Home Is Where The Kimbap Is, Whether That's A Small Pink House In New Orleans Or An Apartment In LA
I found The Kimbap through a Google search. I wish I had a more exciting meet-cute about my favorite Los Angeles restaurant but I don't. It was my first week living in this city and I was hungry. For food, obviously. But also for something more. I wanted to be fortified, to be filled up. I wanted kimbap. When I feel the need for the kind of sustenance that goes beyond my gut, this seaweed-wrapped roll of seasoned rice, beef and pickled daikon radish is my first choice. This ubiquitous but often overlooked dish is my ratatouille, my Proustian madeleine, my mom's spaghetti. It's a taste of comfort from a simpler time.
I was eight and living in New Orleans when my grandparents moved in with us. My dad returned to Korea for a job and my mom needed help running the two dry cleaners they operated while caring for my older brother and me. She called her parents, who were recently retired and contemplating their next chapter, and they showed up at our door seemingly overnight. They ended up staying with us for the next six years, with my dad flying in for visits every winter. Although I often missed my father, I rarely felt his absence thanks to my grandparents' outsized presence in our home.
My grandmother, in particular, was a fiery and commanding figure. She was also quite the gardener. After school, I'd trail behind her, asking a hundred questions about each plant she watered, both inside and outside our small pink house. What is this one called? What about that one? Soon, I knew the Korean names for all the vegetation around us. Along with the pop music countdown shows and historical dramas she kept running in the background, these conversations helped me become fluent in Korean, not an easy task considering there were no other Korean kids, aside from my two cousins, who went to my school or lived in my neighborhood.
My grandmother was also a talented cook. Never one to shy away from flavor, her food was as bold as her personality. Her stews, soups and even her soybean sprouts, which are bland by design, were robust and vibrant, pushing against the edge of being too spicy or too salty without ever crossing the line. Of the many dishes my grandma perfected, her kimbap was my favorite.
Often packed on road trips and picnics because of its portable nature, kimbap is a practical, communal food. It's also a celebratory dish. My parents took it to church outings at Brechtel Park in Algiers, a historic New Orleans neighborhood a few miles east of where we lived. After sitting through a long sermon and tiring ourselves out from rounds of tug of war and three-legged races, we'd stack our plates high with slices of kimbap and collapse onto large woven blankets.
One year, when my brother was in high school and still went on family vacations, we loaded a cooler full of kimbap, portioned by my grandmother into individual foil sachets, and set out on the eight-hour drive to San Antonio. At some point, my mom fell asleep in the front seat. While she was napping, my dad, brother and I dug into the kimbap, paying no attention to my grandmother's thoughtful packing. When mom woke up and saw we were eating her rolls, she panicked and scarfed down as much kimbap as she could. Then, she promptly got sick. We still laugh about it in my family.
Two decades later, I walked into The Kimbap, a Koreatown restaurant where I was greeted by a colorful menu with comically enlarged photos of 15 kinds of rolls, including a few my grandmother would be baffled by — mayo shrimp and cream cheese anchovies. The woman behind the counter, sturdily built and with the sort of plump, smooth skin that gives me hope about aging, reminded me of every ajumma I grew up with at church. She smiled as I studied the menu and finally decided on two options: a SPAM roll and a beef roll. I figured the classics would be a good place to start.
The minute I got to my car, I tore into the rolls. The tenuous moment when reality meets anticipation can be dangerous. It holds so much promise and yet it's so ripe with potential disappointment. But everything about The Kimbap — the menu, the food, the bright yellow walls, the ajumma who rang up my order — was perfect. As soon as the first bite of rice and SPAM hit my mouth, I knew I had found what I was looking for. I ate in bliss. Not even the 405 at rush hour could dampen my mood.
At 34, I was new to Los Angeles and new to being single. After ending a long engagement, I was still trying to make sense of the broken pieces of my past life. "Everything hurt and nothing killed me," Anne Patchett wrote in her book of essays, These Precious Days. It was an accurate description of my last few years.
Four years before the end of my 12-year relationship, I had been diagnosed with cancer. The grueling treatments left me discolored from the radiation and disfigured from the surgeries. A second cancer diagnosis in the midst of the pandemic led to another surgery, one I had to face alone because of COVID-19 safety measures. My beloved grandmother, who had taught me Korean through botany and K-Pop, ended up spending her final years in a nursing home, separated from all of us. She passed away just as vaccinations were being rolled out and we were planning a reunion. After a series of practice breakups, my fiancé and I ended things for good and I moved to Los Angeles. To say "the last few years have been difficult" doesn't begin to scratch the surface. But here I am. Still standing, still searching, still hungry.
Whenever I look at a roll of kimbap, I picture my grandmother sitting at our brown lacquered dining table, next to a giant vat of rice and plates of perfectly sliced fish cakes, pickled yellow radishes, cucumbers and carrots. In that cozy kitchen next to the dining room that barely fit our family, she showed me the meaning of strength. I could see it when she was supporting my sick mom or watching my brother and me or in the way her crinkly arms bulged with every roll she pressed into submission.
At first glance, people often mistake kimbap for sushi. But as my grandmother, who lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea when she was a girl, told me, "It is a food of our own." It's an evolved iteration of kimssam, a humble rice and seaweed wrap that dates back to the Goryeo period around the 13th century. Some people think kimbap is a byproduct of Japanese occupation, co-opted by Koreans to match our taste. I wish I could tell you definitively one way or the other. More than that, I wish I could ask my grandmother. I still have so many questions for her. All I can say is that from a taste perspective, kimbap is not sushi.
For starters, you'll almost never find raw fish in kimbap. You might find the occasional bit of canned chamchi or tuna, but it's a less common filling than beef, SPAM or fish cake. Then, there's the rice itself. The rice in Japanese sushi is typically flavored with vinegar while the rice in kimbap is seasoned with sesame oil. Calling kimbap "Korean sushi" is like saying meatloaf and hamburger are the same thing because they both involve ground meat.
To me, kimbap is the perfect amalgamation of Korean food in a single bite. It's subtly sweet and savory with a hint of funk hiding in a scrap of kimchi or a sliver of pickled radish. It's bold but balanced, chewy in some bites, crunchy in others and always colorful. If you took all the banchan, or side dishes, that make a meal, then rolled them up into one compact snack, you'd have kimbap, with each bite revealing a new flavor or texture.
My second time at The Kimbap, the ambiguously aged ajumma running the place recommended I dip the SPAM roll into hot sauce, which she packed for me without asking. This was the moment I knew I would become a dangol sonim (a regular customer). When I caught her singing along to a BTS song playing in the background, I decided to become a lifer. By my third visit, we shared a laugh about the unfortunate name of one of the kimbap fillings on the menu: "rape flower," a green that resembles blanched spinach and should probably stick to its Korean name, yuchae.
Walking out with my order in hand, I took another look at the slogans painted on the bright yellow walls. "Diets are supposed to start tomorrow anyway!" "If you eat it deliciously, it's zero calories." I had found my spot.
Although I've been living in Los Angeles for only five months, my time here has already been marked by profound moments of joy. I know I am exactly where I need to be. Even amid the quiet, lonely hours when I have been steeped in grief and uncertainty, I feel hopeful sitting in my sun-drenched Westside apartment. Whenever that feeling starts to slip away, I head to The Kimbap for a taste of their exquisitely seasoned rice and crisp daikon radish along with a reminder of the small pink house where my grandmother made my life so full.