I Didn’t Feel Connected to My Mom Until We Cooked Korean Food Together

The 6,842-mile difference between her kimchi jjigae and mine, and how we finally bridged the gap.

September 26, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

My mom and I have never cooked together. Unlike many sentimental food stories that start with “I learned how to cook at the helm of my mother,” I have absolutely zero memories that involve home cooking with my family. Both of my parents were busy, so my brother and I were often left to fend for ourselves.

It wasn’t that my mom was a lousy cook. Her soups were always a hit, as were the five or so dishes in her weeknight rotation. Like many Korean moms, she mastered her craft to a T.

It’s just that she didn’t technically raise me for a majority of my life. When I was a baby, my neighbor took care of me while my mother worked. And then, in elementary school, I barely saw her because she still worked. Eventually, I immigrated to America alone and lived with different foster families who played major figures in my life, including Princess, the woman who hosted me in Alabama.

So, I have many food memories with other “moms” in my life, but none with my actual mom.

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Top Comment:
“Your stories of finding connections through food and culture, such as this post and the one about Princess's Christmas grilled cheese, resonate so much with me as an Asian American (who also should have spent more time practicing her mother language.) Looking forward to reading more of your writing and wishing you the best success in your career as a chef! ”
— Judy L.

I didn’t realize this until recently, when I became a chef and started cooking Korean food on my own. Even though I’m Korean, I had to teach myself how to cook my country’s cuisine like many others in the world: by watching Maangchi on YouTube. In a way, she was another “mom” for me, at least in the kitchen (and through the Tube).

One night, thanks to the instruction of YouTube chefs like Maangchi, I finally made the perfect kimchi jjigae, or “stew.” Spicy, tangy, and unabashedly savory, the crimson broth was heartily filled with chunks of tofu, scallions, and Spam. Just as I was about to dive in, my mom called me over KakaoTalk (Korea’s version of FaceTime).

“What’s that you’re eating?” she asked, peering into the screen at my kimchi jjigae. “You made kimchi jjigae? How did you do it?”

What seemed like a simple recipe at the time felt suddenly inexplicable. Not that the dish was particularly difficult to make, but because I couldn’t find the Korean words to describe it. I stuttered, and my mind went blank. In that moment I thought to myself, Wait. Is my Korean getting so bad that I can’t even explain recipes to my mom now?

I felt defeated.

Still looking for words to describe the stew, I showed her one of the key ingredients that I used to make the broth taste rich and resonant without the need for a separate kombu stock: flat anchovy fillets in olive oil.

Of course, my mom was like, “I don’t have that. What is that?”

Koreans do have dried anchovies that they use for making anchovy stocks. But the one that I used for my kimchi stew was an Italian product, one that everyone here in the States can find easily—but not so much in Korea.

After many attempts at walking her through my kimchi jjigae recipe, I knew that she would never fully get it. This was the first time my mom was so eager to learn a recipe from me, but it was also the first time I realized how difficult it was for me to translate it for her, cooking through a dish I’ve had thousands of times at her table.

But it’s a work in progress. The more I share pictures of my own cooking with my mom, the more we start talking about it. The more we start connecting.

“I can’t believe you made that!” she once said about another Korean dish I had mastered. “It looks more delicious than mine.”

One day I asked my mom, “How do you make your kimchi jjigae?” She walked me through her process, where she sautés pork with a little bit of sesame oil, followed by chopped kimchi and water, and just lets everything simmer until it tastes “right.” No additional seasonings. Just kimchi, pork, and water. Her only tip was to use lots of onions to deepen the savoriness.

My recipe here is a little bit more involved than hers. I don’t have access to perfect fermented Korean Mom Kimchi (KMK) as she does, so I add a teaspoon of vinegar to mimic those aged flavors, and I sauté onion and bacon in scallion-infused oil, adding lots of fixins like tofu and Spam.

It’s indicative of how I learned to cook Korean food: taking a little bit of everything from all of my moms, even Princess in Alabama.

A few weeks ago, I got a message from my mom on KakaoTalk: “James! I made your kimchi jjigae and it was delicious!”

Spicy, tangy, and unabashedly savory, the crimson broth was heartily filled with chunks of tofu, scallions, and Spam.

I still have some trouble describing the big things to my family. I want to talk about vague ideas like what I want to do with my life, what motivates me, and what inspires me and such, but all I can say when they call is, “Everything’s good.”

Partially, it’s my fault for not actively practicing my Korean after all these years in America. Sometimes, I feel like I’m neither fluent in Korean nor English. This double-nonexistence can be alienating. Which is why I appreciate my phone calls with Mom, where we can talk endlessly about food and cooking and recipes.

As I’m stewing another kimchi jjigae for dinner tonight, I wish my mom were here to taste my Korean food. And yet, even though we’re 6,842 miles away from each other, at least I know she’s only a call away.

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Eating and cooking my feelings one dish at a time


Judy L. December 30, 2019
Hi James, I found you while looking for a broccoli pasta recipe for tonight's dinner, and am loving reading through the rest of your Food52 articles! Your stories of finding connections through food and culture, such as this post and the one about Princess's Christmas grilled cheese, resonate so much with me as an Asian American (who also should have spent more time practicing her mother language.) Looking forward to reading more of your writing and wishing you the best success in your career as a chef!
Author Comment
James P. December 31, 2019
Judy! Thank you so much for your kind words! It's my honor that I get to share my stories with you, and I can't wait to share more. Also, happy new year!
Michelle October 27, 2019
James, I just tried your recipe this evening and WOW, it came out amazing!
Author Comment
James P. October 28, 2019
Hi Michelle! I'm so glad! I gotta say this is my most proud recipe! It's simply foolproof in my opinion!
Michelle September 29, 2019
Gosh James, your recipe is terrific! And I feel so compelled to tell you that you are definitely a good son. I have no doubt your mother would agree with me. Thanks so much for your article and your recipe!
Author Comment
James P. October 4, 2019
Hi Michelle! Thank you so much for your kind words. I was really pleased with the recipe, and I hope you can taste the same Korean comforting flavors from the kimchi stew :)
George R. September 27, 2019
What is Korean soup soy sauce? Sorry if I am betraying my ignorance here...
Author Comment
James P. September 28, 2019
Hi George! It’s a different kind of soy sauce that’s meant to flavor soup. It has a stronger umami flavor than regular soy sauce, and you can probably find it at asian store or even amazon! If you need a substitute, you can use fish sauce instead.
Single L. October 26, 2019
Is it similar to mentsuyu? And what can replace the anchovies? I'm allergic. Thank you.
Author Comment
James P. October 28, 2019
Hi! If you are allergic to anchovies, I would either add more salt or add a bit more fish sauce (the ones that you aren't allergic! I'm not sure whether there are anchovies in the fish sauce, but it should mimic flavors). Hope this helps!
Single L. October 28, 2019
Thank you. Can use fish sauce. So will do.
Jennifer B. September 26, 2019
I just want to say thank you for this article and recipe. Even though my Korean mother only lives a mere 400-ish miles away, we never connected growing up after we moved to the States. I lost my ability to speak Korean once I moved here, making the barrier tougher. The kitchen was her reprieve from 3 rowdy children and no one was to enter the sanctum. However, the foods I've learned to make on my own brings out the same surprise in her when I mention them. Since my first success at mandu, she has started to show me how she makes stock and comfort foods I had growing up when I make the trek home. Food started our reconnection, and we can finally talk about deeper things than just school or work. Thank you again for the delicious looking recipe and beautiful article. I can't wait to try this one out in the kitchen.
Author Comment
James P. September 28, 2019
Jennifer! Thank you so much for sharing that with me. It’s incredible how food brings people together especially the family. It’s even more special with a family! I hope you and your mom get to spend more time in the kitchen, creating delicious memories together. Let me know how you enjoy the recipe!