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Monday, March 11, 2019

Seoul Food

AS A CHILD, Jinah Kim’s favorite dish was pan-fried yellow croaker. When her mother would prepare it for the family, it reaffirmed their Korean roots. The family had moved from Inchon, South Korea, to Framingham, Massachusetts, when Jinah was three. Other family members had a jewelry store there, which probably kindled Jinah’s entrepreneurial spirit. But there were more moves to come: to Chicago in 1998, where her father could work as a pastor, and then to Troy, NY, in 2001, where he founded a church and also started a jewelry shop nearby.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“I was 12,” Jinah explained, “so I was very sensitive to – everything.” She was speaking at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, on February 21, at a talk titled A Place at the Table. It was part of the college’s Voices lecture series, which seeks to stimulate community awareness and discussion, a mission Kim fulfills with passionate dedication.

“I wanted to bring some school friends home, she continued, and I was so excited when my friends and I got off the bus in front of my house.” She was hoping the visit would help her achieve the assimilation she sought; instead, she was mortified to discover her mother cooking yellow croaker. “The smell of that fish – it’s hard to describe. The stink is unbelievable. It smells like the ocean, and that smell sticks to your clothes. I was so upset, I ended up scolding my mom. It was terrible.”

But there’s a postscript to the story. Before the schoolfriends incident, when eating the fish was a pleasure, she was surprised to see her father heading only the heads of the fish, which she disliked, and giving her the rest. He declared that he preferred the heads – but she eventually discovered that he took the heads only so that she could enjoy the favored part. “I learned about sacrifice through food,” she concluded.

Three years ago, Kim opened Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, a restaurant in downtown Troy that serves Korean fare in a pleasant space on Ferry Street. It’s a casual, welcoming place with a semi-serve-yourself setup. You order at a counter, but your food is then brought to your table. Overseeing the kitchen is Chun Hee (Jinah’s mother), working alongside her friend Sun Hwa. The name of the restaurant combines the names of the two of them.

Sunhee’s Farm & Kitchen is the most visible manifestation of Kim’s mission. “I wanted to provide a safe, supportive place for immigrants and refugees.” She realized that one of the easiest ways to break down cultural barriers is to introduce your culture to another through food. But it was a slightly labyrinthine journey that brought her to this point.

Jinah Kim at HVCC | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Humiliation and embarrassment characterized her earliest months in the United States. “I ended up having an identity crisis about what it means to be Korean-American.” By the time she was in high school, she’d decided that she wanted to start some kind of business. “I used to call about available spaces back then. They weren’t expecting to see a high-school kid.” She studied International Relations at Boston College, and traveled extensively after she graduated, eventually settling in New York City for a while, where she taught beginning English to immigrants. “After about six months that turned into a full-time paid position, and I was also advising people on professional development and doing other career counseling.”

She went on to work for Catholic Charities, helping refugees who needed to flee violence and drug wars, and for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an agency that was established for a similar purpose, by which time she was back in New York’s Capital Region, near her parents – who had by this time moved to a farm they bought in Cambridge (Washington County), NY, a bucolic area that’s been home to a revival of sensible farming.

Jinah knew she had to create a business for herself, but it wasn’t a restaurant she envisioned at first. “I was thinking along the lines of a café or a farm, which then turned into the idea of a gathering place that would start out as a restaurant and evolve into something more. A space where people feel comfortable, and a place that can be a learning environment. And I wanted to create a business that would support the community in as many ways as possible.”

She sees Sunhee’s as a place that is empowering refugees through employment, even as it offers the community a gathering place to share healthy food. “We went from three employees when we opened to over twenty now.” The restaurant’s mission is threefold: Creating a positive food culture, encouraging community engagement, and providing immigrant and refugee empowerment. Which is why the restaurant is also a doorway to cooking workshops, English classes, adult computer education, resume development, among other advocacy and support projects. “As part of our computer classes last year, we were able to match fifty percent of the cost of buying a laptop while financing the remainder. We’re teaching people to speak for themselves. Culturally, in Korea it’s not considered acceptable to speak up for yourself. Even now, it makes my parents nervous.”

Not surprisingly, the restaurant has become a platform for immigration issues, which she tries to make an aspect of community engagement. “That kind of engagement is never limited to any one thing,” Kim explained. “Empowerment is a process of bridging cultures by sharing stories. People are resilient, with unique skills, so we have to recognize that education and employment are both a kind of partnership.” She purchased some additional real estate in Troy last year, “so we now have an Airbnb on a site where we also teach classes. And we’ve opened Kim’s Convenience, an Asian bodega, nearby.” It’s at 88 Third Street, about three blocks away from Sunhee’s.

It seemed only fitting to dine at the restaurant after Kim’s talk, where my wife and I were able to enjoy another of the items Jinah mentioned as a favorite, a dumpling preparation called mandoo. It’s a cousin to the Chinese and Japanese varieties, although they all seem to share a Mongolian origin. A portion of five meat-and vegetable stuffed dumplings is $5, served with the house soy-based dipping sauce.  It’s a transient delicacy, finished in two bites, so it’s good that so much flavor bursts through.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
We also shared an appetizer order of kimbap rolls ($7), which are as handsome as they are tasty. It’s a meatless dish, but you’d never know it from the busy flavors packed into a seaweed wrapper. Spinach and carrot, tofu and egg are rolled with marinated burdock and pickled radish, with purple rice filling out the concoction. Ten slices are served, which could be an entrée if you’re a light eater.

I’m not. I went on an order of spicy pork ($12), attracted to it in part because it has some spiciness to it. It’s one of the items on the Rice Bowls list, so it, too, is served with purple rice, but the pork slices are sautéed with onions and green peppers in a rich (and not overly spicy) red pepper sauce, with roasted sesame seeds to deepen the flavor.

Bulgogi ($14) is a classic preparation of marinated beef slices , while the house chicken ($9) also gets a soy-sesame seasoning. But my wife opted for bibimbap ($12), probably Korea’s most famous dish, which presents a medley of julienned ingredients: carrot, turnip, shiitake mushroom, hard-boiled eggs, and bean sprouts, all poised in individual areas atop a mound of rice. You can get fancier by adding tofu or beef or a sunny-side egg to the top, but the base preparation was more than satisfying. Chopsticks are provided, of course, but, should your appetite outpace your dexterity, there’s also a spoon.

Side-dishes of salads and pickles are available, among which is the house kimchi ($5). The kimchi is homemade, and jars of it are available at the restaurant and convenience store, with other outlets planned as well. I ordered the side-dish, forgetting that the entrées are served with small kimchi sides. But I’m a great fan of the stuff, particularly as made here. It’s a fermented preparation of cabbage and radish, and the flavor can vary wildly; Sunhee’s is very comfortable on the Western palate.

The menu also includes some stews featuring tofu ($10), kimchi and pork belly ($14), soybean paste, squash, tofu, and other veggies ($10), and a Korean New Year’s Soup ($12), where rice cakes and dumplings are featured in a light broth.

“Having the farm is a huge asset to running a place like this,” Kim told us, “but we’re not a hundred percent farm-to-table. While I believe that accessibility to healthy food is important, you have to know where to pick your battles. For instance, the price of local chicken makes it too expensive for our menu, so we have to bring that in from elsewhere.”

“The restaurant business is really tough,” she told the HVCC audience. “It’s taxing. Food is the minimal thing you need, the starting point. You have to build off that in order to diversify your business options. We’re doing wholesale. We’re renting kitchen space in one of our buildings – it’s become a Vietnamese bistro. As the weather gets nicer, we’ll be offering farm visits in Cambridge, with kimchi workshops and Korean barbecue.”

If Jinah seems relentlessly enthusiastic about what she’s doing – and doing successfully – that enthusiasm was born at home. “Since day one, my parents have been unbelievably supportive of me. ‘Follow your dreams,’ they said. ‘You don’t have to make a lot of money.’ Which doesn’t sound at all like what you might expect from Asian parents.”

Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, 95-97 Ferry Street, 518-272-3413,
Lunch and dinner: Mon-Thurs 11 AM-9 PM, Fri-Sat 11 AM-10 PM., 8 March 2019

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