Long Reads

How This Korean-American Ice Cream Maker Churned Memory Into a Career

Plus, her recipe for toasted rice ice cream.

March  7, 2019
Photo by Noona's Ice Cream

March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate the achievements of women across the country, we’re highlighting their stories all month long with profiles, recipes, and more.


When Hannah Bae was a young girl, she’d wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of feet shuffling and cabinets opening in the kitchen. Midnight raiders (her brothers). As long as there was gonggi bap, leftover white rice at the bottom of the cooker, the hungry boys would find a way to prepare themselves a late-night snack—topped with a fried egg, perhaps, or wrapped in gim (roasted seaweed snack), or just on its own, alongside some kimchi hanging out in the fridge. Hannah loved rice’s versatility, its chameleon-like ability to absorb and bring out other flavors.

But rice isn’t just a blank canvas for other foods. It can produce a deep, distinctive flavor of its own, especially when overcooked. Nurungji, or scorched rice, is the crunchy, caramelized layer at the bottom of a pot, not unlike the socarrat of a paella or the tahdig of Persian rice. Once a sweet, golden byproduct of open-flame, stone-pot cooking, nurungji these days has to be intentionally prepared, as modern electric cookers turn off on their own before the rice can burn.

“Nurungji is a big memory from my childhood,” Hannah said. “My mom would keep stacks of it stored in ziplock bags on our kitchen counter.” Sometimes Hannah would chew on the “rice jerky” as an after-school snack. Other times, when she was sick, she’d have it in a bowl, softened with hot water into a toasty porridge.

Baby Hannah with her halmoni. Photo by Hannah Bae

Years later, Hannah would start experimenting with nurungji in her own kitchen, even adding it to ice cream. Once she tried roasting leftover rice in a frying pan, knowing that the application of stovetop heat would amplify the toasted flavor she was looking for. It was a Proustian moment when she tasted the scorched rice—immediately, it transported her back to her childhood in Woodhaven, Queens.


Hannah’s father worked for the city, and her mother worked as well. They were among the few immigrant parents in their circle who could converse in English. This meant that Hannah’s exposure to Korean occurred infrequently, say, during heated moments when her parents were “really mad.”

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“I love the phrase "rice jerky." Nurungji was a favorite late-night snack in our house, too. Turning it into an ice cream flavor is genius. Thanks for writing this gorgeous profile, Grace.”
— Eric K.
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“My Korean friends had access to Korean television channels, but we didn’t,” she recalled. “They even had a Korean newspaper delivered to their front door.”

As a child, Hannah looked for ways to draw closer to her parents, their culture and their past, and to know them as people. But she struggled to understand why it was so difficult for them to share stories of their time in Korea.

Where food could have been a natural way to share their culture, Hannah’s parents found it difficult to cook after long days at work. “I have a vivid memory of them barely mustering enough energy to throw a meal together, but at the same time never wanting to go out either,” she said. The result was Korean “fast food” that required little effort, like instant ramen or leftover rice with chunks of canned Spam, eggs, and ketchup squirted on top. Both her parents, especially her mother, were phenomenal cooks with the skill to prepare intricate dishes. But over the years, exhaustion and expedience led to convenience meals like eggy ketchup rice.

One evening, on seeing how tired her father looked in front of the stove, Hannah grabbed the spatula from him and said, “You’re not cooking anymore.”

As she took over dinner duty, Hannah exposed herself to Korean cooking, learning how to prepare classic dishes and use traditional ingredients. She began homebrewing her own ginger tea and then found ways to infuse it into Korean stews made from chicken stock. While she splurged on the usual teenage goods like concert tickets and clothes, she also used the money she saved up to buy ginseng at the local Korean supermarket.

Later, Hannah’s help around the house would be imperative for another reason. “At the time my older brother, Paul, was diagnosed with leukemia, my mother learned that she was pregnant with my younger brother, Jonathan,” she said. “It was an unsettling time for me. I thought I was going to gain a brother but lose another.”


Growing up, Hannah often clashed with her parents. Her mom wanted her to pursue a stable and respectable occupation with benefits, like pharmacy or teaching. But Hannah wanted to be a chemist—she loved the uncertainty of formulating and mixing parts to create new, surprising wholes. Her father also endorsed the safe job route. He had consistently worked at the same government job for over three decades, clocking in at nine in the morning and out at three in the afternoon every day. His goal was to stay with the job until he hit retirement and then to receive his pension to carry him through his retirement years.

“Their perception of happiness was quite different from mine,” Hannah shared, “because, as first-generation immigrant parents, they didn’t experience the same world of opportunities that their kids did. There was so much disconnect and misunderstanding in those early years. When I started my ice cream business, I took a risk my parents would have never been able to take.”

But when Jonathan was born, things changed for Hannah because she became a noona (older sister).

Paul, Jonathan, and Hannah. Photo by Hannah Bae

“My youngest brother is kind of like the alien in the family—and I mean that in the best way,” Hannah laughed. “He was a ray of sunshine, coming at just the right time when we were at our worst. His innocence and joy softened my parents and humanized our relationship. We started to understand each other better.”

When I spoke to Jonathan (who is 22 now) over the phone, he jokingly said, “You know how Asian families are subtle when it comes to expressing emotion? I just remember Hannah telling me, ‘Hey, I named my company Noona’s Ice Cream,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, you’re my noona.’” He laughed for a few seconds and then added, “I was pretty touched.”

Thankfully, Paul is wholly cured now. And as of January 2019, Noona’s Ice Cream offers vegan, plant-based options that use fresh coconut milk for anyone who may seek them for health reasons. “There’s a need for it,” Hannah said. “I want to be the one to provide a vegan ice cream that also celebrates Asian flavors.”

This approach to a more diverse ice cream caught the attention of Dona Abramson, Operations Manager of Kalustyan’s (New York City’s spice mecca, which offers over 10,000 food products from over 80 countries). As many items as they carry, shelf space is limited and competition for it is fierce. All products must pass Abramson’s test.

“I’ve tried to introduce traditional products that have a modern twist so that they feel contemporary and local,” explained Abramson, who’s been in the food industry for over 40 years.

Before we hang up, she offers me a recommendation: “Try the turmeric honeycomb if you haven’t already.”

A selection of Hannah's Asian-inspired ice cream flavors. Photo by Noona's Ice Cream

The turmeric honeycomb flavor was inspired by ppopgi, an old-fashioned Korean street candy that’s often sold out of hand-pulled carts to children after school. Traditionally made from sugar that’s caramelized over an open fire and then bloomed with baking soda, ppopgi is an homage to Hannah's parents’ generation and, in turn, to their food culture back in Korea.

Another Noona’s Ice Cream flavor, cinnamon ginger pear, is a derivative of that beloved cleansing tea, sujeonggwa, which Hannah sweetens naturally with the juice of Asian pears. “It’s sweet as BAE,” she puns, laughing sheepishly at her own joke. (In Korean, beh, a homonym of her last name Bae, means pear.) Hannah thought it was absurd that her surname had turned into a viral slang term. But in many ways, it’s a useful reminder of the people who inspired her to start a business at all—her family, whom she places “Before Anyone Else.”

Hannah’s ice cream gives her a way to bring something new to the table. As she told me, “It’s me stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, I’m Korean-American, and that’s why my ice cream exists. Let me share it with you.’ It lets me connect with my family, lets me express my love for them. I’m not always the best at finding the right words to say, so I like creating these ice cream flavors to do the talking for me.”

Once a sweet, golden byproduct of open-flame, stone-pot cooking, nurungji these days has to be intentionally prepared, as modern electric cookers turn off on their own before the rice can burn.

As for the Proustian nurungji?

“It’s a flavor that sticks with people,” she said. “I created it when I was feeling the most alone I’ve felt in a long time. I wanted to make a flavor that reminded me of my family and what they would love.”

Wanting to “bottle” that sensory experience, Hannah eagerly began testing batches of it in her kitchen, mixing whole trays of scorched rice with milk, churning it into ice cream, and drizzling toasted sesame oil into the mixture.

“When I shared that toasted rice ice cream with my family, it really hit home for them,” she shared, smiling. “It’s probably why it’s so comforting to so many people. Food is emotional, and food made with thought has the power to bring people together.”

If your childhood could be encapsulated into a single ice cream flavor, what would it be? Share in the comments below.
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3 Comments

Irene Y. March 11, 2019
Your ice cream is so good Hannah, and what a sweet and touching story about being a noona.
 
Myah March 8, 2019
Black-cherry chocolate chunk would be the name of the ice cream that encapsulates my childhood. I only have a name for it because of a single incident my siblings and I remember vividly as adults. My dad would attempt to have his own sweets and instead of saying no we can’t have ice cream he would buy types he knew we wouldn’t like. I would in turn eat as much of his ice cream as I could instead of asked no for a type my siblings and I could share. My dad finally started buying us our own ice cream after I ate the last of his Black Cherry Chocolate Chunk ice cream that he had been looking forward to all day. It’s a victory we all remember.

Thanks for this amazing article! I had tears in my eyes when I read about her brother realizing the name of her ice cream is Noonas ice cream, it’s just so sweeeeeeeet🤗
 
Eric K. March 7, 2019
I love the phrase "rice jerky." Nurungji was a favorite late-night snack in our house, too. Turning it into an ice cream flavor is genius.

Thanks for writing this gorgeous profile, Grace.