For adopted Korean chefs, food as identity is complicated

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Katianna Hong is playing with her grandmother’s matzah ball soup for the second time. The first time, she adapted it for a staff meal while she was executive chef at Charter Oak in Napa Valley.

But here at Yangban Society, the Los Angeles restaurant she opened in January with her husband, John Hong, she’s making even more ambitious changes to the recipe and, in the process, reinventing diaspora Korean cuisine.

Instead of the mirepoix of carrots, celery, and onions that her grandmother ordered, Ms. Hong opts for what she calls “Korean mirepoix”: potatoes and hobak, a Korean sweet pumpkin, slow-cooked in chicken fat until translucent. . She drips a spoonful of the mixture around a huge matzah ball surrounded by puffy sujebi, Korean hand-torn noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth as creamy and cloudy as seolleongtang beef bone soup.

This is not fusion food that highlights flavors and techniques from different cuisines and brings them together without context. It is a meal that runs deep and epitomizes Ms. 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 Ms. Hong, 39, as she prepared the matzah dough. “We were eating sujebi, and she reminded us of the homey taste of matzah ball soup.”

As Korean food continues to influence American food, with Korean fried chicken and bibimbap showing up on all sorts of menus, a variation of that interplay is playing out in the kitchens of chefs with backgrounds like Ms. Hong: adopted Koreans who came to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. These chefs are embracing a heritage they didn’t grow up with. And they enthusiastically express it through the very public, and sometimes precarious, act of cooking for others.

In the process, they find fulfillment and sometimes draw criticism from other Korean-Americans that their cuisine isn’t Korean enough.

An estimated 200,000 Koreans have been adopted worldwide since 1953, about three-quarters of them by parents in the United States, said Eleana J. Kim, associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging.

The aftermath of the Korean War left some children, many of foreign parentage, abandoned due to poverty and racial prejudice, he said. “Over the following decades, in the absence of South Korea’s social support for poor families, children born into poverty were quickly transferred to overseas adoption agencies, which viewed South Korea as the main source of children. adoptable”.

In the United States, the number of babies available for adoption decreased in the 1970s, and American families turned to such agencies. Today, Korean adoptees remain the largest transracial adoptee group in the country.

Food is a complex part of the adoption experience for many foreign-born people due to the close connection between cultural identity and cuisine, said Kim Park Nelson, a associate professor of ethnic studies at Winona State University, author of “Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences, and Racial Exceptionalism” and a Korean adoptee herself.

“The most common example I hear, and what I have experienced, is being asked if I like kimchi,” said Dr. Park Nelson. “Yeah, but not all adoptees are crazy about kimchi.”

“There is almost a nationalistic connection between kimchi and Korea,” he added. “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 various ways. For Ms. Hong, it is Korean-American. Others call their food Korean-style or Korean-inspired. Some use the terms Koreanique, “vaguely Asian” or “somewhat Korean”.

At Tiny Chef, a Korean-inspired pop-up restaurant in St. Louis, Melanie Hye Jin Meyer channels her restaurant experience, Midwestern upbringing and Korean identity into dishes like Spam musubi burritos and kimchi-spiked carbonara. But at first, she was worried that her distance from her Korean roots would call into question the credibility of her food. (She has since reconnected with her biological family in Seoul.) She even got a backup job in case her business failed.

Many adoptees learn about Korean food through libraries, friends, and social media. Ms. Meyer watched YouTube videos and went down rabbit holes on the Internet. One day, her searches led her to try making tteokbokki, the soft, plump rice cakes often bought ready-made in frozen food aisles, from scratch.

“The first time I did it, I completely screwed up and ended up throwing it all out in anger,” Ms. Meyer said. “I collapsed. It was almost like, ‘I’m not good enough to do this’ or ‘I’m not Korean enough to do this’.”

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

Alyse Whitney, food editor and creator of an online recipe exchange called Adoptee Potluck Club, has written about her own fleeting experiences with Korean cooking growing up. That lack of early exposure to cooking can create even more challenges for adoptees who cook professionally.

“When chefs weren’t raised by Koreans and don’t have that intrinsic knowledge of Korean food, it can be really scary to take on Korean flavor profiles,” he said.

Despite that, the adopted chefs, many of whom began cooking Korean dishes later in their restaurant careers, are whipping up carefully researched, delicious food as complex and varied as it is.

When chef Matt Blesse decided to return to South Korea, he set out to explore Korean cuisine and founded Almost Good, a pop-up restaurant in Seoul that combines rice-based cheongju with experimental Korean fare like lees-cured pork shoulder. cheongju. , roasted and served ssam style.

At the “vaguely Asian” restaurant Porcelain in New York City, chef Kate Telfeyan marinates chicken halves in her kimchi brine, then deep-fries them until the reddish skin bubbles and cracks.

At Yangban Society, Ms. Hong combines the jajangmyeon sauce with the classic bolognese she learned while working in an Italian restaurant and serves the black bean ragu over rice. And at Graze in Madison, Wisconsin, chef Tory Miller spreads gochujang barbecue sauce over grilled pork tenderloin and ribs, a condiment she dreamed up last summer while running a pop-up store called Miller Family Meat & Three.

Miller said he finally got comfortable with his identity when he opened his popup and it showed up in the menu. “I felt free to say, this is what it is and this is the food I want to make,” he said.

But getting to that point can take time. Feelings of doubt, impostor syndrome, can turn into fears of cultural appropriation. Many adoptive chefs say they feel like outsiders watching, wondering not only if they have permission to cook their heritage cuisine, but also if what they’re doing could contaminate it.

“Korean food takes pride in how it’s made, as it speaks to culture and a way of life,” said Ms. Telfeyan, who grew up in a predominantly white small town in Rhode Island. “When I make kimchi at the restaurant, I put it in Cambros instead of traditional clay pots. I am concerned about how authentic my Korean food is, since I did not grow up eating or preparing it with my parents or the community I lived in.”

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

“Korean food somehow becomes a marker of what you’re not,” Mr. Blesse said.

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

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

“She was like, ‘He’s adopted. He’s not really Korean,’” Serpico said. “She tried to have a Korean-off. I’ve dealt with this my whole life.”

Mr. Miller recalls overhearing a table of Asian patrons at Sujeo, his former restaurant in Madison. One guest commented to the group that Mr. Miller was Korean; another responded, “Well, he’s adopted.”

Miller, who had already gone out of his way to describe Sujeo as “pan-Asian”—even though half the menu was Korean—was overwhelmed.

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

For these chefs, cooking is the ultimate recovery of their Koreanness and an act that takes cooking to exciting places.

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

Leave a Comment