’s hit song “Hold My Hand” and will appear in the upcoming ABC series Rookie Blue.
But Mitchell is not the token Asian in this series. Janel Parrish also stars in Pretty Little Liars as now popular classmate Mona Vanderwall. Parrish, best known for her role as Jade in the Bratz series, and May in NBC’s Heroes, was born in Oahu, Hawaii, and is Chinese-Caucasian American.
The Next Food Network Star, The Food Network
Premieres Sunday, June 6, 9 pm
Another season of cooking hopefuls looking to land their own show. Last season, Korean American Debbie Lee made it to the top three. This season, Chinese American Doreen Fang is gonna try to make it with her California cuisine with Asian influences.
The 38-year-old from Los Angeles co-owns a catering company and teaches cooking classes for adults and children. Raised in a predominantly Chinese community, Fang says she finds culinary inspiration in her family and friends, and wants to encourage home cooks of all levels to explore new cuisines, and stretch their imagination in recreating dishes inspired by a childhood memory or favorite haunts.
True Beauty, ABC
Mondays, 10 pm
Last (and unfortunately, probably least), we have yet another season of the reality show competition where contestants think they’re being judged on their good looks, but they’re actually being judged on their “inner beauty.” (They haven’t figured it out yet??)
Filipina-Italian American Vanessa Minnillo returns to host, and this time, they’ve got an Asian American contestant, Amy, who was adopted from Korea as an infant. The bio on Amy on ABC’s website describes her as “ditzy” and she says she “doesn’t identify with Asian culture.” Hm. I say, watch at your own peril.