Jess and a mural

Reunited: Hapas back together again

On a Brooklyn rooftop.

Three gals who met working together in Orlando, all at a party on Brooklyn rooftop, circa 2005. Hapas center and right. 😉

This past Saturday, I drove over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville to have dinner with a dear old friend. She, her partner and her baby boy had just relocated from New Jersey the week before. It was the first time I met the little guy who, as you can see from the photo at the bottom of this post, can sport a very serious demeanor for one so young!

Though technically 10 months old, he came into the world a little early, so he’s more like an 8-month-old. I remember talking to his scared mom in the hospital last June when they weren’t sure how things would turn out … But just look at him! He turned out perfect!

J and I have been friends since 2000 when we bonded working for a publication in Orlando, Florida. Back then, and I guess even now, Orlando was not the most diverse of places. It was shocking to relocate there after living in Berkeley, California, for five years. I remember thinking that I was no longer Hapa here. From the moment I returned to my home state of Florida, I was at worst “a slant-eyed starch-lover” and at best “Chinese.” It was like all I had learned, all I had been part of and fought for and discovered, didn’t matter anymore. There was no room for multiracial dialogue here. Getting someone to say “Asian” or “Asian American” instead of “Oriental” was feat enough in itself.

V & J smiling

This was when J and I lived in Brooklyn and only a short bike ride apart — she was in Park Slope and I was in Cobble Hill, circa 2008.

It was special to have a fellow Hapa at work. It was also revealing. In many ways we were a lot alike. We both had Asian mothers who came from their respective countries of origins in their 20’s. We both had American fathers. And we both had been raised in the South in somewhat fanatical evangelical households. But then she was Filipino and African American, and I was Korean and Caucasian. The world looked at us as two very different people, even though when we talked about life, our Asian mothers and our experiences with religion, we shared so much.

J and I would both end up in New York City for many years, including a magical time when we were both in Brooklyn, which is when I took that pic of her at the top of this post. But in 2009 I moved to SF and she went to Seattle. J would return to the Big Apple once again before making this latest trip West.

Over dinner we talked about the couple’s recent trip to Ireland to visit her partner’s family. Cork was beautiful, she said, but not very diverse. One part of her would live there, but the other part knew she didn’t want to be one of the few “brown” people in town. We talked a little about California, about being mixed and about being Hapa. “People don’t blink an eye at mixed kids here anymore,” I told her. “I know,” she said. “Almost every other family I see here is mixed.”

It feels surreal to have this dear old friend as a neighbor again — third time’s a charm! I hope they love it here.

Picture of quapa kid

OK, so just look at this little Quapa gem — Filipino-African American mom and a dad who came all the way over from Cork, Ireland. What a cutie!

Gold and ginseng for your face

Face Off: Ginseng gold slather stuff battles wrinkles on my face


OK, so Koreans are now synonymous with plastic surgery and known, worldwide, for being ridiculously obsessed with beauty — and I mean the straight up physical kind. I held out pretty long on the Korean beauty product craze, even waiting until last year to try the now ubiquitous BB cream.

But finally, I’ve given in. My people are onto something … Enter The Face Shop, where you can find a Korean beauty product to fight every flaw — real or imagined — on your face. And, perhaps, more impressively, fight those flaws at a variety of price points.

I patronized the one in SF’s very own JapanTown, which, despite all its oddities, I have a total soft spot for … At any rate, I decided if I’m going to go for it, to go for the gold. So that’s exactly what this is. I purchased this over-priced vat of facial serum, paired with a glass dropper of magic oil. It is made, allegedly, of gold (?!?) and ginseng, which, to Koreans, is pretty much like gold.

Official verbiage from back of fancy box:

Myeonghan Miindo Heaven Grade Ginseng Cream Special Set
24K Gold Cream with the wild autogenous power of 6-yr-old Heaven Grade Ginseng and Natural Pine Mushrooms

That’s right — mushrooms. I’ll let you know when I start looking younger.

BB Cream Tube

I also purchased a much less absurdly priced product, a BB Cream, which seems to be working quite well. Clearly it’s been in use and already taken a beating.

Korean American Quapa

New Year, New Hapa


I started my New Year holding a brand new Hapa. This little Korean, Argentinian, German and Scandinavian angel (pictured above) is, alas, not mine. But what a lovely way to welcome 2014!

The NYE crew also included a slew of grown-up Hapa’s, still kinda cute in our old age.



Hapa Christmas to You!


It’s Xmas time! And we all know what that means, Hapa’s uniting all over the country, my home being no exception. So how to do we celebrate the birth of the little baby Jesus in the Kim-ish family? With karaoke and King crab — a pescatarian feast for my picky, non-meat-eating cousin and cousin-in-law. A very Hapa Christmas to you all and to all a good night!
Family at tableKing crab legs


In the Kitchen: Mandu and memories


When I make dumplings, I think of Christmas. I am transported back to my childhood and my grandparent’s house in a Florida golf community. My halmoni, mom and aunties are sitting around the square table in the breakfast nook, chattering in Korean and folding tasty fillings into doughy pillows. Later, the dumplings will be steamed, pan-fried or boiled.

I fold along with them, though my versions tend to be over-stuffed and a little sloppy. Still, it’s great to be the kid amongst the grown-ups. Most of what they say sweeps over my head, but I can usually get the gist by interpreting the tone of their voices. If they are speaking in whispers, chances are the subject is one of the men sitting over in the living room in front of the TV.

I still love to make and eat mandu. It’s the tastiest of nostalgia, Christmastime or not … These were made with beef, kimchi, zucchini and tofu, a little twist on our old family classic.

It’s important to get rid of as much liquid as you can. So salt the zucchini for 10 minutes before rinsing, and squeeze out as much juice as you can from the kimchi. The former should be chopped small enough not to make big lumps and possibly tears in the skins. The latter can be whirred up in the food processor, quick and easy.

The filling. And, yes, that's a cookie scoop!

Not too much filling or the dumplings will leak.

The first fold.

Pinched shut.

In go the "fancy" folds ...

The final product.

A great local brand of dumpling skins -- nice and thick!

Off the Press: Profile of a zainichi …


Kei poses by a mural near downtown Oakland.

I had the honor of writing an article about Kei Fischer, an Oakland-based activist, for KoreAm Journal’s February issue. (Read article.) In 2008, Kei and her friend Miho Kim founded Eclipse Rising, an organization for zainichi Koreans in the Bay Area.

A piece of artwork by Kei's mother.

Zainichi Koreans, with a population of more than one million, are Japan’s largest minority group. Though they trace their roots back to the early 1900s, they are still discriminated against socially and politically. Many zainichi choose to “pass” in their everyday lives by using Japanese names. Sometimes they even hide their identities from their own children.

Kei has two master's degrees: one in ethnic studies and another in education.

Eclipse Rising, named in reference to Japan’s emblematic Rising Sun, aims to create a community among zainichi Koreans living in the States. Its members also work to improve the treatment of zainchi Koreans and other minority groups in Japan.

In concert with the Japan Pacific Resource Network, Eclipse Rising has been raising funds for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011. The Japan Multicultural Relief Fund aids underserved minority communities that have been overlooked by mainstream relief efforts. These include zainichi Korean schools, Korean comfort women, migrant workers, single mothers, and children and adults with special needs.

At their annual holiday party, Kei and fellow Eclipse Rising member Kyung Hee Ha send out letters thanking donors to the Japan Multicultural Relief Fund.

Please consider donating to this important cause.

On the Table: A birthday blowout dinner at Benu


I wrote a profile about chef Corey Lee for the November 2011 issue of KoreAm magazine (read article), which I blogged about a few days ago (read post). The day before we went to press, Lee’s one-year-old restaurant, Benu, debuted in the Michelin’s 2012 Red Guide San Francisco with two stars. Amazing, though not unexpected, from this uber-talented 34-year-old Korean American.

A happy ending

I needed a justification to spend the kind of cash this swank SoMa eatery requires. My birthday, which this year fell the day before Thanksgiving, was an ideal excuse. I invited three friends who weren’t leaving town along for the fine-dining fete.

We committed to the full tasting menu, and what a delightful (and very expensive) ride! For $180 per person (and the whole table must join in), we consumed an amuse bouche, 19 dishes plus an exquisite piece of birthday cake. Highlights included oyster and pork belly with kimchi; eel in feuille de brick with creme fraiche and lime; foie gras xiao long bao; beef braised in pear, beech mushroom, sunflower seeds and leaves; and lychee and red bean with matcha custard and wild rice.

Duck, celery, chestnut, persimmon, Shaoxing wine.

As a bonus, an older, quite elegant couple from New York sat at the table next to ours. They peppered our dinner conversation with surprisingly knowledgeable (and humorous) quips about mysterious menu items such as crispy cod milt (sperm) and espelette (pepper hailing from the Basque region of France and Spain).

Guests of a famed winemaker, they were enjoying Thanksgiving in Napa while their children busied themselves elsewhere. When it came time for the bill, the server discreetly offered it gratis. They refused, saying they would only let Benu comp the wine.

Who were these people?

Of course, after they left, I asked. Turns out we were conversing with Florence Fabricant, writer for the New York Times and author of myriad cookbooks, including the altruistic who’s who recipe compendium, “Park Avenue Potluck: Recipes from New York’s Savviest Hostesses.” You can read her regular posts in the Diner’s Journal on

Florence Fabricant of the New York Times.

What a happy birthday for me. 🙂

Lychee, red bean, matcha custard, wild rice.

The tasting menu.

Off the Press: A profile of Chef Corey Lee


Corey Lee standing in Benu's sunny kitchen.

I interviewed and photographed Corey Lee at his restaurant Benu for the November 2011 issue of KoreAm magazine. What a treat. Set in an alleyway in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, the restaurant, which opened in 2010, has already garnered two Michelin stars.

Here’s a look at some of the pictures that didn’t make it into the magazine. To read the full article, click here.

Lee designed the tableware for his restaurant with a renown Korean porcelain maker.

A cup bearing Lee's moniker.

Homemade tofu in kimchee broth with chrysanthemum leaves.

A modern, minimalist sign serves as portent to the dining room's style.

Sea cucumbers bubble in a sous vide machine. Lee co-wrote a book on the cooking method with his former boss, Thomas Keller of French Laundry.

One of the kitchen staff weighs each pair of dumpling skins.

Well wishes decorate a plain white column in the kitchen. This one is from the famed Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in nearby Berkeley, Calif.

Bojagi: Korean traditional wrapping gets its day in the sun


My version of a traditional Korean wrapping cloth, only made in stone. It now sits in my minigarden, the lone product of my mosaic ambitions.

A crafty friend just sent me a link to an upcoming exhibit at SF’s Museum of Craft and Folk Art. Opening on June 17 and on display through Oct. 23, “Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now” puts b(p)ojagi, traditional Korean wrapping cloths, front and center. I saw my first bojagi at the British Museum  in London in 2001. It was included in an exhibit on the art and archaeology of Korea, part of the museum’s general collection. I loved the piece so much, I bought the accompanying book. (See below.)

"Harmony" by Eun-Ji Lee; Silk, natural dyeing, 25.6 in x 21.7 in

The SF exhibit, which comprises works by more than 30 Korean artists and dozens of others from countries as diverse as Finland and Japan, features some amazing traditional and non-traditional takes on the artform. Two of my favorites by Eun-Ji Lee and Yeon-Joon Chang take wildly different interpretations of the bojagi concept.

For years I wanted to make something that honored this same tradition, but, alas, I did not inherit my mother and my halmoni‘s sewing genes. I tried to convince an old roommate who’d become obsessed with quilting to make some bojagi. But despite her Korean roots, she was more into making traditional Western quilts and the like.

"Matrix 0909" by Yeon-Soon Chang; Abaca fiber, indigo dye, machine sewn, 13.4in x 13.2in x 5.3in

Then in 2009, just after moving West to California, I enrolled in a mosaic’s class. I can’t draw, paint or sew, but I can arrange, darn it! And so I made the best homage I could out of broken tiles and mortar. I realized that I will never be a great mosaicist, but the stepping stone makes a nice addition to my porch garden.

The Museum of Craft and Folk Art is located at 51 Yerba Buena Lane, San Francisco, California. Museum hours are Wed. through Sat. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Sun. to Tues.). Admission is $5 for general public, $4 for seniors, (62 and older).  For more information call (415) 227-4888 or visit

The inspiration for my mosaic bojagi from Korea: Art and archaelogy, p. 157.

Written by Jane Portal, Korea: Art and archaeology was published by the British Museum Press in 2000.