For Korean adoptee chefs, food as an identity is complicated

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LOS ANGELES — Katianna Hong is making her grandmother’s matzo ball soup for the second time. She first adapted it for a staff dinner when she was chef de cuisine the charter oak in Napa Valley.

But here at yangban societyAt the Los Angeles restaurant she opened with her husband, John Hong, in January, she makes even more ambitious changes to the recipe, reinventing Korean diaspora cuisine in the process.

Instead of the carrot, celery and onion mirepoix her grandmother craved, Ms. Hong opts for what she calls “Korean mirepoix” — potatoes and hobak, a sweet Korean squash — that’s slow-cooked in chicken fat until it’s tender is translucent. She drizzles a spoonful of the mixture around a giant ball of matzo surrounded by puffy sujebi, the hand-torn Korean noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth as creamy and cloudy as the ox bone soup seolleongtang.

This is not fusion food that takes flavors and techniques from different cuisines and lumps them together without context. It’s food that runs deep and embodies 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 make is authentic to us,” said Ms. Hong, 39, while preparing the matzo dough. “We ate sujebi, and it reminded us of the homeliness of matzo ball soup.”

As Korean food continues to influence American cuisine, with Korean fried chicken and bibimbap appearing on all types of menus, a variation on this interplay is unfolding in the kitchens of chefs with backgrounds like Mrs. Hong – Korean adoptees who came to the United States in the 1970s and 80s. These chefs are coming to terms with a legacy they didn’t grow up with. And they enthusiastically express it through the very public and sometimes precarious act of cooking for others.

They find fulfillment in the process — 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 Adopts and the Politics of Belonging.

The aftermath of the Korean War left some children, many of foreign fathers, abandoned because of poverty and racial prejudice, she said. “In the decades that followed, in the absence of South Korea’s social welfare system for poor families, children born into poverty were quickly taken to foreign adoption agencies, which viewed South Korea as the 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 these agencies. Today, Korean adoptees remain the country’s largest group of transracial adoptees.

Food is a complex part of the adoption experience for many foreign-born people because cultural identity and cooking are closely linked, 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 even a Korean adoptee.

“The most common example I hear and experience is asking if I like kimchi,” said Dr. Park Nelson. “I do, but not all adopters are crazy about kimchi.”

“There’s almost a nationalistic connection between kimchi and Korea,” she added. “It’s like a test question: are you actually 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 variety of ways. For Mrs. Hong, it’s Korean-American. Others call their food Korean or Korean-inspired. Some use the terms Korean, “vaguely Asian,” or “somewhat Korean.”

at little cooka Korean-inspired pop-up restaurant in St. Louis, Melanie Hye Jin Meyer channels her dining experience, Midwestern upbringing, and Korean identity into dishes like Spam musubi burritos and Carbonara infused with kimchi. But at first she feared that her distance from her Korean roots would jeopardize the credibility of her food. (She’s since reconnected with her birth family in Seoul.) She’s even taken on a backup job in case her business fails.

Many adoptees learn about Korean foodways through libraries, friends, and social media. Ms Meyer watched YouTube videos and went down Internet rabbit holes. One day, her quest led her to making tteokbokki, the tender, bouncy rice cakes that are often bought ready-made from the freezer, from scratch.

“The first time I did it, I completely screwed it up and ended up throwing it all away,” Ms. Meyer said. “I broke down. 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 separation they experienced. Cooking can increase these feelings.

Alyse Whitney, a food editor and creator of an online recipe board called the Adopted Potluck Clubwrote about it their own fleeting experiences with Korean cuisine while growing up. This lack of early exposure to the kitchen can pose even more challenges for adoptees who cook professionally.

“Unless chefs were raised by Koreans and don’t have this intrinsic knowledge of Korean food, it can be really scary to embrace Korean flavor profiles,” she said.

Even so, adoptive chefs, many of whom didn’t start cooking Korean dishes until later in their restaurant careers, prepare delicious, carefully researched dishes that are as intricate and varied as they are.

When chef Matt Blesse decided to return to South Korea, he set out to explore Korean cuisine and got started Actually gooda pop-up restaurant in Seoul that combines rice-based cheongju with experimental Korean dishes like pork shoulder, which is salted, roasted and served in cheongju trub Ssam style.

In the “vaguely Asian” restaurant porcelain In New York City, chef Kate Telfeyan marinates chicken halves in her kimchi brine, then frys them until the ruddy skin blisters and cracks.

At the Yangban Society, Ms. Hong combined jajangmyeon Gravy with the classic Bolognese she picked up while working at an Italian restaurant, and serves the black bean ragù over rice. And at Graze in Madison, Wisconsin, chef Tory Miller brushes Gochujang BBQ Sauce over grilled pork tenderloin and spare ribs, a condiment he dreamed up last summer while running a pop-up called Miller Family Meat & Three.

Mr. Miller said he was finally comfortable with his identity when he opened his pop-up and it appeared in the menu. “I felt free to say, this is it and this is the food I want to make,” he said.

But it may take time to get to this point. Self-doubt – the impostor syndrome – can lead to fears of cultural appropriation. Many adopted chefs say they feel like outsiders looking in and wondering not only if they have permission to cook their heritage’s cuisine, but if what they’re doing could spoil them.

“Korean food takes so much pride in how it’s prepared as it speaks of the culture and way of life,” said Ms. Telfeyan, who grew up in a small, mostly white Rhode Island town. “When I make kimchi at the restaurant, I put it in Cambros instead of traditional clay pots. I worry about how authentic my Korean food is since I didn’t eat or cook with my parents or the community I lived in.”

Not only do these chefs have to manage their own complicated relationships with Korean food, but they also have to consider customer perceptions. With the cuisine’s growing presence in the United States comes high expectations among non-Korean and Korean diners, who can hold cooking to strict definitions of authenticity.

“In a way, Korean food becomes a sign of what you are not,” said Mr. Blesse.

Mr. Serpico recalls a memorable complaint from a Korean woman in the summer of 2020 while he was cooking at the Philadelphia takeout and delivery pop-up Pete’s Place, a collaboration with white restaurateur Stephen Starr. The pop-up advertised his food as “kind of Korean.”

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

“She said, ‘He’s adopted. He’s not really Korean,’” said Mr. Serpico. “She was trying to have a Korean off. That’s what I’ve been dealing with my whole life.”

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

Mr. Miller, who had already tried to label Sujeo as “Pan-Asian” — despite the fact that about half the menu was Korean — was devastated.

The pressure leaves Dr. Park Nelson ask, “Why would a Korean adoptive chef want to cook Korean food?”

For these chefs, cooking is the ultimate declaration of Koreanness—and an act that takes the kitchen to exciting places.

“The signs of being Korean are so small, but the Korean diaspora is so big,” Mr. Blesse said. “There has to be space for things to open up, for Korean food to expand.”

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