For Korean Adopted Chefs, Food Is As Complicated As Identity

LOS ANGELES – Katyana Hong is sparring with her grandmother’s matzo ball soup for the second time. For the first time, she adapted it to staff meals when she was executive chef. charter oki in Napa Valley.

but here Yangban SocietyThe Los Angeles restaurant she opened in January with her husband, John Hong, is making even more ambitious changes to the recipe, and re-imagining the cooking of the Korean diaspora in the process.

Instead of mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions her grandmother called, Mrs. Hong made “Korean mirepoix” – potatoes and hobak, a sweet Korean squash – cooked slowly in chicken fat until translucent. She dribbles a spoonful of the mixture around a hulking matzo ball surrounded by puffed sujibi, hand-torn Korean noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth as creamy and cloudy as ox bone soup. . siolongtang,

It is not fusion food that picks up flavors and techniques from different cuisines and ties them together devoid of context. It is food that is deeply rooted, encapsulating Mrs. Hong’s identity as a Korean woman adopted and raised by a German Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother.

“The food we are making is authentic to us,” said Mrs. Hong, 39, as she prepared the matzo batter. “We were eating Sujibi, and it reminded us of the domesticity of matzo ball soup.”

As Korean food continues to influence American cuisine, Korean fried chicken and bibimbap appear on menus of all kinds, with a variation on that interplay appearing in chef’s kitchens, such as Mrs. Hong – Korean Adoption Joe’s joint. States came to America. 1970s and 80s. These chefs are coming in with a legacy they didn’t grow up with. And they are expressing it enthusiastically through the very public, and at times precarious, act of cooking for others.

In the process, they’re finding satiation—and sometimes attracting criticism from other Korean Americans that their cooking isn’t Korean enough.

An estimated 200,000 Koreans have been adopted globally since 1953, about three-quarters of them adopted by parents in the United States, said Alina, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of ” Jay Kim said.Adopted area: the politics of international Korean adopters and related,,

He said some children were abandoned after the Korean War, many of whom were abandoned because of foreign paternal poverty and racial prejudice. “During the following decades, in the absence of South Korea’s welfare support for poor families, children born into poverty were quickly turned over to foreign adoption agencies, which are the mainstay of South Korean adoptions. seen as the source.”

In the United States, the number of babies available for adoption declined in the 1970s, and American families turned to those agencies. Today, Korean adopters remain the largest group of interracial adopters in the country.

Kim Park Nelson said that food is a complex part of the adoption experience for many foreign-born because of the close link between cultural identity and cooking, One Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at Winona State University,” author ofinvisible asian, Korean American adoption, the Asian American experience, and racial exceptionalism“And a Korean adoptee myself.

“The most common example I’ve heard, and from what I’ve experienced, is being asked if I like kimchi,” said Dr. Park Nelson. “I do, but not all adopters are kimchi crazy.”

“Kimchi and Korea have an almost nationalistic relationship,” she said. “It’s like a test question: Are you really Korean?”

To reflect their American upbringing and Korean heritage, these adopted chefs—most of them now in their 30s and 40s—describe their cooking in a number of ways. As for Mrs. Hong, it’s Korean American. Others call their food Korean style or Korean-inspired. Some Koreans use the terms “vaguely Asian” or “little Korean”.

Feather Tiny ChefA Korean-inspired pop-up restaurant in St. Louis, Melanie Hye Jin Meyer combines her restaurant experience, Midwestern upbringing and Korean identity in dishes such as Spam Musubi Burritos and kimchi-rich carbonara, But at first, she worried that her distance from her Korean roots would question the credibility of her food. (She has since reunited with her birth family in Seoul.) She also offered a backup job in case her business flopped.

Many adopters learn about Korean food through libraries, friends, and social media. Ms Meyer used to watch YouTube videos and go down the internet rabbit hole. One day, her discoveries inspired her to try making tetokbokki, tender, bouncy rice cakes often prepared from the frozen food aisles, bought from scratch.

“The first time I made it, I completely messed it up and ended up raging,” Ms. Meyer said. “I broke down. It was almost like, ‘I’m not good enough to make this,’ or ‘I’m not Korean enough to make this.'”

For a Korean adopter, eating Korean food can be a reminder of the loss, grief, and disconnection they have experienced. Cooking can intensify those feelings.

Ellyse Whitney, a food editor and creator of an online recipe exchange called The. is called Adoption Potluck Clubwritten about his own fleeting experience Growing up with Korean cooking. The lack of early exposure to recipes can create even more challenges for professional cooking adopters.

“When the chefs weren’t raised by Koreans and didn’t have an intrinsic knowledge of Korean food, it can be really intimidating to take on a Korean flavor profile,” she said.

Despite this, adoptive chefs, many of whom began cooking Korean cuisine later in their restaurant careers, are making delicious, thoughtfully researched meals as complex and varied as they are.

When Chef Matt Blaise decided to move back to South Korea, he discovered Korean cooking, and began Really goodA Seoul pop-up restaurant that combines rice-based cheongju with experimental Korean food such as pork shoulder, roasted and served in cheongju lees SSAM-style,

In “vague Asian” restaurants Porcelain In New York City, chef Kate Telfian marinates chicken halves in her kimchi brine, then fries them until the red skin is bubbling and cracked.

At Yangban Society, Mrs. Hong adds jajangmyeon Sauce with classic Bolognese he picked up while working at an Italian restaurant, and serves black-bean-spiked rags over rice. and at touch softly In Madison, Wis., Chef Tori Miller brushes Gochujang Barbecue Sauce Atop grilled pork tenderloin and spare ribs, a condiment he dreamed up last summer, running a pop-up called Miller Family Meat & Three.

Mr Miller said he felt comfortable with his identity by the time he opened his pop-up, and it appeared in the menu. “I felt free to be this, this is what it is and this is the food I want to make,” he said.

But it may take time to reach that point. Feelings of self-doubt – impostor syndrome – can turn into a fear of cultural appropriation. Many adopted cooks say they feel like outsiders are watching, not only are they allowed to cook the dishes of their heritage, but also whether what they’re doing may taint it.

“Korean food takes pride in how it is made, as it speaks to culture and a way of life,” said Ms Telfian, who grew up in a small, predominantly white Rhode Island town- has grown. “When I Make Kimchi at Restaurants, I’m Sticking to It cambros Instead of traditional pottery. I worry about how authentic my Korean food is because I didn’t grow up eating or making it with my parents or the community I lived in. ,

In addition to navigating their own complicated relationship with Korean food, these chefs also have to consider the perceptions of customers. With the growing footprint of cuisine in the United States comes high expectations among non-Korean and Korean diners, who may hold cooking to rigid definitions of authenticity.

“In some ways, Korean food becomes a symbol of what you are not,” Mr. Blaise said.

Mr Serpico recounts a memorable complaint from a Korean woman during the summer of 2020, when she was cooking at the Philadelphia takeout and delivery pop-up Pete’s Place, a collaboration of restaurateur Stephen Starr, who is white. The pop-up advertised their food as “little Korean”.

The woman called the restaurant to say she was skeptical of the overall concept and Mr. Starr’s involvement. The general manager told him that the cook was Korean.

“She was like, ‘She’s adopted. She’s not really Korean,'” Mr. Serpico said. “He tried to turn a Korean. I’ve dealt with it my whole life.”

Mr. Miller remembers listening to a table of Asian customers at his former restaurant Sujio’s in Madison. One guest commented in the group that Mr. Miller was Korean; The other replied, “Well, he’s adopted.”

Mr Miller, who had already taken pains to describe Sujio as “pan-Asian” – even though almost half the menu was Korean – was crushed.

The pressure makes Dr. Park Nelson wonder: “Why would a Korean adopted chef want to cook Korean food?”

For these chefs, cooking is the ultimate revamp of their Koreanness—and an act that pushes cuisine to exciting places.

“The marks of being Korean are very small, but the Korean diaspora is so widespread,” Mr Blaise said. “There has to be room for things to open up for Korean food to expand.”

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: