My mother’s kimchi fried rice
Photographs and Illustrations by Erin Kim
I was born near Seoul, South Korea, and came to the United States at six months old. I’m a Korean American adoptee.
Growing up, I never cared about cooking because I was a stubborn tomboy who volunteered to mow the lawn over learning how to make homemade biscuits or fried okra. I grew up eating a lot of pot roast with carrots and potatoes, or spaghetti on toast.
My school lunches were turkey sandwiches with chips and zebra cakes.
Rice came out of an instant, microwavable bag, and sugar was sprinkled on top. Cabbage was mostly sautéed with black pepper and a little salt. Fried rice was something we ate at the one Chinese buffet in the next town over, and I never cared to touch it. I ate my eggs scrambled and never wanted to try anything too foreign.
Being one of the only non-white people in my town, county, and family, I eventually learned that running from difference was not an option.
I was 19 when I first tasted tangy and salty kimchi, crispy toasted seaweed, beautiful fluffy rice made in a cooker, freakin’ Spam, and so many more staples. In college, I roomed with a Korean friend who cooked different dishes, and we blasted K-pop while we enjoyed flavors of the motherland. Everything seemed so shiny and beautiful. It felt right.
Most of my Korean American “assimilation” came from Google or TV. I’d been learning how to speak Korean and cook different Korean dishes, as well as studying cultural understandings, when I did a biological search at age 21.
It had been a dream of mine to learn different family recipes from the woman I shared so much with but had never known.
When I looked in the mirror, I felt like I could be Kim Sang Hee, the name I was given at birth. However, when I learned that my birth mother had passed away 10 years earlier from kidney failure, all of my inspiration to understand my Koreanness died as fast as it was born.
It’s taken several years to feel safe exploring my ethnic roots again, but it’s always kimchi fried rice that I ease into.
Smelling sesame oil, washing the rice, and having certain sweet and sour flavors hit the tongue seem to be the closest connection I will have to my mom for now. For me, it’s important to understand the recipes from the past in order to authentically cook with the present’s differences.
When I cook at home or with friends, I cook for the sake of remembering. Whether it’s reminiscing about the past or savoring the present moment, I want good memories to linger on the tongue.
Kimchi Fried Rice
Makes 2 servings
Kimchi Fried Rice (김치볶음밥 or kimchi bokkeumbap) is a staple comfort dish for most Koreans. It can be made with pork belly or Spam, or without any meat. Personally, I always make it with Spam. The saltiness hits differently, and the Western presence in the Eastern dish is a reminder of my own journey. Spam was introduced to Korea during the Korean War, and I am from Uijeongbu, a city that has a U.S. military base. For those who are just starting to dabble in Korean food, this is a fun introduction to staple flavors.
- 3 cups steamed medium grain white rice (best made a day in advance or, if fresh, cooled for at least 10 minutes)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ¾ cup kimchi, chopped
- 1 cup Spam, diced small
- 2 tablespoons gochujang*
- 1 teaspoon gochugaru* (Korean red chili)
- 3 tablespoons kimchi juice
- 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Toasted sesame seeds
- Scallions, thinly sliced
- Toasted seaweed, shredded
- Sunny-side up eggs
*Add gochujang and gochugaru according to your preference. The suggested amounts are a middle ground for those who enjoy the staple flavors but don’t want too much heat.
Using a medium cast iron pan or wok, add vegetable oil over medium heat. Add chopped garlic and kimchi. Stir fry for one minute. Add Spam, gochujang, and gochugaru and cook for another minute, until slightly browned. Add rice and kimchi juice. Mix thoroughly until well integrated. Remove from heat and add sesame oil. Mix one last time. Split into two portions and garnish with toasted sesame seeds, scallions, toasted seaweed, and a sunny-side up egg.
Erin Kim spends her time barista-ing at Vice & Virtue and working in freelance illustration and photography. She likes photographing urban scenery and the people she meets every day. Her illustrations range from coffee-inspired concepts to celebrities. @oneofakim7