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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column, “Spaghetti with Kimchi’i” by Lynn Case Ekfelt here.
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Voices cover FW2005


Volume 31

Spaghetti with Kimch'i by Lynn Case Ekfelt

Foodways Ask most kids what their favorite food is and you’ll probably get answers like “spaghetti” or “pizza.” Ask Shin Tupper’s son Joshua that question and you’ll get the same replies, except that he likes his spaghetti and pizza topped with kimch’i. Kimch’i, a mixture of fermented vegetables, is a staple of Korean cooking, so much so that every meal includes at least three constants: soup, rice, and some form of kimch’i. While pizza with shrimp-flavored fermented cabbage might not be to everyone’s taste, it is a fine example of the American melting pot at work on traditional foodways.

When Shin Tupper came to North Carolina in 1988 with her U.S. Marine husband, she never expected to find herself in Pierrepont, New York. But a divorce and remarriage brought a self-described city girl to a rural town whose inhabitants tend to distrust anything new, especially in the culinary line. Luckily her husband and his family were the exception. They really loved her Korean cooking and enthusiastically encouraged her to keep her traditions alive. But it wasn’t easy.

Without a nearby Asian grocery, Shin depended on visits to Korea every two years to replenish her supply of staples. Although shopping here for Asian items is easier now, she still prefers to buy many things in her favorite shops in Korea, where she is familiar with brand names and with the quality of fresh ingredients. But some things just weren’t available. Older immigrants taught her to gather bracken fiddleheads because they closely resembled ones from home. She learned that Coke and ruby red grapefruit juice make good meat tenderizers for bulgogi. She’d never before gardened, but she began to grow Korean cucumbers and napa cabbage so that she could make her kimch’i. Then she took a job in dining services at St. Lawrence University. Shin began to feed her family American-style breakfasts before hurrying off to spend her days serving up Larryburgers. But when she got home to start dinner, the burgers were still replaced by mung bean pancakes, fried bean curd, and—of course— soup, rice, and kimch’i. Slowly her cooking changed a bit to reflect American foodways, but the kimch’i was not negotiable.

The fact that many Korean immigrants are women like Shin, already married to Americans, might lead one to think that they would be more quickly assimilated into mainstream American culture than were immigrant groups who came over as entire families in earlier times. But several factors help keep the Korean traditions alive and flourishing. There are now over 400 Koreans in Watertown and at least three Korean churches: Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist. North Country Koreans travel up to two hours to attend church in Watertown on Sundays and to socialize at church activities during the week. In the late 1990s, Shin joined the newly formed Korean Methodist church in Watertown, finding a community largely of women, many of whom had also made their way to the North Country by way of military marriages. These close-knit church communities are strong supports to members trying to retain their culture and language.


1 pound well-marbled beef tenderloin or sirloin. (Shin often places her beef in mashed kiwi fruit, Coke, or ruby red grapefruit juice to tenderize it overnight.)

1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame salt*
Freshly ground black pepper
4 medium green onions, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoons water or white wine

Cut the beef into thin slices about 3 inches square and 1/8 inch thick. This can be done at the butcher shop. Marinate the beef in the remaining ingredients for up to one and a half hours. Traditionally, this meat is broiled at the table over charcoal. It can be broiled in the oven, pan-broiled, or cooked on an outside grill as well. Since it is so thin, it will cook quickly, so be careful not to overcook it.

*To make sesame salt, heat sesame seeds gently in a heavy pan until they turn brown and swell. Pulverize the seeds in a mortar with one teaspoonful of salt per cup of sesame seed.

Since family is paramount in Korean culture, most of the women in the church log considerable flying time traveling back and forth to see their parents, and relatives come here for long visits. Shin’s parents will be spending October through December in Pierrepont because they want to see snow, something her father remembers from his childhood near the Korean demilitarized zone. This close family feeling and the extended visits with relatives help Korean immigrants keep their traditions alive.

Finally, in spite of the women’s movement, women still do the bulk of the cooking in most American households. This means that they have a better chance of preserving their culinary heritage, especially when encouraged by their husbands and children, than would a similar group of male immigrants who married American women.

At this point Shin’s daughter Hannah is too young to be concerned with cooking. It will be interesting to see in years to come which of her mother’s recipes she keeps in her own file, which she modifies to include more readily available ingredients, and which she replaces entirely with American dishes. Her future husband’s ethnic background and tastes may play a role in those decisions, but I like to imagine that spaghetti topped with kimch’i will be a treasured family recipe for generations to come.


Lynn Case Ekfelt is retired from her position as a special collections librarian and university archivist at St. Lawrence University. She is the author of Good Food Served Right: Traditional Recipes and Food Customs from New York’s North Country (Canton, New York: Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, 2000), available on-line from our New York Traditions gallery store.

Kimch’i, a mixture of fermented vegetables, is a staple of Korean cooking...While pizza with shrimp-flavored fermented cabbage might not be to everyone’s taste, it is a fine example of the American melting pot at work on traditional foodways.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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