Collage_Fotor4

Shrinking Into Omma’s Skin: Overcoming A Lifetime Of Being The “Big One.”

What little girl doesn’t grow up wanting to be exactly like her mother? I was certainly no exception to that rule. I wanted to talk like my mom, I wanted to dress like my mom, I wanted to cook like my mom, I even wanted to chew gum like my mom.

Unfortunately, though my mother gave me so much, she couldn’t give to me the one thing I wanted most of all. More than anything in all the world —I wanted to look like my mom.  

My mother is a sparrow.

From left to right, my Mom, my Grandma, and the Blue Dumpling (me).

She was 87 lbs—when she was nine months pregnant with me. All her life, she has struggled with low cholesterol, low blood pressure, and being underweight—which, in my mind, is what always allowed her to fly around from PTA meetings, to the hospital (where she was a nurse for over three decades), church meetings, recitals, birthday parties, and field trips with impossible grace. When I try and describe my mother, I often think of this old photo of us—she is sitting on the bed with me (I must have been maybe 2 years old) in a cloud of yellow silk. Sunlight is pouring in from somewhere, so that you can just see the silhouette of her shallow breasts, the dime-sized scar on her shoulder from the smallpox vaccine she got when she was little. Her pale face is tilted towards me, while I am doing my best imitation of a beach-ball squatting on her bed.

I grew up taking after a dumpling much more than a bird. I have broad shoulders, a heavy jaw, thighs that look a great deal more like tree trunks than branches, and an atypically large ass (as my grandmother enjoyed reminding me at every opportunity). I was 12 years old the day I outgrew my mother’s hand-me-down bras, and it was then that I knew I’d passed the point of no return: I would never, ever look like my mother.

Instead, I would always be the Big One.

Whether or not it is a stereotype, the vast majority of Korean women I know are quite a bit smaller than I am.  This, of course, started with my mother–the tiniest of all of them–but extended to my aunts, my cousins, my girlfriends, even the women I’d see at the Korean grocery store. All of these women would hit the panic button and crash diet the minute the scale tipped over 105 lbs, while for me, the notion of weighing 105 lbs was unfathomable–even at 5’1″.    For as long as I can remember, I have been weighed in the eyes of all these small Asian women who have actually earned the right to be called “petite.”  And, I have been ashamed of my failure to be one of them my entire fucking life.

Throughout junior high and high school, I “got by” on brains and talent and I was “skinny enough” to occasionally earn the “pretty” tag when introduced to my parents’ friends or colleagues, but was much more often introduced as the “smart one” (i.e., 우리 똑똑한 딸). For as long as I could remember, my mother was always getting after me about shedding “just 10 pounds” so that I could be “perfect.” I don’t think she knew that those “just 10 pounds” forced a wedge between us. I buried the distance that sprang up between me and my mother deep into a crack that closed up like a tender wound in my chest.

It never healed.


Against my mother’s advice, I married the first man I ever loved. Though my mother’s voice was fierce, her bones were hollow and even she lacked the strength to extract my heart from the trouble that was my marriage. She watched, year after year, as I stifled the voice that had been my birthright in favor of eating my pain. Literally. I was a not-overweight college freshman (5’1″ and around 125 lbs) when I met my ex-husband in 1997. Fast forward 12 years to 2009—by which time I had swaddled both my mind and body in the tantalizing perfume of inertia—and weighed an astonishing 187 lbs. By this time, the “advice” from my parents was not limited to “just the last 10 pounds.” They counseled against visiting my relatives in Korea, for fear I would be too embarassed by my size. They suggested I decline a slice of my own birthday cake because I was “getting too fat.” And my grandmother, God love her, would mutter, “ayooo, somehow your ass has grown even bigger…,” every Christmas.

Maui, 2009.

[Don’t get me wrong.  I do not say these things to criticize my family.  As most of us Korean girls know, this is, to the “First Generation,” a perverse mechanism for showing “love.”  An effort to protect us from the far less forgiving scrutiny of society at large. As is often the case when our parents or loved ones fuck up, “they meant well.”]

My mother is a very proud woman — particularly when it comes to men. She thus found it hard to watch her only daughter staying with a man who didn’t treat her well. After each explosive fight with my ex-husband, I would show up at my mother’s doorstep (for the 100th time), my face red with tears. I didn’t have to say anything—I never did. She merely opened the door and would say,

“또? Again?”

She would sit me down on her peach leather couch with a warm cup of coffee between her small hands and we would have the same conversation we’d had a dozen times already.

“Why do you keep going back?”

Mother’s Day, 2009.

At first, I think it was a genuine question. But after years of the same question, it was hard for my mother to hide the contempt in her words.  One evening in 2010, I showed up at her doorstep at 2 in the morning in my pajamas, barefoot, and with my dog panting in my arms. I told her, “This time, I don’t think I can go back. I’m getting a divorce.” I will never forget the response of my 87 lb. mother (loosely translated into English):

“If he shows his face here, I am going to beat the shit out of him.”

I did go back. Physically, my body returned to our house, but something turned in me that night. Perhaps my ex-husband’s temper had crossed some arbitrary threshold in my mind that finally made it “abusive.” Or maybe it was just sheer fatigue from constantly readjusting the lies I told myself to make it “ok.” Whatever it was, I gave up on my marriage that night. And somewhere, buried deep inside of me, I hoped I could one day [soon] make my mother proud by actually leaving and not going back.

Eventually, in March 2013, 16 years after falling in love, I left my husband and our 2400 square foot townhouse in a sleepy suburb for a tiny apartment in the city. By that time, I had convinced myself that my skin had grown thick enough to deal with the humiliation of the dreaded “when are you due?” comment by strangers in the elevator or watching my mother laugh behind her slim hands when someone gasped, “Well, how did someone your size give birth to her?” I had grown quite adept at avoiding the camera lens (including my own) and using my ever-expanding girth as a built-in forcefield against social interaction of any kind (despite my sister-in-law’s relentless matchmaking prowess). Truth is, I had a lot on my plate—unpacking 16 years of my life into a much smaller space, a stack of divorce papers, a job that demanded as much from me as ever, and, of course, french fries.


In January 2014, I decided it was finally time to do something about my weight. It was definitely not the first time I’d resolved to lose weight (I had tried just about every “diet” known to man, including low fat, low carb, Paleo, Zone, Weight Watchers, and liposuction), but it would be the first time I’d attempt to do so the “healthy way,” as my shrink suggested. I picked up a copy of James Duigan’s Clean & Lean Diet—which was way more accessible than “lo-carb” or “lo-fat” or “lo-cal” and ordered Tony Horton’s Power90 (the P90x for geriatrics) DVDs. The official kick-off date for Project “The New Me” was on Monday, January 13, 2014.

I’d like to tell you that the fat just melted right off. But, the truth is the truth is the truth: there is no trick to losing fat. Eat right and exercise. As with virtually everything else in my life, I’d grown quite chummy with the extra padding, and contrary to what one might believe, there was a fair bit of bitter mixed in with the sweet every time another inch disappeared. A wise Unni of mine once posted on her Facebook, “Confidence is a hard earned thing.” I felt wholly unprepared for the Confidence my new body would bring; but, I had learned a thing or two from digging through the debris from my marriage—it’s better to move forward into a dark future than stay put in the bright and washed out background of the past.

Day 90 came and went. I took my obligatory 90-day side-by-side and got a bunch of notes on my Instagram account. I got bored with Tony Horton’s Power90 and started running along the lakeshore (my second apartment building was right on Lake Michigan). My face shrank. My body started to “ripple” instead of “jiggle.” My girlfriend told me “This is different from the last time you lost weight. You look strong.” My mother told me, often, “You look great!! Keep up the good work!” Every morning, I would run my hand along my obliques and marvel at meeting muscles with whom I’d never been acquainted. For the first time in my life, I decided that I would risk skin cancer by “laying out” at the pool and, for the first time in my life, a man I didn’t know asked me how often I went to the gym, since “it’s obvious you work out a lot.”

September 2014.

These are the “highs” and wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you that there were/are no “lows.” After losing more than 60 lbs, I was addicted to the “highs,” to seeing another pound melt away, feeling another pair of “goal jeans” slide over my hips. And with all of the joy that came with running past another milestone, it became all too easy for me to equate my weight with my worth.

As with any high… ultimately, I came crashing down. And it was anything but pretty.


The weight loss slowed to a snail’s pace. Despite being told by my friends, my cousins, and my mom that I really needed to “quit dieting,” I was constantly chasing after just “those last 10 lbs.” But, inevitably, those last 10 lbs grew ever more elusive as I got smaller. After over a year of restrictive eating and more and more cardio, my metabolism had cratered.

Of course, the only rational solution (to me) was to eat less and run more. By August 2015, I was eating between 300-800 calories a day and running 30+ miles per week. On Sundays, after starving all week, I would binge on donuts, fried foods, and greasy sandwiches — often in the dark, close to midnight, when no one was around and I could hide my shame. On Mondays, I would “fast” as a penalty for my Sunday indulgences.

I was terrified that my new boyfriend would dump me for being too fat. As the number on the scale refused to budge, even though I was the lightest I had ever been as an adult, I was convinced that it was only a matter of time before I grew prohibitively unattractive.  Out of desperation, I would go on sprees of eating nothing but 3 truffles or 3 biscotti a day, while downing laxatives for breakfast and dinner.  My hair started to fall out; I broke out into a rash that became difficult to hide; and I was freezing all the time, from the inside out.  I started carrying a little cash with me on my runs, because I was worried I might pass out.

Top picture 2009; Bottom picture 2015. I was happy with the way I looked on the outside, but basically empty on the inside.

One sunny afternoon, after weighing myself for the 17th time that day and seeing the same damn number I did the day before, I started to cry. A lot.

From one of the many thousands of “photo shoots” I subjected myself to, in order to keep tabs on my progress. I was at my smallest, but was so tired, my arms would go numb every time I tried to brush my hair.

Not the pretty crying, the kind my mother was so good at, with one hand over her mouth and tears rolling down her frail face, but gross hiccuping sobs, my body squatting over the scale  until I started seeing stars from the lack of oxygen. And food. I called my therapist — the one who had helped me through my divorce — and wailed into the phone,

“You don’t understand, Colette. I’m too fat.
I’ll never be skinny enough. I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never be good enough for him!

 


I think there — right there — was my rock bottom.  I equated being “fat” with being “unworthy.” And not just unworthy in general, but “unworthy” to be loved — by my parents, by my boyfriend, by anyone.

It’s been 20 months since that panicked call to Colette. I wish I could tell you that over the past 20 months, I stopped caring about my weight. The God’s honest truth is, I am still obsessed with my body. Not a day goes by where I haven’t thought about whether I’m skinny enough, slid my hands over my hips wishing I could dissolve them with my touch, compared my body to the women I see on the street, calculated the number of calories in my breakfast. Just the other night, I dreamt that while changing in front of my mother, she sighed and shook her head in unsurprised disappointment and commented, “You’ve gained weight again.” It took me several hours into my day to realize that it had been just a dream.

The day before my first half marathon. Photo credit to Tek Chung (@tekstiles).

However, over the past 20 months, I’ve been seeing a therapist who specializes in “disordered eating.” I’ve thrown away my scale; I trained for and completed my first half marathon; I started a food blog, of all things; I traded in all my designer handbags for race bibs and my fancy shoes for running shoes. Although I still count calories, I now try to make sure I’m eating enough, and once I did that, well whaddya know — the urge to binge on donuts and french fries suddenly disappeared by itself.

But, of all the changes in my life in the past 20 months,
the most disruptive has been my choice to go vegan.


Every vegan I’ve ever spoken to has gone out of their ways to extol the many virtues of adopting a plant based diet.

I’m not “every vegan.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are some very important “benefits” to going vegan for someone who has a fairly dysfunctional relationship with food. For me, going vegan has served as an excellent “crutch” as I hobble around a gastronomic landscape without the “low calorie” or “low carb” guard rails. Put simply, it’s easier for me to justify eating more because I know, in the back of my mind, that I’m actually still eating a lot less than the “average Jo.” Do the math — I would have to eat half a dozen servings of chickpeas to equal 2 small pieces of fried chicken or 3 blocks of tofu for one steak. Not only that, I can readily satisfy my pernicious appetite for alpha bitch control with every single vegan bite, since I am now restricting far more foods than I ever have.

But, however many articles you read about people who have successfully used veganism to “recover” from an eating disorder, in my mind, it’s still a crutch, and a crutch, by its very definition, should be “transitory,” as in — not permanent. Does that mean I’m going to stop being vegan now? No. But it does mean that I can’t keep using veganism as a way to avoid walking around on my own two legs. Put another way, it means that I can’t hide behind a diet consisting of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and moral platitudes from facing the hardest thing I will ever do.


“Loving yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do,” my food therapist, Rachel, warned me on my first visit. I almost walked out. I did not sign up for therapy so that I could learn how to “love myself.” Although I would not have admitted it at the time, I signed up for therapy in order to strategize a more sustainable method for losing fat. If these sessions were going to be devoted to hippie-dippy-love-yourself-bullshit, they would be short-lived.

Which is what I said to her, in the most diplomatic way possible.

She smiled patiently. And repeated,

“Loving yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do.”

And, just in case I missed it, she said once more,

“Loving yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do.”

Maybe repeating the phrase three times somehow guaranteed that it would come true. Because however hard I try, whatever maneuverings I employ, I always manage to come back to ground zero, where I must continue to tell myself,

You are more than the number on your scale,
the number on the back of your jeans,
the number on the top right corner of the treadmill, or
the number at the bottom of your food diary.

Sometimes, it’s hard to describe what love looks like — I recall sitting in the bathtub with my mother when I was nine years old. She had spent the past hour scrubbing me down within an inch of my life. Even then at just nine years old, I knew that I was rounder and more padded than I should be.  Looking down at my belly, I asked myself, again, how it was possible that a bird like her could give birth to something like me. We watched as the bathwater circled our bodies and all the dark flecks of 때 (exfoliated skin) drained, and while toweling me off, Omma jokes,

“I’ll bet you lost 10 lbs from that bath!”

At first, I laugh at my mother’s joke.  But then, my nine-year old self looks up through baby eyelashes, still trembling with bathwater, and wonders wistfully,

“Really? Do you really think I lost weight from the bath?”

My heart breaks a little when I think of this.

I tell myself that this fleeting heartbreak is what love looks like.


Rachel reassures me over and over again, “Anthony loves you for more than your body. He loves your brain.”

Christmas 2016.

For a long time, this only meant that I would continue to be introduced as the “smart one,” as some sort of implicit consolation for the fact that I was fat and ugly. Over the past 6 months, though, since going vegan, my attitude about food — and by extrapolation, my body — has shifted.

I think most people — me included — eat because we like the taste of certain foods. My mouth waters at the sight of kimchi and chocolate cake. And for a long time, the smell of bacon affected me the same way it affects the majority of red-blooded Americans. I used to tell people, my last meal on earth would consist of Korean style pork belly, rice, and miso soup.

But, like many of you, I have a difficult time coping with overt and senseless cruelty to anyone — friends, family, even strangers on the street. I get particularly upset when people are mean to the elderly, children, and, of course, animals. The notion that such meanness exists against the defenseless is profoundly frightening to me.

Now, with every bite of food I take, it’s no longer just a calculation of calories, carbs, and fat v. its utility at satisfying hunger and taste. While that calculation occurs, I am also reminded — with every bite — that I’m actually doing something good, something really and unquestionably good. Good for my body, good for the earth, good for the animals I’ve always adored.

This choice for compassion, together with all the choices I’ve ever made and will continue to make — these are the things that determine my worth. Not my bikini-unready bod.

I love my dogs.

When my mother was just a toddler, my grandparents whisked her out of their home in North Korea and literally carried her to what is now South Korea. She spent most of her childhood living off the charity of the village they settled in, digging through the dirt on her hands and knees for left over crops and sweet potatoes. She excelled at school even when her parents never had enough money for books, uniforms, or shoes. After my grandmother buried three little babies in an attempt to have a son, my mother assumed that role for herself, learning how to take care of the family farm under my grandfather’s careful instruction. She immigrated to the United States with no job, barely any money, and unable to speak English with the hope of improving not just her own fortune, but that of all those back home in Korea. She worked her ass off as a nurse and climbed the ranks to ultimately become the Director of the Emergency Department at a hospital in Chicago. She raised two kids who’ve never smoked or done any drugs, ever, and who both spoke perfect American English. And, even with all this, she finds time to write and publish her poetry, practice her calligraphy, and sing in the church choir.

I catalogue the choices I’ve made over the past decade to bring me where I am.

The time I slept on my office floor in my suit because I knew I would have to get back to work in just a few hours.

The time I ran .75 miles along the lakeshore path after not working out for over 3 years.

The time I picked up a camera and snapped a photo of my mother’s hands hugging a cup of tea.

The time I wrote a poem about my mother, about her hands, a cup of tea, Lake Michigan, and the quiet sorrow I inherited from her.

The time I wrote a blog about why I love Korean food and why I won’t let going vegan stop me from eating kimchi.

The time I kissed my dog, Daisy, on her back, after leaving her at my mother’s, where she is happier and healthier.

The time I scratched a man’s back, because my nails were long and his skin was soft, and we were both desperate for any semblance of joy to combat our despair.

The time I drove a car packed with 16 years of my life in the trunk towards the city;
telling my mother for the very last time,
“this time, I’m not going back.”


I realize, now, that I’ve been thinking of it all wrong. it’s not about shrinking into my mother’s skin. No.

All this time, I’ve been trying to grow into it.

5P4A8176

Seaweed Soup For Birthdays.

As an American, I grew accustomed to two things on my birthday:

Sheet cake.
Presents.

Now, I like getting gifts as much as the next girl, but I never really liked sheet cake. My mom always got it at the local grocery store and suffice it to say, it tasted about as good as one would expect from a national chain grocery store.  Nevertheless, though it tasted sort of like cavity-inducing-cardboard,

God help my parents if they failed to acquire their American daughter an American sheet-cake for her birthday!

As with many things related to birthday festivities (and traditions, in general), the birthday cake had less to do with taste, and far more to do with sentiment.  To me, the sheet-cake certified the following important things:

  • Today is my special day, to the exclusion of all others.
  • Everyone, including my parents and my little brother, are required to do as I say.
  • I can thus eat several servings of cloying sweetness with impunity.
  • I am American.

In retrospect, I can see why that last bit was so important to me. I was struggling with wanting to fit in at school with all the other kids.  Few of them had parents like mine, looked like me, or had trouble speaking English. Those troubling English words spilled out of their mouths as effortlessly as a bag of bright Skittles.  For me, they got caught somewhere between my stomach and my two front teeth.

Unfortunately, my parents were so good at throwing the typical American birthday bash (lest they trigger my adolescent range…), I had no clue what the traditional Korean birthday meal entailed until I was in law school.  Sad!  In fact, I discovered it while watching a scene from my absolute favorite Korean drama, My Lovely Sam-Soon.

In the above scene, Sam Shik stalks Sam Soon all the way up Mount Halas, basically declares his love for her, and hands her a box of Choco Pies (the designated “I don’t care if I get fat” snack food); but, it isn’t until he fishes out a canteen of seaweed soup–or meyukgook–that he brought for her birthday when her chilly disposition finally thaws and she admits being a little “touched.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve had my fair share of meyukgook. We ate it all the time growing up, but it was always just another standard, boring soup that showed up on the dinner table with regular frequency.  But this–this special birthday soup that the sexy as hell Hyun Bin was handing over to his honey like a pot of gold–now that was something I could get behind.

Why is meyukgook a tradition on birthdays, anyway, though?  Who wants to eat seaweed on any day, much less a day that was destined for the early onset of diabetes?

Well, the answer, not surprisingly, begins with the birth part of “birth-day,” as in your Mom.  I don’t care who you are, if you were born, you had a mom.  In Korea, moms will eat meyukgook for up to 3 weeks after giving birth in order to restore all the vital nutrients and vitamins that were lost.  On birthdays, we partake in that meal as an homage to our mothers.

Isn’t that kinda nice?

Not to mention the fact that it tastes pretty dang good, is super easy to make, and is mega-healthy for you.

So, whether it’s your birthday or not, give this recipe a whirl and let me know what you think!!

TOP 5 Unexpected Byproducts Of Going Vegan. By A Vegan.

In just a few days, it will be my one year “veganniversary.”  Before you ask,

YES, THERE WILL BE CHOCOLATE INVOLVED.

But, I will be devoting a separate blog post on the veganniversary festivities and thought it might be nice to reflect upon what impact, if any, going plant-based has had on my life for the past year.

I Did Not Want To Go Vegan Because I Thought It Was Stupid.

Keep in mind, I came to this “experiment” as a skeptic. I didn’t want to go vegan–in fact, I adamantly opposed my boyfriend’s suggestions to do so. We got into one of the biggest fights of our relationship over his determination to cut out meat, and I was worried we might not make it.  I viewed vegansim as a lifestyle reserved for the over-zealous, uninformed, and, quite frankly, the arrogant.  All the vegans I knew were judgmental, self-righteous, and very, well, wrong about how to keep a trim and fit body, particularly as a woman. I’ve since realized, however, that omnivores are certainly not immune to the aforementioned character flaws, and therefore, it was probably shortsighted of me to hold vegans to a different standard.

In other words, being vegan doesn’t automatically make you a better person.

Notwithstanding my misgivings, I decided to take the plunge for myriad of reasons, started this blog, started cooking a lot more than I used to, and voila.  Here I am.  One year later.

Oh, and my boyfriend and I are still together. 😉

And No.  Going Plant-Based Did Not Magically Cure My Headaches/Bloating/Vision.

The thing I read/heard most from vegans sounds a lot like the following:

“Oh my GOD, I feel so light and healthy and FIT since going plant-based!! I don’t get colds anymore, all my headaches have disappeared, and my stomach never gets bloated!  I can even SEE better without my glasses!”

Ok. Well, I’ve been vegan for one year and I don’t feel light, I’m pretty sure I packed on a few lbs over Christmas, and I definitely still get headaches and colds.  As to my gut health?  Nah.  My stomach gets as bloated as a beach ball when I scarf down brownies or a green smoothie.  It doesn’t seem to care whether I’m eating sugar, salad, or chicken.  And I still have to wear coke bottles to read a book.  In broad daylight.

So, am I saying that I’m ready to call it quits?  That this vegan experiment has failed and that I’m going to haul ass to the nearest Burger King?

FUCK NO.

And here’s why:

Top 5 Unexpected Byproducts Of Going Vegan.

1.  You Become A Master Chef By Necessity.

In most places (and wallets), Whole Foods and vegan eateries are not readily available options.  Before going vegan, I had the entire city at my disposal, saturated with every imaginable cuisine. If I didn’t feel like cooking, I could punch a few buttons on my phone and GrubHub would have dinner delivered to my doorstep in 45-70 minutes.  Obviously, going vegan means that my dining-/carrying-out options have shrunk.  A lot.  Not only are there few places that have a broad selection of vegan menu items, many places don’t offer very tasty ones (think wilted greens + greasy tofu + over-nooched dressing).  Whether you are an average Joe or a foodblogger, as a vegan, my boyfriend (whose culinary skills consisted of pouring a can of tomatoes over overcooked pasta noodles) is living proof that you will inevitably learn how to

  • properly season your pasta water
  • chop and saute vegetables
  • mix together a killer salad dressing
  • blend a mouthwatering smoothie bowl
  • soak things (cashews, rice, quinoa, beans)

 2.  You Become A Science Nerd With An Intimidating Vocab.

“Nutritional yeast.” “Sentience.” “B12.” “Turmeric.” These are now terms that are part of my everyday vernacular.  I’d never heard of nooch or turmeric prior to going vegan and I rarely had the chance to spit out the word “sentience.”  Vitamin B12 (as well as Vitamin D) is part of my breakfast every morning.  And how many of you have seen that person standing in the grocery aisle pouring over labels with phone in hand (to look up ingredients)?  Chances are, she’s vegan.  I can explain to you exactly WHY the sugar you drop into your coffee each morning is not vegan or how the gelatin in your favorite piece of candy is made.  I can also engage in long, drawn out philosophical discussion regarding the distinction between plants and other living things, and even talk–with some knowledge–on the most recent studies regarding plant sentience.

3.  You Become Greener Than Your Most Tree-Hugging Non-Vegan Friends.

I’m green now, guys.  Green as the peas in my vegan risotto, and way greener than the non-vegans who recycle and ride their bikes to work. Dude, I’m greener than Leonardo DiCaprio.  Without devolving into a post about how being vegan is the single greatest contribution to environmentalism, I will share the following green morsels for your consideration*:

  • Animal agriculture (i.e., the farms that raise cows, pigs, chickens) is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combined exhaust from all transportation (i.e., carpooling).
  • More than half of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock and their byproducts.
  • 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 measly pound of beef; 477 gallons for 1 lb of eggs; and 900 gallons for 1 lb of cheese.
  • Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat distribution.
  • A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people.

4.  You Become Way More “Cultured” And Ethnically Informed.  

When your options are limited, you start looking at foods you couldn’t previously pronounce.  For example, after going vegan, I not only reacquainted myself with all the foods of my childhood (i.e., the “Korean” in the Korean Vegan), I started experimenting with recipes from India, Lebanon, and Brooklyn.  One of our favorite “vegan friendly” spots is Kurah, where they serve up amazing Mediterranean dishes.  I once spent all 43 minutes of an Uber ride discussing the pickling process for eggplants because my driver happened to be a Lebanese immigrant.  He was delighted to find that I was vegan and wanted to share with me all the non-meat dishes he could think of.  The thing with eating foods from different cultures is that it’s almost impossible not to pick a thing or two up about the culture itself–its people, the history, and the reasons underlying the recipes they birth.

5.  You Become A Stronger Advocate. 

This, by far, is the most unexpected and welcome byproduct of them all and the one that inspired this blog post.  So, I saved it for last as a reward to those of you who’ve actually read through this entire tl;dr post. Shortly after definitively making the choice to go vegan, I noticed, weirdly, that I was able to sit through and watch an entire video clip on FB about stray dogs and humane shelters.  I was also able to read articles containing photos of what happens to cows and pigs under the regime of animal agriculture.  Facebook, Tumblr, and even IG is fit to bursting with these types of click-baiting posts, but for me, I had always scrolled right past them if I didn’t hit the “hide” button.  Thus, I was surprised to discover that I could now stomach far more of these images and videos than I had in the past–not because they no longer bothered me, but because I no longer bothered me.

Specifically, I realized that I was allocating so much of my mental resources to suppressing the reverb of cognitive dissonance (a fancy word for “hypocrisy,” see supra at 2), I didn’t have much leftover to cope with the immediate rage and hopelessness that would fill me whenever I witnessed inexplicable acts of cruelty against the least of us.  Because, let’s face it, every time I would allow that sort of empathy to grow, I would have to squash it down with the fact that I would happily chow down on a burger.  So, like the vast majority of the world, I unconsciously sacrificed compassion for the guise of moral defensibility on a daily basis.

Going vegan has liberated me–liberated me–from the constant need to cover up a lie.  It was like I’d spent 37 years cheating on my spouse–can you imagine how much energy and stress and anxiety would go into covering that shit up for that long?  You would have to delude yourself with all sorts of moral compromises; so, when I finally came clean, I had all this leftover emotional fortitude to channel towards the truth.  And the truth was simple: it hurt me to watch what people did to animals.

When my mother asked me how I stuck to being vegan for so long, I told her:

Omma, I can look at my dogs, my Daisy and Roodle, look them straight in their faces and know that now, finally, I am loving them with every inch of my heart.  And it is the best feeling in the world.”

*I shamelessly borrowed these stats from here.

5P4A7240

Daddy’s Favorite Noodles And That Time I Went Vegan. #Noodleholicsparty

My father eats noodles at least once a week.  Like clockwork, at 10:17 a.m., every Sunday morning, I would wake up to the spicy mouthwatering aroma of Shin Ramyun (spicy Korean ramyun noodles).

Actually, my mouth is watering right now thinking about it.

Shin ramyun, though, is really not good for you.  God only knows what they put in that little tin-foiled packet of pungent good/bad-ness that magically turns into ramyun gook (soup), but the internets is rife with urban mythology of Warcraft addicts who have actually died from OD’ing on ramyun.  So, for years, I have suggested to my Dad that he replace the ramyun noodles with something healthier…to no immediate avail.

When we were little, my father would venture out beyond the packaged ramyun noodles, even beyond his own kitchen, and take me and my little brother out into the city (we were suburbanites).  Two kids in the backseat of the Honda hatchback with no mission but to eat his favorite noodles for lunch at the sleepy little Chinese-Korean eatery in K-town.  We would often be the only patrons at 11 a.m. (the minute they opened), and my Dad would order two “samsun jjajangmyun”–one for himself, and one to split between my brother and me.

Jjajangmyun is the stuff of K-pop legend.  It’s the noodle dish for which all the impossibly beautiful K-pop actresses have the caloric/carb count memorized, because it is their enshrined “cheat meal.” It’s the most frequently ordered item off of Korea’s version of Grubhub–the dish you eat when your boyfriend has just cheated on you, when your mom is giving you crap about your grades, when you’re feeling so fat the only rational thing to do is to eat something extremely delicious (and full of fat).

Made of fried jjajang–thick black fermented soy bean paste–and a deep rich broth (usually from beef or pork), it’s not the type of dish that you can burn off with an hour on the treadmill.

So, when Soe invited me to come to his #noodleholicsparty, I could think of no more perfect recipe to “bring” than jjajangmyun.

Now, the trick for me, of course, is making jjajangmyun vegan. I can guarantee you, there are ZERO Chinese-Korean restaurants in my area that serve vegan jjajangmyun.  And in fact, my father would probably scratch his head were I to attempt to order “meatless jjajangmyun,” before his face split in half with a wide, embarrassed grin.  “You can’t eat jjajang without meat!  You need the meat!”

If it isn’t evident, my father is not vegan.

Ironically, though, my Dad played an incredibly key role in my choice to cut out meat last year.  Right after watching all the movies about plant-based diets that zeroed in on the statistical and indisputable proof of the connection between meat consumption and cancer, in early January, my father got very sick. After a routine biopsy, he came down with Sepsis and nearly died. While his body was fighting to survive the sudden onset of poison, we learned that the biopsy came back positive–he had prostate cancer.

To me, that was about as close as it got to a lightning bolt from God.  I’m not saying that my father’s illness was the thing that made me go vegan, but it was undeniably one of the primary reasons I am vegan today.

And it’s why I try so hard to veganize Korean food.

Because Daddy likes Korean food.


Luckily, there’s no need to veganize the noodles.  Most noodle recipes are, by default, non-dairy (and meatless….).  While some noodle dishes call for eggs, most Asian noodles consist of flour, salt, water and possibly oil.  In order to give the noodles the requisite “jjeulgyuh” or chewiness, some type of alkaline substance should also be included (enter baking soda, kansui, lye water, etc.).

Non-luckily, handmade noodles are, well, a bitch.  Gluten formation is the lynchpin to all noodles, and it only happens when the dough gets beaten around a bit.  Whether using a stand mixer, bread machine, or your triceps, developing the requisite gluten is not easy and there will be more losses than wins during your first attempts to make your own noodles.  Trust me.

In the end, for my recipe, I settled for knife cut noodles or “kalguksoo.”  This is purely because after one solid hour of kneading, my arms started to feel numb and I didn’t have any more upper arm strength to stretch and pull the noodles by hand (not to mention the fact that I’d never done it before…!).

After steeping them in boiling water for about 3 minutes, I was happy to see that they didn’t disintegrate or fall a part even when I fished them out.  They were chewy, doughy, and, though a little uneven, quite yummy.  In fact, I like to think their unevenness provided more “hooks” for my sauce, so that it didn’t just slide off into a puddle at the bottom of my bowl (which, let’s face it, I would gladly spoon into my mouth-hole without any noodles).

The sauce wasn’t that difficult either.  In lieu of big chunks of meat or shrimp, I used some shiitake mushrooms.  And, to give the sauce that added depth, I added my Fishy Sauce in lieu of just water or store bought vegetable broth.  In the end, it all came together quite beautifully, and I had some for lunch, dinner, and then breakfast the next day (i.e., while I’m writing this post…).

Definitely good enough for binge watching Korean dramas.

And maybe even good enough for my Dad.


You can find the recipe for my jjajangmyun here.

You can find the recipes for all the other amazing noodle addicts who came to the #noodleholicsparty at the following links:

5P4A6779

Moms & Baking Go Hand in Hand.

 

You’ve been there.  You’re 8 years old.  You’ve bragged to all your friends about the amazing cupcakes you’re going to bring to school the next day for your birthday.  You get home and share the good news to the one person in your life who actually knows how to bake cupcakes:

Your mom.

“Mommy!!  Guess what!! I told all my friends and my teacher and my gym teacher and the kids at recess and Mr. Bernard’s class that I’m bringing cupcakes for my birthday to school tomorrow!”

My mother was a full-time nurse in the Emergency Room of a mid-sized hospital in Chicago.  In other words, the last thing she wanted to do after coming home from literally one of the most stressful jobs on earth was bake cupcakes.  No, like most humans, my mom preferred windows down with a warm beverage before the television for an hour or so before heading to bed.

But, like most moms, my mother put to one side the fact that she was bone-tired and stayed up all night frosting a bunch of cupcakes for her daughter’s second grade classmates.

So, it was pretty appropriate that she asked me to bake her a bunch of shortbread cookies for Christmas this year, so that she could “show off” to all her friends. The past two months at work have been busier than normal and baking was honestly the last thing this food-blogger had in mind for the Christmas holiday.  But the thought of disappointing my 67 year old mother on Christmas Eve was about as appealing to me as disappointing an 8 year girl the day before her birthday.  So, I rolled up my sleeves, whipped out my rolling pin, and ganache’d the fuck out of these shortbread cookies.

And yes.  Mommy loved them.

Recipe for Chocolate Ganache Shortbread Cookies.

 

The Korean Vegan = Vegan Kimchi.

 

Can you recall your first day of kindergarten? To be honest, I’m not sure I can. I think I somehow mish-mashed a bunch of memories from that first year of school into what I now call my “first day.”  Here are the fragments that have stuck with me from that first day:

I didn’t speak English.  Everyone else did.

I had long black hair, black eyes, and yellow skin.  Very few others sported this ensemble.

I had to wear sok-neh-bok (Korean long underwear).  No one else’s grandmother appeared as concerned with the cold.

My grandmother packed for me kimbap and kimchi. Everyone else’s lunchbox contained ham sandwiches and potato chips.

I came home after that “first day” of kindergarten crying.  I hated my mother, my father, my grandmother, and everyone else who was “responsible” for making me so painfully different from everyone else, so Korean.  I fearlessly told my mother from that day forward,

“I am not Korean, Mommy.  I am American.”

Fast forward to my first day of college, at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign.  The first thing I hunted down was a decent Korean restaurant, to ensure that I would have sustenance for the next few years.  Thank goodness for Dorcas, the teensy-tiny family run Korean eatery on Green Street, that served unlimited quantities of kkong-namul-gook (bean sprout broth) through a water dispenser and made the best damn soon-doo-boo chigae of ever (…besides my mom’s, of course).  I could have stuck a chopstick in my “Korean-ness.”

Over the years, my palate continued to be my “tell.”  My favorite meal consisted of three things: rice, water, kimchi.  If I was feeling fancy, I’d have a few sheets of keem (roasted nori) to wrap around my rice.  And every time my mother saw me eating this way, she’d remark with a great deal of joy that, for some reason, continues to pierce my chest,

“You are definitely Korean.”

So, when I went vegan about a year ago, all I could think about was how my mother used to massage the great big heads of bright cabbage with handfuls of saewoojeot (fermented baby shrimp) on Kimchi Days…  and I wondered,

If I can’t eat kimchi anymore… am I still Korean?


As I’ve written about earlierThe Korean Vegan is, in large part, a project that aimed to prove to everyone and to me that I didn’t have to shed my identity together with meat.  Thus, figuring out a way to make vegan kimchi not just look like kimchi but taste like the kimchi I grew up eating was critical.

My favorite kimchi of all kimchi (there are many many different kinds of kimchi) is invariably chonggak kimchi, made with Korean baby radishes.  So, I knew when I decided to finally tackle kimchi, I would be making chonggak kimchi.  But first, I would have to figure out a way to mimic the fish sauce that was called for in every single recipe of chonggak kimchi I’ve ever seen.

Now, you might ask, “Why not just omit the fish sauce?  Surely, it can’t make that much difference!”  My mother took this approach when I first went vegan.  She spent hours making me a huge batch of regular kimchi without fish sauce.  She lugged it all the way to my house in a large kimchi jar to store in my new home.  We both agreed,

“This isn’t very good.”

I was thereafter pretty intimidated.  Despite receiving hundreds of requests from followers of the blog for my vegan kimchi recipe, I deflected.  I made vague assurances that one would be forthcoming, without any real plan in mind for how that would materialize.  But, after watching my mom and everyone else in my family chomp down on mouthwatering kimchi, and finding zero non-fish-sauce options at the Korean grocery store, I determined that the only way to address this gaping deficiency in my fridge was to make my own.

Starting with my own vegan fish sauce.


Google vegan fish sauce, and you’ll find plenty of recipes.  I’ve tried a bunch of them, but none of them provided the requisite tang for my kimchi–which is literally the only reason I would ever had any need for fish sauce.  So, after trying a few things here and there, I put together a bunch of flavors that I thought might work. After some trial and error, my Fishy Sauce was born.  I added it to my kimchi, and voila:

I had chonggak kimchi that tasted almost as good as I remembered it when I was busy trying to convince my mother that I was American.

Recipe for My Favorite Kimchi Of All Time.

 

The Pickled Perilla Leaf.

My grandmothers were both born in what is now known as North Korea.  Of course, it was just Korea back then and both my grandmothers died here in the United States, far away from the war-torn country they watched on their tv sets.  While they got to rear their grandchildren with things like wall-to-wall carpeting, VCRs, endless varieties of fresh fruit, and backyards to themselves, their worn hands held all the stories of poverty that very few in the US could ever tell.

They were farmers.  Above all things, to them, wealth was a function of growing things–lots of things.  So, when my mother’s mother first immigrated to the little town of Skokie, Illinois, she nearly wept at the expanse of our backyard.  Within a couple summers, we had stalks of golden corn lining the perimeter, squash the size of fairy tales  tucked into the corners, chilis peeking out from the eaves, and, her crown jewel, a patch of dark earth with neat rows of perilla leaves lifting their bright green faces to the sun.

It was my job to pick the leaves and bring them back to the kitchen.  By then, the stalks were so tall, I could imagine wandering through a thicket of alien trees, far far away from my home, Skokie, or even Earth.  Until, of course, my grandmother’s voice would peal through the summer air like an old familiar tune and reel me back,

“Sunyoung-ah!  Hurry back!”

What I wouldn’t give to have a backyard of my own with a patch of perilla leaves as tall as I am.  What I wouldn’t give to smell the sweet burning scent of gochugaru on my grandmother’s dark hands as she pickled the leaves I had only just picked for her. What I wouldn’t give to hear my hahl-muh-nee’s voice, tugging at my heart and pulling me back into the warmth of our kitchen.

What I wouldn’t give…

Pickled Perilla Leaf Recipe.