(by Jean Kim)
My mother says that when I was a year old, I was handed a red bean bun, which I
grabbed and promptly took a bite right from the middle because I already knew at that
tender age that’s where all the yummy gooey goodness was. That’s what I like to think
anyway. She says that’s how she knew I was going to be a voracious eater for the rest
of my life.
When I was born in Korea, I was an 8.3 lb. baby, and apparently, I was considered a
beautiful, fleshy, prosperous looking baby because the Rubenesque look was trending
in the 1970s. For an Asian baby, I was ginormous. Our neighbors told my mom to enter
me in the fat baby contest where she could win things like a year’s worth of laundry
detergent, a refrigerator, or a plethora of other household goodies. Apparently, it was a
big deal, because this was the days before everyday people owned refrigerators. But
alas, we moved to America before I could be registered for this contest.
My father had gotten a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at Ohio State
University but was allowed to bring only his wife and one child. So my grandma’s plan
was that a visa would be arranged for my older sister who was three years old so she
could go to America. I was supposed to remain in Korea with her, but at the last moment
at the airport, she looked over at my bawling red face and said, “Jean so loud, she cry
too much, take her, I keep quiet one.” That’s how at the age of two, I ended up making
the long journey to Ohio with my mother instead. I didn’t see my sister again until she was
17 years old.
My mother tells me that the first thing she ever ate on American soil was a hot, crispy
McDonald’s French fry at the airport, and it tasted like heaven. She also said that she
couldn’t speak a word of English, and I was kicking and screaming on her back, but she
pointed at the fries, and they were brought to her. They tasted like America, she says.
It’s funny how your tastebuds give away your history. Even though I was only two when
I was ripped away from my homeland, and no matter how long I’ve lived in the United
States, the tastes of kochujang and spicy banchan became embedded in my tongue.
Korean food is my go-to comfort food, what I turn to after a night of cocktails and during
a hangover. My closest friends know that my preferred meal before an execution would
be spicy Korean codfish stew with wild rice and a whole tray of assorted banchan.
My mom has told me these stories so many times that they feel like part of my trove of
childhood memories, but they are actually her memories of me as a child. I don’t doubt
that they happened, but they do create a narrative for my phenomenal eating skills and
my journey to a new land. She says I devoured seven hot dogs in a minute at the age of
five, straight out of the package in the refrigerator. This does partly explain my lifelong
dependence on diets and peculiar cravings for tubular meats. I always wonder if I was
just a gluttonous pig, or did I miss my true calling to be the champion of the famed
annual Coney Island hot dog eating contest in New York City.
When we moved to Ohio, I was one of just a few Asians in my school. Most of my
classmates had never seen Korean food. They didn’t know that my mom made a
winter’s worth of kimchi in a big yellow barrel and buried it in our backyard, bringing in a
week’s worth at a time. Koreans don’t really cook so much as they ferment. I was so
embarrassed by the miso and kimchi jars that my mom left on our windowsill. I’d beg
her to take them down before my study group came over. Why couldn’t she just keep
them buried like all our immigrant secrets?
Jean Kim is a Korean immigrant New Yorker, standup comedian, and political campaign
manager. She can be found on Instagram and YouTube.
Spicy Korean Fisherman’s Soup
2 fillets (about 6 oz. each) cod or whiting
1 T. garlic powder
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt, to taste
1 Korean radish, chopped thinly into 1/2-in. pieces
optional: 1 small zucchini, chopped
optional: 1 small white onion, chopped
2 T. chopped green onion
2 T. crushed Korean red pepper (kochugaru)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T. soy sauce
cooked white rice
Pat fish fillets with paper towel, and sprinkle with garlic powder, lemon juice and salt.
Let sit for 15 minutes.
Fill pot with 1 quart of water and bring to a boil.
If using chopped zucchini and white onion, add to pot and cook for 3 minutes.
Add chopped Korean radish and cook for 2 minutes.
Lower flame to medium, add fish, and cook for 5 minutes.
Add chopped green onion, crushed red pepper, chopped garlic, and soy sauce, and simmer for 10 more minutes.
Serve with hot white rice.