Across the street from the Murray Hill stop on the Long Island Railroad, a series of tables had been set up in a public plaza. They were decorated with streamers and flowers, surrounded by Korean restaurants and small businesses, proudly displaying signboards in Korean script. The neighborhood has long been an enclave for Korean-Americans but is just now seeing an influx of New Yorkers from other parts of Queens and the boroughs beyond. This is ground zero for Korean food in New York City.
Find your Seoul, a special tasting menu with a history lesson, enabled diners to experience Murray Hill’s food alley, not unlike Seoul’s famous Mukja Golmuk street. The event was organized by the Asian American Federation along with support from Epicenter-NYC, NYC’s Open Streets and the Department of Transportation. This promises to be the beginning of a series of educational food events that celebrate the many immigrant cultures and cuisines of New York City.
“I think a lot of people who are not Asian Americans assume that we have Manhattan Chinatown and Jackson Heights and Downtown Flushing as the Asian hubs,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation. “But the reality is that there are Asian hubs everywhere, all over Brooklyn, allover the Bronx, all over Queens. This is our effort, our strategy to really highlight all of them. These neighborhood enclaves are important to us because oftentimes, historically, they were the only places where we were allowed to live.”
Find your Seoul was an interactive learning experience, with 30 diners served Korean classics and specialities like dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken), tangsuyuk (sweet-and-sour pork) and bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables). A highlight of the luncheon was food anthropologist Chi-Hoon Kim’s demonstration of the correct way to wrap the spicy meat dishes and rice in lettuce, a technique known as ssam, and then eat the tasty morsel in one bite (the polite Korean way).
“I think if people really want just the basics of Korean food, you should try going to a restaurant and maybe ordering bibimbap,” said Kim, “which is a rice bowl essentially, and you can kind of pick and choose the different ingredients that you want and you can tone down or level up the spice level if you want. If you go to a Korean barbecue restaurant, it’s very interactive. So that’s another good gateway.”
Along with providing an insight into the food being served, Kim also gave the gathered diners context about the evolution of Korean cuisine in America. “I think in this story of Korean-American immigrants, food is really important because back in the day, in the 1970s there weren’t that many Korean restaurants or places to get Korean food ingredients,” Kim said. “Now, it’s so exciting to see how it’s becoming more localized and integrated into the American culinary landscape, taking root into American culture as well.”
The diners were captivated by the combination of taste and knowledge and advocated for more such events to take place and foster cross-cultural experiences. “I think I might have been the only African American person here, and that’s not unusual,” said Tonya Hopkins, a food writer and TV personality known as the Food Griot. “An event like this is all about ambassadorship, about learning culture through food and learning different cuisines. We need more things to understand the beautiful differences of the cultures in the cuisines, but also the similarities and the synergies and what connects us.”
Want to visit Murray Hill but don’t know where to begin?
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