New York Times food writer Eric Kim is the son of Korean immigrants, but according to him, he is “really American at heart,” and wants his bestselling cookbook, Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home, to be seen as American as he is. 

“I’ve been really grateful to all the people who treated Korean American as an American cookbook and not just an international category book,” he said.

Published in 2022, Korean American chronicles dishes that represent the Korean American experience. Many of them are dishes that Kim ate growing up, from traditional Korean fare, like jigaes, to those that span Korean and American cultures, like gochujang-buttered radish toast. 

Kim wrote the book during the pandemic with help from his mother, Jean, who is one of its main characters. Alongside recipes, the book includes essays and memories from Kim’s childhood, making it a memoir, too. 

On March 14, Kim will be in Seattle for a conversation with Kenji López-Alt at Town Hall. He met with me for an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. 

Misty Shock Rule: I’m a Korean adoptee, and I’ve associated Korean food with traditional ways of making it as part of my search for identity. I’ve been skeptical of anything “fusion.” But your book changed the way I think about Korean American food. Was that a tension you thought of when writing the book?

Eric Kim: I think a way to represent what the experience was like writing the book is to talk about when I got the book deal and started writing about Korean food for The New York Times. The very first piece was about kimchi. The second one was about banchan. I didn’t realize how much flak I would get. There were a lot of Koreans who came after me for those first few pieces and for the rest of my career. And so, without meaning to, I entered this book writing process with so much fear, to the point where, when my banchan story went up, I gave myself shingles.

But I wrote the book. I finished it. I went through a whole process of shedding the fear. It was a process that I had to go through — that tension with people whom I’ve started to empathize with and really try to understand. I was like, why are people coming after this? I’m just some kid who is writing about Korean food in America and also my very personal experience. I would get a Korean assignment at work, and it would make me really nervous. 

But now I know how to do it. And now I feel very strongly about the opposite reaction, which is: I feel very strongly that Korean is an adjective for American. I became more adamant that we need to make room for more than one type of Korean cuisine. There are way more people who feel seen by a representation of Korean cuisine that isn’t so stodgy. 

MSR: This book is filled with reflections on your experiences and memories cooking with your mom. It’s driven by emotion. 

EK: Personal essay writing is one way into a discussion of a cultural cuisine. It was insurance against a lot of the authenticity kind of questions I was getting in my professional work. It was the safest, most foolproof way to do it. Because when people say, for example, “Oh, your kimchi fried rice has gim in it?” I can say, “Yep, that’s literally what my mom did because she grew up in the south of Korea where there’s a lot of seaweed.”

What’s really interesting now is I’m finding other ways to tell the story of a cultural cuisine without being like, “Oh my mom does this.” Along the way, a lot of people helped me — older Korean writers, my editors, people from other cultures who have to go through this kind of authenticity gatekeeping — a lot of people encouraged me to just let the work speak for itself.

MSR: Gim in kimchi fried rice it’s funny that was the criticism you were getting.

EK: You know, it’s almost easy to make fun of. It’s like, “Oh, you think just because your mother didn’t do this, that it’s not authentic?” But I realized that it really comes from a real and potentially sad place, which is not having your cuisine represented your whole life and then seeing it in a very major publication. That experience is just so human.

Ultimately with this book I want it to make Korean people feel good. I want them to feel seen when they see it. So it was a real juggling act and difficult. I could have felt like that’s not my responsibility. But I still take it very seriously. I still really care about what people think because I want to do it right.

MSR: A lot of people have experienced that lunchbox moment, when their food is made fun of by white peers. Now Korean food is more popular, and you’re part of that.

EK: It’s wild that there was a period in our nation’s history where kids went to school and were made fun of for what they ate at home and so people had to have this dual identity. And it’s so wild to be part of the generation that is getting Korean food and recipes on the page and changing the representation of that food so that future generations don’t have to be made fun of.

I’m glad my debut book was about Korean American food and all of the politics of authenticity, the politics of food, the lunchbox story. I’m glad that this was my debut, because this was the story that I need to get out of the way before I live my adult life and write about my adult food. Because this was about my childhood. 

MSR: There is an essay in your book called, “What is Korean American cooking?” You write about Korean food and equate it to people. You write, “There is more than one way to be Korean. We are infinite.” As an adoptee, that was really meaningful to me.

EK: I wrote that at the very end of developing the whole book, because that was a journey to arrive at that realization. The book became what it was because of going through the process of writing down my mother’s recipes and having all these questions about authenticity and what makes someone Korean. Everyone can feel these feelings.

It’s not the food that makes us Korean. It’s a gateway or an entry point. I learned so much about my family and my family’s history and myself — how I feel about my Koreanness — by writing this book. It’s a beautiful thing. You know, there were moments when I was like, I wish I could have just written a general cooking category book and would have sold a lot of copies. But you know, that’s the beauty of being different. There’s a different journey that you have to go on and it makes you strong.

New York Times staff writer and essayist Eric Kim will appear with J. Kenji López-Alt at Town Hall Seattle on March 14, 2024. Kim is the author of the instant New York Timesbestseller Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home, and he has amassed a devoted following with his NYTCooking videos and Food52 column.

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