My mother always said that on my birthday I should be giving her presents for the two days of labor she endured to bring me into this world. Despite her joke-covered truth, my mother always showered me with birthday gifts in the form of food. The smell of 미역국 (miyeok gook, seaweed soup) and freshly made white rice would pull me from my dreams and bring me downstairs, where I would be greeted with a breakfast table covered in my favorite Korean 반찬 (banchan, or side dishes) and fried fish. She would carefully remove the flaky meat from the bones, making sure not even a splinter was left behind, and put it on my rice for me to eat.
My mother would not partake in the miyeok gook herself because she had eaten it for a year straight after I was born. It is customary for Korean women to eat the soup every day while breastfeeding for its nutritional value and healing properties. Although my mother was sick of the taste, she never failed to make me the traditional Korean birthday soup every year. To this day, I always have miyeok gook as my first meal on November 3, even though now I have to prepare it myself. These days, all I ever want on my birthdays are my mother’s homecooked meals.
Like many other cultures, homecooked meals hold a special place in the hearts of Korean and Korean American families. Although many Korean American restaurants have a variety of items on their menus, there are certain foods that you will only find in family kitchens. Dishes such as 콩나물국 (kongnamul guk, bean sprout soup), or 배추된장국 (baechu doenjang guk, fermented soybean cabbage soup) are simple to make and not worth purchasing at restaurants. Instead, they are made at home or places that want to imitate a home environment, such as preschools and work canteens.
The divide between restaurant and homecooked meals is even more apparent in the United States, where Korean American restaurants are limited by what will sell, and their food is often based on Seoul-style cuisines. This is particularly the case in the Washington, D.C., area. The true diversity of Korean regional foods is often hidden away behind the closed doors of Korean American kitchens.
However, there are those bridging the gap between Korean home and restaurant dishes. According to a WAMU article, home-based food businesses (also called “cottage food”) is a $20 billion a year industry. Although cottage foods are often associated with farmers market vendors, immigrants have also been participating in this rising business trend. Their home-based food businesses are often advertised by word of mouth, or they can be found on social media platforms, such as Facebook Marketplace or Instagram. I myself have purchased ethnic meals that I cannot find easily in the D.C. metro area through these vendors, such as the cuisine of Central Vietnam or panucho, a thick fried tortilla topped with meat, lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, and onions from the Yucatan region of Mexico.
For Korean Americans, however, cottage food is a way to enjoy Korean home foods that are difficult to produce. Korean food is the epitome of slow food. It takes time to make, and there are many components to a 밥상 (bapsang), a traditional Korean table. A typical bapsang is comprised of rice, soup, a main banchan (often a protein), other side dishes, and kimchi. Although modern families have reduced the number of banchans present at a meal, preparing a bapsang can still take hours. Cottage foods have become a way for families to enjoy Korean home foods without spending the time it takes to make it. But for the women who make these dishes, it has also become a way to create a community during the pandemic.
Mrs. Kim came to the United States in 2002, when she was thirty years old, with her husband’s family. Before moving, she was educated in piano and taught music to children in Korea. However, she found it difficult to find a job once she moved to the States, because the only work that was available to her were low-income jobs due to language barriers. After working long hours cleaning restaurants and dry cleaning, she was left with health problems and “nowhere to go.”
During a difficult pregnancy, Mrs. Kim started to watch children whose mothers were local teachers and needed daycare during school hours. What made Mrs. Kim unique was not only her ability to teach music, the Korean language, and arts and crafts but her ability to cook Korean meals that catered to young children. She prepared Korean home foods that kids might not otherwise get during the day. These meals were made with the children’s palates in mind, and they were healthier and used less sodium and spice. She also used food to teach them about Korean traditions and cultural heritage, such as making 송편 (songpyeon), or rice cakes stuffed with sweet fillings, during 추석 (Chuseok), Korean Thanksgiving.
However, when the pandemic hit and teachers started working from home, Mrs. Kim found herself once again without a job, and this time, without a way to find one while keeping her family safe.
But word had gotten out about her homestyle cooking, which was not only delicious but child-friendly, and women started asking her to make something for their bapsang as well. Mrs. Kim said that people were saying, “‘it would be nice if we could get some of your food too.’ They were unhappy with the choices that were available to them, but I didn’t have any interest in business.” Despite this, Mrs. Kim helped out a friend by making one hundred 만두 (mandu), Korean dumplings made with meat or tofu, vegetables, and glass noodles.
The friend shared her mandu with friends and family, and they too fell in love with Mrs. Kim’s cooking. They wanted to know if they could buy some as well. “I was already making mandu, so people said I should make banchans too, and so I did,” said Mrs. Kim. What started off with a hundred dumplings turned into side dishes and then into a complete bapsang.
She now sells weekly meal sets that include two types of soups, one main banchan, kimchi, and four side dishes. The items in the meals change every week, and families place orders via Kakaotalk, a Korean messaging app. Although other Korean American cottage food businesses rely on a rotating menu, Mrs. Kim does not want to keep offering the same foods. Instead, she experiments with recipes she finds online, introducing more modern banchans such as bacon-wrapped cabbage. Bacon has become a popular ingredient on Korean home tables in recent years, but it is still new to Mrs. Kim’s Korean American clients whose tastes are rooted in the bapsang of their mothers.
“If I introduce a new and unfamiliar banchan to the menu, the customers will ask about it with curiosity but ultimately not order it because they are inexperienced with the ingredients,” Mrs. Kim explains. Ingredients such as yu choy, a Chinese leafy green, is popular in Korea but not with Korean Americans, she has found. However, Mrs. Kim’s persistent push of new menu items has connected Korean American families to the ever-evolving Korean bapsang.
Mrs. Kim does not see herself as doing anything special. “I just enjoy making food and sharing it with the people around me.” For Mrs. Kim, it is not about the money. She does not make much; in fact, sometimes she ends up owing more than comes in.
Instead, her cooking connects her to the community that she was severed from due to the pandemic. Mrs. Kim was an active member of the Korean American community, volunteering and helping at her church whenever she could. When the lockdowns began, she found herself not only jobless but also disconnected from the people around her. She avoided her extended family and elderly in-laws in fear of getting them sick and stayed at home. Her most difficult moment came when her daughter, who was interning in New Jersey, fell ill, but she could not be there for her. Mrs. Kim dropped off food on her daughter’s doorstep and waited in the car for her to pick it up. Instead of embracing and taking care of her daughter, Mrs. Kim just watched her from afar. “It broke my heart,” she said, a distinct crack in her voice.
However, Mrs. Kim will not let the pandemic get the better of her. I was witness to her resolve to maintain bonds with those around her as I went one day to pick up my own weekly meal set. Every Tuesday evening, cars full of families stop by to get their boxes full of food. The evening I arrived, Mrs. Kim stopped to talk to each parent, chatted about their lives, and gave out special instructions for the 오징어볶음 우동 (ojingeo bokkem udong, squid and udon stir-fry). It turns out that she had given out an abundance of squid and sauce that day, so they could add more vegetable and noodles and make it for several meals.
Mothers handed her envelopes, and although their faces were covered by masks, I could see the gratefulness in their eyes. In one car, children giggled excitedly from the back seat, digging through the box to see what was in store for them. When the traffic died down and I had a moment to speak to Mrs. Kim, she was still trying to catch her breath from lugging heavy boxes of food from her house to each car. “Sorry, it’s hard when pickups arrive,” she said, but I could not miss the smile that had been on her face the entire time.
Continuing the Tradition of Korean Home Cooking
Mrs. Kim’s cottage food not only elevates some of the burden of “what’s for dinner” from busy parents but it also helps to continue the tradition of Korean home cooking that is starting to fade from Korean American households. As the gap between first-generation immigrants and later generations increases, the traditional Korean bapsang is no longer the norm.
Korean cooking groups on Facebook are bombarded with Korean Americans asking how to make home recipes that they remember from their youth, because their mothers never taught them how to prepare it. People are craving a taste of their mothers’ kitchens but are unable to capture her 손맛 (son-mat). Son-mat is “the taste of one’s hands” and refers to how Koreans see their hands as utensils as well. One can taste their mother’s son-mat in her cooking, and it is a unique flavor that differentiates each home’s style.
I can taste Mrs. Kim’s son-mat as I sample one of her weekly menus. Her flavors are clean, like Seoul-style cooking, but with a punch of flavor indicative of the Jeolla-do region. This is because Mrs. Kim’s cooking is influenced by her mother-in-law who is from Naju, a city in the southwest region of Korea in the Jeollanam-do province. Her food reminds me of my own mother’s, who was also born and raised in Seoul but whose cooking was highly influenced by my father’s Northern Jeolla-do side.
Now that my parents live in Jeonju, it has been years since I have had my mother’s unique regional flavors, ones that you cannot find in restaurants around the D.C. area. But as I sit down to Mrs. Kim’s bapsang on my birthday and take a bite of the spicy squid noodles or savor the crunchy texture of the sweet soy-sauced slivers of burdock root, I am transported back into my mother’s kitchen. I guess birthday wishes sometimes do come true.
Grace Dahye Kwon is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a recent master's graduate from the University of Maryland, and her interests are in Asian American literature, culture, and foodways.