Twenty years ago, Korean Kitchen sat just off the main street in the University District. There were a few tables in a tiny space measuring about 500 square feet, and an industrious older Korean woman was in the kitchen, too busy cooking to greet customers. My boyfriend at the time, Ben, and I would make our way to a table along the back wall. He was half Korean, and he knew what to order: tteok mandu guk, a soup traditionally served at New Year’s. The rich dish, which features a savory beef broth, dumplings, sliced rice cakes, egg, and strips of beef, would arrive steaming at our table like a gift. I’ve had it many times since then, but I don’t think it has ever been that good.
Eating at Korean Kitchen gave me my first taste of the culture I came from. Something about that spot, with its austerity, efficiency, and quiet attention to quality, felt like a window into another world — a connection to a part of myself I didn’t know.
I am a Korean-American adoptee who was raised by a white family and grew up in a mostly white community in Port Orchard, Washington. I was completely assimilated into my family, loved no less than my half-sister from my mom’s first marriage, and treated no differently when it came to my race and identity. While I always knew I was adopted from Korea, my culture, environment, peers, and elders were those of my white community. By the time my parents sent me to Korean Culture Camp, a day camp connecting adoptees with their Korean heritage, I was a teenager and I didn’t understand why I had to be there.
I remember eating kimchi at camp. I choked it down, but I wasn’t very interested. Food didn’t bring me closer to my heritage; it symbolized how disconnected I was from it. I never had a mother or grandma who taught me how to make Korean food. The flavors weren’t familiar to me — another reminder that I wasn’t raised in the culture of my birth. Sometimes I feel like I’m living a double life, split between the American identity that I hold so easily and the Korean identity that represents what I have lost.
In her January 2015 New York Times Magazine article, titled “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea,” Maggie Jones reported that a wave of adoptees, part of several generations of 200,000 children adopted internationally over the past six decades, have returned to South Korea. The adoptees she featured shared how they had trouble connecting with their heritage, thought of themselves as white, and felt anxious about how their adoptive families would feel about their search for their Korean roots.
In a 2017 Bon Appétit interview, Top Chef winner and Korean adoptee Kristen Kish talked about how people incorrectly assume she specializes in Asian food because of how she looks. “I don’t know anything about Korean culture. I was raised by a white family in Michigan,” Kish said. She shared how she adds soy sauce or miso to a dish just like any other chef would, but not because she has a specific connection with those ingredients. “I look at it just as a Rolodex of different flavors as opposed to where it came from,” she said.
Like Kish, I didn’t know anything about Korean culture growing up. I didn’t even know how to use chopsticks until Ben taught me. He introduced me to more Korean food, like kalbi, short ribs marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sugar, and japchae, a side dish made up of sweet potato starch noodles, vegetables, and meat. Ben once pointed out a noodle dish topped with a thick black sauce at a Chinese restaurant. A favorite Korean comfort food, it was called jajangmyeon, and it could only be ordered off the second menu written in Korean. Long after our relationship ended, I wondered about that mysterious dish, whose name I could barely pronounce or remember. Would I ever see it again? Or is it only available to Koreans who know how to access the secret menu?
At that time, in the late ’90s, Korean Kitchen was the only Korean restaurant I’d ever seen. There were many Korean Americans running teriyaki joints, but I didn’t realize it. They were north in Shoreline and Edmonds or south in Federal Way and Lakewood. Seattle’s International District has distinct cultural enclaves — a Chinatown, Japantown, Little Saigon, and Filipino Town, but no Koreatown.
Seattle’s Korean food scene developed 10 years ago with Korean fusion establishments like Marination Ma Kai, featuring cuisine inspired by co-owner Kamala Saxton’s upbringing in a Korean-Hawaiian family, and Revel and Joule, run by James Beard award-nominated, Korean-American chef Rachel Yang and her husband, Seif Chirchi. One Korean-American friend told me she enjoys eating at Revel because it feels like an elevated experience, with different food than what she cooks at home. She is looking for a new way to enjoy Korean food, while I hunger for an experience that brings me closer to traditional Korean food culture.
A scene closer to what I seek out has developed in the U District to serve the international students who live there — and I’m still learning about Korean food in the neighborhood where I discovered it 20 years ago. More than a dozen restaurants dot the U District that serve Korean favorites, from soups and rice bowls to barbecue and bingsoo, Korean shaved ice. Soondubu jjigae is a comforting and spicy tofu stew that’s perfect for students looking for a taste of home. Korean Tofu House has been specializing in it for 13 years, and five other Korean diners in a block radius serve it too.
There are three restaurants devoted to Korean fried chicken — the newest location for Bok a Bok and up-and-comers Chi Mac and Chicglet. At Bugis, I tried budae jjigae, also known as army stew. Created in postwar Korea, the dish consists of ingredients that were once surplus food on U.S. army bases — instant ramen, a slice of American cheese, and Spam, among other ingredients. The dish is popular in university neighborhoods in Korea too.
On Korean soap operas, characters meet to gossip while enjoying tteokbokki, rice cakes in a spicy and sweet gochujang-based sauce. At the Block, I found a food counter that specializes in this popular Korean street food. Eating Korean classics like these makes me feel a little bit closer to the experience of being in Korea, bringing comfort to my soul as well as my belly. And the U District’s burgeoning scene has been crucial to this culinary awakening.
A few months ago, I finally tried jajangmyeon at University Kitchen, which serves Korean food alongside Japanese and Chinese dishes. Eating it for the first time felt profound, as if a lifelong mystery had been unlocked. I took a bite and let the flavors settle in. Sauce the color of squid ink, which once appeared foreboding, even unappetizing, revealed itself to be made of simple, savory ingredients: black beans, pork, potatoes, and onions.
As much as I try to learn, being Korean feels like having a part in a play whose lines I can’t quite remember. Food gives me a way to access my heritage on my own terms — between my taste buds and me. Eating and enjoying Korean food reveals flavors, methods, customs, and history from the culture of my birth.
But it’s still fraught. I can’t quite say some of the names of the dishes with confidence. It’s helpful if a friend who grew up eating Korean food can join me to share how the items we order compare with what they know, and to help put them into context.
It’s the fate of the adoptee to continue searching and learning. Sometimes, I’ll stop by H Mart and pick up kimbap, rice rolls with radish, vegetables, and meat, wrapped in seaweed and cut into slices. My 6-year-old daughter, Penny, loves it and calls it “Korean sushi.” This summer, I took her to a day camp for children of adoptees. I’ll never forget the excited look on her face when she learned how to make kimbap, her little hands wrapped carefully around the bamboo mat. Now she wants to make it at home. I struggle with how little I can teach her about my heritage — a heritage that she shares too. But we can learn together.
Misty Shock Rule is a Seattle-based writer who has contributed to UW Magazine and the International Examiner. She also runs a food blog called eatingtheave.com.