(by Jae Jung)
Every Asian kid says that her mom is a tiger mom, but my mom is a super tiger mom. Not only was she born in the year of the tiger, but her way always has been the highway. And that is the only way.
Mama Kim is a traditional Korean chef, although that was considered a job, not a profession in Korea. She cooked with so much care. You could taste the dedication. Do you believe that? Do the maker’s feelings become an ingredient of the dish? Can you actually taste dedication, or excitement, or longing?
I ate everything she cooked. And Mama Kim would cook, and cook, and cook. She had to. You see, her parents lost all their money in the war, so her hands were forced to work. Like many of her generation, there was little chance for a great education. I was all her hopes and dreams.
"I will never talk back."
"I will listen to my parents."
"I will be a doctor."
Every morning, I had to shake hands with my grandpa and say these vows. For many years.
My mom is crazy. My inspiration, challenge, frustration, and muse, all wrapped up in a five-foot-two package. A very intense person. Everyone calls her Tiger Mom. The tiger in Korean fables is a little bit like the wolf of Western tales. It’s a guardian that will oust evil spirits and bring good fortune, but also a scary and unbeatable figure. Mama Kim never stops working, and after a long day, she comes home and cooks for family, neighbors, and friends. I remember one night when I was about eight years old, she brought all the ingredients for making chili paste to the roof of our building. I went to sleep watching her through my window, stirring that chili sauce, under the stars, stirring for her family, for tradition, for me. I woke up the next morning seeing her still stirring the chili paste. That was not the moment I thought: Oh, I’m gonna be a chef.
Once or twice a week, I used to help out in my mom’s restaurant. I loved it, and I could tell I was good at it. I could also tell that Mama Kim thought I was good at it. But she would not give compliments. Ever. From her, I only heard, “You have to work faster. Neater. This is too sweet. Too salty.” If her friends complimented me, she would say, “Don’t listen to them. What they mean to say is: Be better next time.” She thinks that compliments make people cocky.
When I realized that I wanted to be a chef, I would argue with her (sometimes
annoyingly), asking why I couldn’t pursue my own dreams.
“Because your father and I have sacrificed everything for you.”
“Because we want you to have the best education.”
“Because we didn’t get that chance.”
“Because I had to start working on the farm when I was only seven.”
“Because I had to support my family.”
“Because we lost everything in the war.”
“Because that’s how war works; now shut up and do your homework.”
I did go to college, and then worked as an English translator. That was my mom's wish. I didn't like it. It wasn't anywhere near my passion. Even while my feet were steadfastly on the treadmill of Korean success, my eyes began to wander. Wondering: What’s beyond the rooftop sauce? Eventually, and inevitably, my steps began to follow my eyes, until they both landed on a single dream: cooking in America. Feeding others the way my mother fed me, but in my own way.
I wanted to cook in a new culture, with a new language, learning new flavors, and making my own stories. I wanted to start over. So I decided to be an undercover dreamer, saving money and studying English. I researched the best place to expand my knowledge of cooking. And one day in the mailbox, there was a letter saying, “You are accepted to the Culinary Institute of America.”
My life was about to change, but there was a tiger guarding the gate. I didn’t know how to tell my mom that I wanted to abandon the path she had set for me. I went to her restaurant. She was in a good mood. I didn’t want to ruin her day, so I came back the next day. She wasn’t so happy, so I waited. It took six months to tell her. She was furious. She slapped me. I was so special to her, and she felt betrayed. I walked home crying, and she didn’t talk to me for another six months. And we lived in the same house.
I packed my life into some bags. And a few days before my flight to New York, my mom gave me an envelope.
“Okay, Jae,” she said. “You have no money. I will help you a little bit.”
The envelope contained $200—her bribe to try and make me stay.
I cried the whole time during my 18-hour flight, wondering if I did the right thing, if I would ever make it.
New York was not the “Sex in the City” that I imagined. The first month crawled, then the rest quick flew by. My limited funds were spent. I wanted to stay, to continue on my path, but was it too ambitious to soar above the rooftop?
Mama called me.
“How’s life?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“How you doing with money?”
“Whatever,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, sighing, “you get your way.”
The next day, she sent me twenty grand.
Bam. I’m staying.
My mom and I never hugged. In our entire life. When I’m returning after a visit home, at the airport, it’s always like, “Okay. Bye.” In America, I learned how to hug. I now hug people all the time, but I can’t hug her. She still has stripes like a tiger. I always think: Maybe this time I’ll give her a hug. But how do you hug a tiger?
After I came to New York, Mom and I talked often, and actually our relationship became much better. She started to support me by sending kimchi. And after my first year in the U.S., she came to visit me. I don’t think she understood my life—roommates, commuting, the subway. She doesn’t understand New York. She doesn’t believe in New York. She doesn’t like burgers, but I took her to Shake Shack, and she loved it. She killed it. But then afterwards, she said, “Let’s go home for some rice and kimchi.” So I made it for her.
I'm thankful and proud to be the daughter of a woman who is passionate, hardworking, and strong. I always strive to be a chef like her, to surpass her expectations, and to make her proud.
I was on the Food Network. I put subtitles on the program and sent her the tape.
She plays it at her restaurant.
Jae Jung is a celebrated chef in New York City. She was born and raised in Seoul, Korea, and studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She has cooked at such iconic restaurants as Dooky Chase in New Orleans and Le Bernardin and the Nomad Hotel in New York City, and was sous-chef at Cafe Boulud. She created a dinner theater series called “How do you hug a tiger?” and pop-up events with Dinner Lab in Chicago, Miami, Austin, Boston, Birmingham, and Nashville. She contributed a chapter to the book A Place at The Table featuring the nation’s top foreign-born chefs. She is the chef and owner of KJUN, a Korean-Cajun pop-up in New York City. She can be found on Instagram.
Mama Kim’s Spicy Chicken
3 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 qt. water
2/3 c. soy sauce
3 T. brown sugar
3 T. gochujang (Korean fermented chili paste)
2 small onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 head garlic, peeled and minced
3 – 5 T. gochugaru (Korean chili powder), or to taste
1 - 3 T. salt (or to taste)
1/2 T. ground black pepper
1 bunch scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces
In a heavy-bottomed medium size pot, add potatoes, then chicken.
Add water, soy sauce, brown sugar, and chili paste.
Cover and bring to a boil.
Add onions and minced garlic.
Taste and adjust the heat, adding chili powder.
Cover again and simmer for 10 minutes.
Taste and add salt, black pepper, and scallions.
Cook for 2 more minutes.
Serve with white rice.