Home Dining & Wine For Korean Adoptee Chefs, Food as Identity Is Complicated

For Korean Adoptee Chefs, Food as Identity Is Complicated

by Jersey Lady

LOS ANGELES—Katiana Hong is toying with her grandmother’s matzo ball soup for the second time. charter oak in Napa Valley.

but here RyobankaiAt the Los Angeles restaurant she opened with her husband, Jong Hong, in January, she’s making even more ambitious changes to her recipes, reimagining cooking for the Korean diaspora in the process.

Instead of the carrot, celery and onion mirepoix her grandmother ordered, Mrs. Hong opted for what she called “Korean mirepoix” – potatoes and hobak, Korean sweet squash – translucent with chicken fat. She cooked puffed sujebi, a giant matzo ball surrounded by hand-torn Korean noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth that was creamy and cloudy like beef bone broth. Drizzle a spoonful of the mixture around. Seolleongtang.

This is not fusion food, which takes flavors and techniques from different cuisines and puts them together out of context. It’s a deeply ingrained food that encapsulates Mrs. Hong’s identity as a Korean woman who was adopted and raised by a German-Jewish father and an Irish-Catholic mother.

“The food we do is real to us,” says Hong, 39, as he prepares the matzo dough. “Eating sujebi reminded me of the homely taste of matzo ball soup.”

Korean cuisine continues to influence the American diet, with Korean fried chicken and bibimbap appearing on menus of all kinds. A variation of that interaction unfolds in the kitchen of a chef with a background like Mrs. Hong. 1970s and 80s. These chefs are trying to come to terms with a heritage they didn’t grow up with. expressed enthusiastically.

In the process, they find fulfillment, and are sometimes criticized by other Korean Americans for not being Korean enough.

Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine,Adoption: The Politics of Korean Adoption and Attribution Across Borders.

In the aftermath of the Korean War, many children of foreign fathers were abandoned because of poverty and racial prejudice, she said. Lacking support, children born in poverty were quickly sent to adoption agencies abroad, who saw South Korea as their main source of adoptable children.”

In the United States, the number of babies available for adoption declined in the 1970s, and American families turned to adoption agencies. Today, South Korean adoptees continue to be the nation’s largest group of cross-racial adoptees.

For many people born in a foreign country, food is a complicated part of the adoption experience, says Kim Park-Nelson, because of the close relationship between cultural identity and food. of Associate Professor of Ethnology at Winona State University,invisible asian: Korean American Adoption, the Asian American Experience and Racial Exceptionalism” and the Korean adoptee himself.

“The most common example I’ve heard, and I’ve experienced, is being asked if they like kimchi,” said Dr. Park Nelson. I am not obsessed with.”

“There’s an almost nationalistic connection between kimchi and South Korea,” she added. “It’s like a test question: Are you really Korean?”

Reflecting their American upbringing and Korean heritage, these adopted chefs (most of whom are now in their 30s and 40s) describe their cuisine in different ways. For Mrs. Hong, she is Korean-American. Others refer to their food as Korean-style or Korean-style.

and little chefMelanie Hye Jin Meyer, a Korean-inspired pop-up restaurant in St. Carbonara with plenty of kimchiInitially, however, she was worried that her distance from her roots in South Korea would call into question the authenticity of her food. ) she had a backup job in case her business failed.

Many recruits learn about Korean food culture through libraries, friends, and social media. Meyer had fallen down the internet rabbit hole after watching her YouTube videos. One day, she decided to try making tteokbokki. Tteokbokki is a tteokbokki that you often buy ready-made from the frozen food aisle.

“The first time I made it, I completely screwed it up and got so angry that I threw it all away,” Meyer said. “I was broken. It was like, ‘I’m not good enough to make this’ or ‘I’m not Korean enough to make this.’

For Korean adoptees, eating Korean food can be a reminder of the loss, grief and disconnection they have experienced.

Alyse Whitney is a food editor, Foster parent potluck clubis writing about her own fleeting experience I grew up with Korean food. The lack of early exposure to cooking can create even more challenges for recruits who cook professionally.

“If the chef wasn’t raised Korean and doesn’t have intrinsic knowledge of Korean food, it’s really scary to take on the Korean taste profile,” she said.

Nonetheless, many of the adopted chefs who started cooking Korean food later in their careers in restaurants create delicious, thoughtfully researched dishes that are as complex and varied as they are.

When Chef Matt Breath decided to return to Korea, he embarked on a quest for Korean cuisine, actually gooda pop-up restaurant in Seoul that combines and roasts rice-based Cheongju with experimental Korean dishes like Cheongju lees-cured pork shoulder. sam style.

At the “Blooming Asian” restaurant porcelain In New York City, chef Kate Telfieyan marinates half a chicken in kimchi brine and deep-fries it until the reddish skin is bubbly and crackling.

In Yangbang Society, Mrs. Hong joins Jajangmyeon The standard bolognese sauce that I got while working at an Italian restaurant, and the black bean ragout on top of the rice.and Rub In Madison, Wisconsin, chef Tory Miller brushes gochujang barbecue sauce Over grilled pork tenderloin and spare ribs, it’s a condiment I came up with last summer while hosting a pop-up called Miller Family Meat & Three.

Miller said he finally got used to his identity by the time he opened the pop-up, and it appeared on the menu. “I felt free. This is it, this is the food I want to make,” he said.

But getting to that point can take time. Feelings of self-doubt (impostor syndrome) can turn into fear of cultural appropriation. Many adoptive chefs are investigating whether outsiders not only have permission to cook their heritage cuisine, but also whether they could tarnish it with what they’re doing. I feel like

“Korean food takes pride in the way it’s prepared because it speaks to the culture and way of life,” said Terfiyan, who grew up in a small town in predominantly white Rhode Island. . “When restaurants make kimchi, they put kimchi in it. Cumbros Instead of a traditional clay pot. Having never grown up eating or cooking Korean food in my parents or the area where I lived, I am concerned about how authentic my Korean food is. “

These chefs must not only navigate a complex relationship with Korean food, but also consider their customers’ perceptions. With the culinary footprint expanding in the United States, there are high expectations among non-Korean and Korean diners who can hold the cuisine to a strict definition of authenticity.

“In some ways, Korean food becomes a marker for what you’re not,” Breath said.

Serpico recalls a memorable complaint from a Korean woman while cooking at Philadelphia take-out and delivery pop-up Pete’s Place in the summer of 2020 with white restaurateur Stephen Starr. . The pop-up advertised the food as “Korean style.”

The woman called the restaurant and said she was skeptical of the whole concept and Mr. Starr’s involvement. The general manager told her that the chef was Korean.

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

Miller remembers overhearing a table of Asian customers at his former restaurant, Sujeo, in Madison. One guest told the group that Mr. Miller was Korean. Another replied, “Well, he got hired.”

Miller, who had already struggled to describe Sujo as “pan-Asian,” was devastated, even though the menu was about half Korean.

In response to this pressure, Dr. Park Nelson believes:

For these chefs, cooking is the ultimate rebirth of Koreanness, an act that pushes cooking to an exciting place.

“The indicator of being Korean is very small, but the Korean diaspora is very wide,” Bress said. “For Korean cuisine to expand, there has to be room for things to open up.”

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