there’s a scene i think about constantly.
it’s from the korean drama, my name is kim sam-soon, which was a huge hit when it aired in 2005, and i’d provide a summary were it relevant. the scene i think about, though, requires no context: the secondary character, played by jeong ryeo-won, returns to seoul after years abroad where she was being treated for stomach cancer. in this scene, she’s taken her doctor (and love interest), played by daniel henney, to eat 산낙지 (ssan-nak-ji) and 낙지볶음 (nak-ji bo-kkeum).
she’s excited to eat the foods she’s been craving while away; he’s worried because he’s new to this kind of food and because he’s a doctor—he’s concerned this will upset her stomach.
she laughs, though, tells him not to worry, and i forget how the conversation pivots (as well as the exact dialogue), but she’s still smiling as she starts to eat and says, “see, the thing is, i think i used to shine, but, somewhere along the way, with all the treatment, i think i lost all that. but i used to shine.”
he tells her in all seriousness, “you still shine,” but she shakes it off, tries to shake off the mood, and points at the food, saying they should eat, but it’s still there in her eyes, the sadness and disappointment and longing.
i think about this scene almost every day.
over the course of summer 2019, i go to kawi seven times.
kawi is the momofuku group’s newest restaurant, situated on the fifth floor of hudson yards and helmed by a female korean american chef. the first time i go to kawi, it’s for lunch, three months after they’ve opened. i’ll go back later that same day for dinner because i’ve spent the week examining the menu, trying to decide when to go and what to eat, the problem being that there are items i want to eat on both menus.
at lunch, i go for the rice cake with chili jam, a beautiful take on 떡볶이 (ddeokbokki). the rice is imported from korea and milled in flushing—on one of my later visits, a server tells me that they’re family-owned, that the chef wanted to bring them some business—and they extrude the ddeok in the kitchen themselves. i’m not the biggest fan of 떡 (ddeok) (i’m a “bad” korean that way), but i’m a sucker for ddeok freshly made in house.
i’m a sucker for a lot of things made in-house.
typically, this kind of ddeok is called 가래떡 (ga-rae-ddeok), and it’s typically cut into long strips. at kawi, they coil and smother it with a chili sauce then smother that with a furikake that pops in your mouth. there are paper thin slices of benton ham. the whole thing comes with giant tweezers and a pair of scissors (aka kawi) for you to cut and eat.
it’s a lot of ddeok for one person, especially a person who is not the biggest fan of ddeok to begin with, but it is delicious. it’s good ddeok with that proper balance of softness and chew, and the sauce is flavorful with a light sweetness but not very much heat. it’s the kind of sauce i want to spoon over a bowl of hot rice and eat with a fried egg, which is more or less the greatest compliment i can pay any kind of sauce, to want to spoon it over rice and eat with an egg.
ddeok is not a meal, though, so i also order the mackerel set. i’ve only recently started learning the names of korean foods in english, and mackerel is one of the few fish i know (it’s 고등어 in korean). it’s also one of my favorite fish; when my mum makes it in LA, she buys it fresh, gives it a generous dusting of salt, and cooks it on a hot pan outside in the yard. we eat it hot, as soon as she brings it inside, and i love it with rice (obviously) and ripened kimchi.
the mackerel set from kawi is fascinating to me (still, weeks later) because the smell has been somehow entirely eradicated from the mackerel. it’s not that the dish lacks flavor—the mackerel is meaty, soft, oily, just the way mackerel should be, and it has a nice hit of salt. the oily smell that’s so unique to mackerel, though, so pungent and so overpowering that my parents do not cook mackerel indoors but outside in their backyard—the smell that might offend and put people off is gone.
this is one of the things that will continue to fascinate me about the chef’s food—how her food retains all the soul of traditional korean food while being its own thing, while removing some of the elements of korean food that might put people off. like strong smells.
i never know how i should approach korean words anywhere, whether it’s here, on instagram, in a piece i’m writing to pitch. when i’m in the mood, i provide all the information—the 한글 (hangul), romanization, and translation—but, most days, i just want to provide one thing, sometimes the hangul, sometimes the romanization, and leave it for readers to figure out.
today, i suppose, you’re getting the hangul and the romanization, and that’s it, though i have zero consistency in hyphenating. i’m still figuring that out.
dinner is all about 회덮밥 (hwe-duhp-bahp).
i love hwe-duhp-bahp, even if hwe-duhp-bahp in most places is a giant mound of shredded lettuce over rice, the leftover ends of sashimi tossed haphazardly over the mix. at kawi, it’s a beautiful bowl of generous cuts of 회 (hwe) arranged over rice mixed with perilla and other things scooped over finely shredded cabbage. it comes with a side of 초고추장 (chogochujang) and toasted 김 (geem),
typically, you mix the chogochujang into the rice/fish/lettuce combo, but, at kawi, i start by simply dipping the hwe directly into the chogochujang, wrapping the rice in the toasted seaweed, and, basically, eating the whole thing piecemeal. i like that the seaweed has been cut unevenly, some of the pieces large and unwieldy, others the perfect size. when i’m halfway through the hwe, i mix my remaining chogochujang into the bowl, and i always wonder, whenever there is rice to be mixed, which is the right way to do so? with a spoon or with chopsticks?
it is rare for me to find a space where i feel comfortable; i always feel either like i am too much or not enough wherever i am—like, if i am in a room of korean koreans, i am too american, not korean enough. in a room of korean americans, i am too korean, not american enough.
and then there is also the layer where i often feel like too much, like i feel too much, want too much, whatever too much. i don’t exist in the middle but on the extremes, and i am too loud, too irreverent, too effusive. i am too obsessive.
earlier today, i stop by the strand to look for YA books—or, at least, i go into the strand intending to go upstairs and look for YA books. instead, i make a beeline for the cookbooks, though i have nothing in mind, and find myself in the “asian cooking” section. i start flipping through an, then the mission chinese food cookbook, then hawker fare, and, as i stand there telling myself i can’t really afford to buy books right now, it kind of hits me.
there is an extreme intensity to the food industry. chefs and cooks are known to work brutal hours for shitty pay. they work through holidays, miss family celebrations and milestones, don’t get nearly enough sleep. cooking itself is intense physical labor, and cooks are on their feet all day, exposed to extreme temperatures, can be susceptible to injury. there’s a tendency to romanticize all of this, to package it as some kind of dedication to craft, as passion, and i suppose, yes, it is passion because passion is obsession. passion exists on the extreme, and, sometimes, the singular drive that pushes some of these chefs to the top best exemplifies the obsession and, honestly, the sacrificial ugliness that passion is.
and the thing is, i feel most comfortable in that extreme. it is only when i think about that world that i feel at ease, like i’ve maybe found the place where my “too much” is just fine.
and yet, i also feel entirely invisible because i’m still only ever looking in—i don’t have access to the space that makes me feel okay as who i am.
i haven’t talked about the kimchi at kawi, have i? i wish they sold their kimchi by the jar. when i’m in new york, i crave good kimchi all the time because it is impossible to find, and the kimchi at kawi is, one, delicious and, two, perfect ripened.
the third time i go to kawi, it’s not exactly planned—a good friend is in town, and we decide to go for dinner because it’s been a month since i’ve last gone, and i miss it. i haven’t been so excited by one person’s cooking in … ever, i don’t think, and i want to keep coming back because i want to keep eating the chef’s food. i want to keep tasting what she serves next.
we split the fried cod with yuzu and the oxtail and brisket 찜 (jjim). the fried cod is hot and crispy without being heavy or oily, and the oxtail and brisket jjim has a really great heat to it. the spiciness is not overpowering (not for me, at least), and the oxtail is so tender, falling off the bone, the brisket soft and meaty. it’s a lot of food for the two of us, which isn’t helped by the fact that i arrived at hudson yards forty minutes early, was starving, and decided to eat a spicy chicken sandwich and waffle fries at fuku. i forget—or choose not to believe—that i can’t necessarily eat like i used to when i was younger.
we still get the blueberry 빙수 (bingsu), though. over the summer, i’ll eat the blueberry bingsu four times.
at one point, the chef makes a round of the floor, and i look up just as she approaches, make eye contact. i think i smile. my stomach goes flipping all over the place as my brain seems to short-circuit. all i want to say is, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, hi.
this post (and the one that will follow) was supposed to be about something different. i originally started drafting it for national suicide prevention week, but i admit i’ve recently become very cagey about talking openly about mental health, especially given the potential consequences of doing so. if we’re open about our mental health, we could be fired, we could be rejected, we could be written off as liabilities, not as smart, creative humans worth investing in.
that’s partly why i find myself growing more and more angry when i think about how people just don’t know how to talk to or “handle” people who are suicidal. i find myself making lists of things i’d tell people not to do if they have someone who’s suicidal in their lives. like, don’t ever imply that suicidal thinking is something we can just think our way out of. don’t insinuate that we’re not trying to “get better” because we enjoy this pain. don’t treat us like projects, like problems to fix. don’t charge in thinking that you’re going to do this and this and this; meet us where we are; ask us what we need. don’t be offended when you aren’t showered with profuse thanks.
don’t give up on us, and don’t write us off.
i go back to kawi for the fourth time a week later, and that’s not exactly pre-planned either. i’m finally able to schedule a meal with another friend, and we decide to go to kawi because i’ve been talking about it non-stop and she was supposed to go a month before but couldn’t. we talk about everything from law school to plastic surgery to growing up asian american. the server gives us a complimentary flank steak kimbap. i wonder if that means i’ve been coming here too often, if that means the chef maybe knows who i am.
what else, what else: don’t approach us as people to be saved; you won’t save us. don’t tiptoe around us, afraid of saying the “wrong” thing and somehow sending us over the edge—stop centering yourself because this isn’t about you. don’t simply insist that we “get help” because, often, the best we can do is just stay alive, because therapy and medication require time, energy, and money, all of which we may not have at our easy disposal. and, by god, don’t report us to HR, especially if you don’t have a personal relationship with us.
the spicy tuna kimbap may be one of my favorite things on the kawi menu, and the kimbap, in general, maybe best exemplifies why the chef’s cooking is so damn cool. she’s not reinventing korean food; she’s not deconstructing it or trying to do something totally new, not in an obvious way, at least. she’s keeping the structures and forms of korean food intact and playing around with it from the inside—and that’s interesting if that’s something you’re interested in, but, if you’re not, that’s fine, too, because her food is delicious.
if you have someone who is suicidal in your life, just show up. let them know that you see them, that, even if they feel like they’re locked in darkness, you can see them in the light. be there and hope for them and believe in them. love them. meet them where they are, and, if they are in a place where they don’t appear to respond, let them know that’s okay—you’ll be there when they’re ready to reach out. you’ll be there, and you’ll get through this together.
the fourth time i go to kawi, the chef’s executing. every time she calls out a dish, i feel sparks go off in the back of my head. how do you articulate to someone how much her food means to you, how much she does?
what is it like to shine?