Kimchi Fried Rice Credit Davide Luciano for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Gozde Eker.
I had a problem with kimchi fried rice: Its name says garlic and chile and sour, yeasty ferments that will lay waste to your taste buds, but the usual reality is chewy grains and a hum of warmth. It’s like sidling up to a fireplace when you feel like being a smokejumper. But Grace Lee, a music marketer by day and kimchi-maker by night and weekend, set me straight on kimchi fried rice. In her version, the fire and tang of kimchi are mellowed out with butter, and the rice is scented with sesame oil and topped with a soft-fried egg. “It just tastes happy,” she said, and I finally understood the dish. It’s not tame — it’s food designed for comforting, continual spoon-to-mouth consumption. For Koreans who grew up making and eating it, there is no confusion about what it is supposed to be.
“It’s everyday comfort food for us; it’s what you make for your kids when they come home from school,” Lee said. I saw how kimchi fried rice becomes a companion for life, a taste that does not change.
So it was somewhat odd when we got to the subject of the Spam that she diced into it. “I was at a restaurant, and they had a kimchi fried rice with brisket,” she said. “That was delicious. But that is not Spam. If you’re making this at home, you’re using Spam.” It’s been a while since I pulled the tab on a can of Spam myself, though it was easy to see its appeal in Lee’s rice — the salt, fat and bounce it adds to each bite. But Spam, whose name is rumored to be a mash-up of the words “spiced ham,” is a Minnesota native, and not, shall we say, the food of the ancients in Korea.
Kimchi fried rice becomes like a companion for life.
There’s another supposed decoding of its name, and the key to understanding its place in the Korean pantry: Special Army Meat. For decades after the Korean War, American G.I.s stationed in Korea ate from the bounty of the new industrial-food revolution, and a taste for these ingredients spread outside the bases, evolving in Korean hands. Thus you have dishes like budae jjigae, “army stew,” a bubbling pot of Spam, hot dogs, kimchi, tofu and a dozen other things. Thus you have spicy ramyun noodles blanketed by pasteurized process-cheese food. Thus you have Grace Lee, who will not make kimchi fried rice without Spam. (Although she concedes that you can make it without Spam.)
It isn’t hard to find these dishes in Koreatown restaurants, but it’s arguable that the cross-cultural spirit that invented cheese ramyun may not have traveled easily with the restaurateurs who’ve left Korea. Lee was born there but raised in Ohio, Minnesota, California, Georgia and Seoul, and makes it a point to try Korean restaurants wherever she is in the world. From Mexico City to Rome, the food has tasted just as it might in Korea.
This is especially fascinating in Midtown Manhattan, where Koreatown is packed tight with restaurants, bars, groceries, hair salons, book and cosmetics stores but where relatively few Koreans actually live. It’s a commercial hub without a built-in local clientele, and yet even here, the restaurateurs haven’t really gotten into the cooking-for-foreigners game, to reconfiguring their food or style to fit non-Korean customers’ tastes. The neighborhood exists because Koreans will travel there to be surrounded by Korean things. “The Koreans I know are intensely proud and nationalistic,” Lee says. “They never talk about ‘Korea.’ We always say woori nara — ‘our country.’ ”
Davide Luciano for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Gozde Eker.
But as someone whose family has moved back and forth between Korea and the United States, as someone who has felt culture shock on arrival and an even weirder culture shock upon re-entry to the place where she came from, Lee has another theory as to why these restaurants tend to resist outside influence: Their owners strive to realize the memory of where they are from. “So many immigrants have such a traditional view of the place they left, way more than the people who still live there,” she said to me. “They have to hold on so tight to what they remember.”
When Lee moved back to Korea for high school, she and her parents had spent 15 years in America. She wondered who she was supposed to be, living in a place where she finally looked like everyone else but felt like a foreigner. She remembers her parents’ struggling in their own way: The Seoul they returned to was not at all the Seoul they left. The streets were different, the slang was different, the culture was different. After a decade and a half of working to preserve their Koreanness in their home as they moved around the United States, spreading out newspaper on the floor to protect it from toppled piles of cabbage as they wore dishwashing gloves to mix tubs of kimchi, they finally relocated to Korea, only to find that the country had moved on without them.
When Lee lived there, her family didn’t have to make their own kimchi, but she returned to the States years ago. And now she makes it herself, the way her parents did when they moved here. When I visited, her supply was dwindling; it was time to make a new batch. But she popped open a few jars for us to taste, and for our kimchi fried rice. The older, more mature stuff had a depth and harmony aside from the sour, spicy highlights. “Kimchi takes time to meld,” Lee explained. Then she opened another jar, the cabbage still slightly green, swimming in its fire-red marinade. “This is young kimchi,” she said. “All the ingredients are more distinct. You taste garlic, then ginger, then salt. It’s like it’s still trying to find its identity.” She paused. “Sometimes, I really like it that way.”