As part of my somewhat fumbling efforts to interview interesting Korean-Americans who are not blood relatives, I now ask everyone I know if they know any interesting Koreans/ Korean-Americans that I could pester. Fortunately for me, my clever family friend Rachel, didn't miss a beat in replying "I know one" and promptly connecting her friend and I via Instagram. I jumped at the chance to interview food writer Justine Lee whose writing has appeared on Bon Appetit, Food52, The Infatuation, The Wall Street Journal and most recently The NY Times food section. Other than our insurmountable age gap and the fact that she can cook and I can't, we could be "sisters from another mother" as my friend Ingrid likes to say when she relates to someone.
Me: Seeing that you were recently featured in the NY Times food section, I am grateful you agreed to be interviewed by me. Are you about to explode or in the falsetto of BTS, “light it up like dynamite”?
JL: Thank you! I’m delighted to be interviewed by you. Explode is a generous way to put it haha. I’ve been writing for some time now and I guess I’ll put it the way others have and say I’m “on the rise.”
Me: Can you tell us why you graced those hallowed pages?
JL: I had the pleasure to speak with Eric Kim, a wonderful cooking writer for the NYTimes about an experience I had eating bulgogi in a newfound format. In a nutshell, I was a tween eating at a Korean food court when I first tried the bulgogi bibimbap with melted mozzarella. It really changed my life and helped me as a food thinker come to appreciate the nuances of bulgogi. I was honored to add my voice to a larger conversation on how Korean food culture is not a monolith, and neither are the experiences of eating a singular dish.
Me: When i go to a trendy non-Koreatown restaurant that does not have free banchan (Korean side dishes), I rage. Am I alone or do you have a young person’s flexible mind?
JL: You are not alone!! If my table isn’t overcrowded with banchan, I know the restaurant isn’t doing it right. I view it as a primer of sorts, in introducing the eater’s palate to how generous the establishment is and how they like to season their food. Banchan is so important.
Me: Stalking your Instagram feed, I see you are a fan of Naengmyeon, that noodle dish that almost caused my early demise (a near choking incident);tell me, in a show down between Italian pasta and Korean noodles who wins?
JL: I’m not full of the hottest takes but of the very few I do have, the hottest would be that I actually don’t like pasta that much!! Please no one come at me! So it’s a no-brainer that
Korean noodles would win. Naengmyeon is incredible, so is Jjajangmyeon, bibimmyun, and really even Shin ramyun hits the spot.
Me: What Korean dish could you eat consecutively for the longest amount of time?
JL: Soondae or soondae guk. My family laughs because I was like the only tween eating the food in a restaurant with older customers. It’s supposedly a very grandma/grandpa thing to like it. I can see why it could be off putting; it is blood sausage but I can’t quit it.
Me: In the East Coast/West coast Koreatown feud, who wins?
JL: East Coast hands down. I mean have you heard of Ft. Lee, New Jersey?
Me: What brought you to cooking/writing about cooking?
JL: My mom has always been interested in food since she was young and so she filled the house with different cookbooks and always made the kitchen such a joyful place to be. She’s also wonderful at baking, which talking to other Korean friends seems to be a pastime not many moms did!
Me: Can you share a recipe with us?
JL: I recommend my recipe for Injeolmi Toast!
Injeolmi Toast Recipe – How to Make Injeolmi Toast (food52.com)
Me:That looks up my alley—tasty and quick to make. Could it be the new avocado toast?
JL: I think that in Korea, it is a pretty trendy toast served at cafes, akin to avocado toasts here. It’s quite customizable in that the sky’s the limit for the toppings you can add. I think it could be like the next trendy dessert toast!
Me: I’ve failed to find any delicious Korean cookbooks. Any picks? If not, best sites for Korean recipes?
JL: I very much enjoy the Korean Home Cooking cookbook from chef Sohui Kim. The best Korean cooking sites have to be koreanbapsang, seokyounglongest, and really the recipes graciously shared on various blogs and forums by Korean home cooks.
Me: Can you name one or two Korean dishes that might have escaped this “banana’s”radar? I love hearing about new ones that aren’t so widely known.
JL: Jangjorim and hotteok.
Me: Any foods you will not try?
JL: I will never try haggis (a traditional Scottish dish made of offal meat) intentionally ever again. The vegan version isn’t any better.
Me: Drumroll for worst question of this interview: Soju like soju?
JL: I love makeolli! Specifically peach makeolli.
Me: I’m always looking for fun Korean expressions. Can you explain the expression shiwonhada to us?
JL: Of course! Literally translated, shiwonhada means something like “hits the spot.” It’s a
phrase people can utilize in many situations where they feel as if some heavy tension has
been instantly washed away. Like when you go to the Korean spa, get a good scrub, detox
in the sauna, that can be something you refer to as “shiwonada.” Most of the time, I’ve
heard it when people eat a hot, comforting bowl of soup, when they’re feeling hungover
or not feeling well, as doing so can clear that mental and physical tension in an incredibly
Me: 10 things to get from Hmart:
JL: Kimchi, danmuji, very firm tofu, dried persimmons, apples, green onions, enoki
mushrooms, salmon sashimi, dashima, a pack of Pepero.
Me: Here’s my stereotype-heavy question involving Korean parents:are your parents bereft that you have chosen the Arts over something more mundane like hedge funding?
JL: If they had it their way, I would have been a doctor or an actuary like my dad. When I applied to college, I really wanted to study history and political science but my parents were so against it. So I went undecided and ended up studying nutrition and food studies, with some thoughts to apply to med school afterwards (I actually took all the necessary courses). Of course, I then really fell in love with food culture, recipe development, and writing and took that route instead. While I think they’ve always been puzzled how my jobs in food have all worked, they’ve become pretty open in giving me authority over my own trajectory. It’s funny I don’t think I consider myself in the arts. I think what I do walks a balance beam of creativity, logic, the scientific method, and so much research.
Me: “Authority over my own trajectory”-I love those words! You’ve given me a new mantra that I can still apply to my own life. Thank you.
I read that you changed your name legally. Can you explain that?
JL: Of course! Since birth my legal name was Seungah and when I moved to the States as a
little kid, my parents gave me the name “Justine” as my American name that I could use at school and elsewhere. Everyone knew me as Justine but on legal docs and school
attendance sheets, my name was still listed as Seungah which stirred up confusion and
mockery among my western teachers and peers. I just dreaded having to justify my
identity at such a young age and so when I was 16, the opportunity to legally change my
name presented itself so I took it almost instantly. I’ll say that this process, one that I
thought would feel like freedom, was also odd. The lawyer coordinating the whole
process asked me if I was doing this “to avoid tax fraud or cut ties with the communist
party”….I was sixteen! I still went with it and became Justine Seungah Lee in one
afternoon. Looking back at it, changing my name did make my life a bit easier but I do
sometimes feel disappointed in myself for compromising the beautiful name my parents
gave me to feel more accepted in western society. Western society has never made such
grand gestures to make me feel more comfortable.
Me: As I’m a bit obsessed with my own Korean/ lack of Korean identity, I have to ask how Korean you feel as a percentage and what percent another identity?
JL: I feel 50% Korean and 50% American. This might not seem like a huge percentage but it’s huge to me because I used to feel like 5% Korean. I’ve grappled with the Korean side of my identity for so much of my life, whether it was wanting to run away from it somehow in my youth or unknowingly completely repressing it in my late teens/early twenties as I spent more time away from my parents who grounded me in Korean side the most by feeding me food and speaking the language.
It was really in my last two years of college at NYU and immediately after that I came to love and embrace my Korean identity, largely in part by taking myself to go eat in K-town, watching BTS perform on SNL, seeing Sandra Oh finally getting the critical recognition she always had in my heart, being more open about the Korean-American experience with my friends and finding the commonalities and nuances in our narratives. Being a food major and having the chance to study Korean cuisine in an academic context helped so much too. It was a slow build-up of really little things that made me realize: being Korean is awesome.
So I view it like this: I can have white girl tendencies (my choice of clothing, my mannerisms, my unbreakable love for Dunkin iced coffee and Taylor Swift) but that doesn’t make me any less Korean. I speak the language, I was born there, I am constantly in pursuit of studying its food culture.
If I had another identity, I guess I am uniquely myself – flaws, strengths and all. There’s a lyric in the song Epiphany by Jin that goes like: “Why did I want to hide my precious self like this? What was I so afraid of?” I really resonate with that. It’s taken me a really long time to get to a point where I actually like myself. I used to strive just to fit in, live comfortably as a “wallflower.” I always stood out when I didn’t want to (because of my being asian, rather tall for a Korean, being a bit different) and I hated that, I really did. But I’ve come to realize standing out really isn’t that bad.
Me: I salute your embrace of your own weirdness. For me, approaching my 50th in two years, I’m dressing zanier than ever. I love graphic sweaters and t-shirts and kid- like attire. It seems from Instagram that you like to express this oddball side of you through your clothing as well (but it suits you better as you are closer to being a kid than I am!) Describe your aesthetic for us.
JL: I definitely gravitate towards overalls, jumpsuits, and other garments that make me look like a five year old. But then on the other side, I will also dress like a 70 year old grandpa. I’m amazed by my own duality. My friend once hit the nail on the head when she described my style as “tastefully weird.”
Me: My teenage son told me about these “Core” style types that are referenced on social media (Cottage,Fairy, etc). What “Core” are you, if that makes any sense at all.
JL: Does sad-boy-core exist? If there is,I am that.
Me: very evocative! If it doesn’t exist, it does now!
Me: Not sure if you relate but I sometimes feel a minor pressure as Korean woman to have good skin. Alas, I lack the energy to do the research and do the requisite glow-up so instead I’ll mine you for tips. What’s your favorite Korean beauty product?
JL: CosorX Acne Pimple Master Patches.
Me: I have written about my own love of collections on this blog. Do you collect anything?
JL:: This may sound odd but I actually collect fruit stickers from the various produce I eat (like the stickers off apples and bananas). I have a few from various countries and it’s really interesting to compare and contrast each. I also own simply far too many striped t-shirts so I guess I unknowingly have an extensive collection.
Me: Inside I am leaping with joy at your eccentric collection. I may look back on these interviews and declare your collection the most unusual. Thank you.
Me: I read somewhere that Americans have a sad inability to name any famous Asian-Americans. to up the ante here, can you name seven famous Korean/Korean-Americans?
JL: Yeri Han, Ken Jeong, Margaret Cho, Bong Joon Ho, Gong Yoo, Sandra Oh, Ban Ki Moon
Me: Bravo! Asian points for you! Who are your favorite Korean celebrities? Feel free to gush.
JL: Okay I have two. First: Youn Yuh-Jung!! She’s an incredibly talented actress who I grew up watching in various dramas I watched with my mom. I know the US audience was just introduced to her in Minari but I highly recommend watching exploring her entire acting canon.
And of course, on the subject of BTS, my favorite member is Jin – Worldwide Handsome. He’s not at all the best singer or the best dancer of the bunch but I love his personality, his face (no-brainer!), and his love of dad jokes.
Me: Speaking of dads, I recently followed My Korean Dad on TikTok and was a bit fascinated by this sweet man’s huge following. I mean he’s a teddy bear of a man walking around picking out produce at the supermarket and smiling encouragingly. I showed it to a bunch of non-Koreans and we collectively scratched our heads. Can you explain his appeal?
JL: Yeah My Korean Dad is a very popular TikTok account. I think what the appeals is about him is how he openly expresses his paternal love out in the open. I’ve heard people say they’ve been moved to tears about his refreshing departure from the tough love or lack thereof Korean american kids received from their own dads, I get it.
Me: People to follow on social media:
JL: jamesyworld, https://www.instagram.com/jamesyworld/?hl=en
Me: Best Korean films/books/artists
JL: Film: Little Forest, Burning
Books: The Vegetarian, Crying in HMart
Artists: my cousin @dynebydyne on Instagram
Me: Has the Hallyu wave affected you in any way, i.e., has your opinion of yourself skyrocketed? Is there any drawback to our sudden popularity?
JL: The boom of Korean culture is something that didn’t seem imaginable to me. Growing up, Korean culture and American/western culture were compartmentalized in that I could only enjoy them in two separate circumstances because they didn’t really intersect. That all seemed to change when (and I’m really showing my age here)the Wonder Girls opened for the Jonas Brothers. Knowing about Korea’s extremely oppressed, impoverished past, to see everything it has accomplished on a global scale is truly something I take pride in. My opinion of myself hasn’t skyrocketed but saying “I’m Korean” with something I say with confidence and joy.
Me: I’m planning a big 50th bday in Korea in 2023;what must I do/eat/see?
JL: Do: go to Itaewon, go shopping at Dongdaemun market, buy lots of k-beauty products! Go for a walk along the Han river. Grab coffee at the Starbucks in the Seoul Wave Art Center (my uncle owns the building!)
Eat: Soondae guk, tteokbokki at a street cart or pojangmacha, fresh fish at Busan (if you can!), E-Mart pizza, shaved ice and injeolmi toast at Sulbing. Please eat korean peaches, corn, and grapes. You won’t regret it.
See: Jeju Island (that warrants an airplane ride – but it’s worth it!), Namsan Tower, Museum San, CoEx, watch a movie at the CoEx movie theater.
Me: When you go to Korea, do you fit in seamlessly or can they sniff you out as American?
JL: Oh I definitely stick out like a sore thumb as an American and I think I always have. It winds down to so much of me: my western style of dressing, my preference for not wearing too much makeup (compared to Koreans who won’t dare going out with a bare face), and my heavy reliance on my imperfect Korean pronunciation. I’m pretty un-phased by this because I love how I’m so uniquely Korean-American
Me: I see you draw. Can you share a cute drawing for us?
JL: I am new to Adobe Illustrator but here is something I did:
Me: What are things that come easy to you ( “eating rice cakes while lying down”) and things that are hard?
JL: Running miles, endless (decidedly ridiculous) puns, and run-on sentences come easy to me. Math and patience for slow-walkers do not.
Me: Rats! I would have said we could be fast friends but I’m a very slow, meandering walker. Be glad I didn’t make you take a walk to do this interview! Thank you JL and I have every expectation that you are on the way to become the Blackpink of the food writing world. “Justine Lee in the Area!!”
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