Adoptee Potluck Club: How Alyse Whitney Adopted New Traditions with Fellow Asian American Adoptees

published May 12, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Illustrations: Nancy Pappas

When I close my eyes and picture comfort food, I imagine a big scoop of my mom’s “rice pudding.” I put that in quotes because it is not the sweet, creamy, delightfully gloopy dessert you may be imagining right now. Instead, it’s an astoundingly simple, 15-minute-prep-time, savory soufflé of fluffy white rice, tender eggs, butter, and milk. 

It’s a recipe full of memories. It was the first time I saw someone separate eggs for a recipe. My mom, Andrea, would stand at the kitchen counter whipping up egg whites using a 20-year-old KitchenAid white-ish hand mixer until they barely held their peaks when she pulled the beaters away. She then carefully folded them into the golden yolks and buttery rice, and I watched as the streaks of fluffy white egg whites slowly disappeared. (Unlike Schitt’s Creek’s David and Moira Rose, I have been a pro at folding since early childhood.) It baked up into a fluffy-yet-crispy masterpiece, and in turn a highly requested dish for all holiday gatherings. I even joked that I wanted a three-tier rice pudding cake for my 30th birthday. (My 30th was a pandemic birthday, and I moved across the country to Los Angeles, so we haven’t made it happen — yet.)

As a Korean American adoptee, rice is part of both of my cultures — Korean and American — in completely different ways. Other than rice pudding, most of my memories of eating rice as a kid were the boil-in-bag Uncle Ben’s that we had as an occasional side with dry Shake ‘n Bake pork chops and a can of green beans. I describe my adoptive parents’ style of cooking as simple, recipe-following (often from the back of a box), and quintessentially American. And even though the food didn’t excite me every time, I was able to add a little dash of this or that from the dusty spice cabinet to zhuzh it up.

Growing up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood near Binghamton, New York, as the only Asian person in my small graduating class of 164 people, I had a limited exposure to Asian American people, food, and culture. My parents helped me and my younger brother, Alex — also adopted from a different family in South Korea three years later on my birthday! — learn about our Korean roots through a lovely Korean Mentor Program at Binghamton University. 

Credit: Courtesy of Alyse Whitney

There, we learned how to roll gimbap (rice rolls) and make pajeon (crispy savory pancakes); attempted some Korean language (I can say a few words and many Korean dishes now in my 30s); and participated in a talent show singing and dancing to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” (I can both sing and do part of the dance to this day — by special request only.) My parents also took us to a Korean baptist church for Sunday school even though our family wasn’t religious (but raised half Jewish and half Christian) and they couldn’t understand the language, and took us to a summer camp for adoptees and their families in New Jersey, where we learned to make Korean BBQ classics.

Things changed when I was a preteen and outgrew the Korean Mentor Program. I no longer had a community of Korean American or Asian American adoptees in my life. I pushed down the Korean parts of myself because I was always surrounded by white people. I tried to make myself more white and more American because I didn’t feel Korean enough to make friends with Korean or Asian people in college (the majority of whom were exchange students) but I wasn’t white enough, at least on the outside, to assimilate in that way. 

But after moving to New York City in 2011 — and especially in the post-Crazy Rich Asians world where Asian Americans were part of pop culture and I could see myself on the big and small screens and the covers of magazines — I started embracing being Korean American. Both Korean and American in my own ways. I made more Asian friends who helped me learn more about many cultures and slowly made me feel less insecure in not being “Asian enough” or “Korean enough.” Most of those breakthroughs and lessons in my 20s were through food — the food that is my ultimate comfort food now. Even though I’ve never been to Korea, part of me still misses it somehow, and I comfort that part of myself with a big plate of japchae or crab jeon.

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang; Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

Welcome to the Adoptee Potluck Club

That all leads up to a sunny spring day in Los Angeles in 2022, a day where I felt 100 percent Korean American. (Every day feels scored on a scale of how Korean I feel, depending on what I cook, the content I consume, and the people I interact with.) On this beautiful April day, I invited three fellow Asian American adoptees to break bread — okay, more like Pocky — at a beautiful rented home in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. For this inaugural (and unofficial) Adoptee Potluck Club meeting, I asked everyone to bring a dish to pass that brought them comfort, felt like home, and connected them to their uniquely Asian American identity. 

The goal of this potluck was not just to enjoy sharing our favorite flavors, dishes, and memories with each other — I wanted the whole world to feel like they were there with us. Adoptee culture, particularly transracial Asian American adoptions, has not made its way into food media yet, so I decided to change that as The Kitchn’s guest editor for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. An estimated 24 million people identified as Asian American in the 2020 United States census — including an estimated 200,000 adoptees from South Korea, China, and other Asian countries — but I haven’t felt that AAPI adoptees have broken into the mainstream Asian American narrative. AAPI Heritage Month is meant to support and amplify our community so we can thrive all day, every day during the other 11 months of the year. I hope that this potluck can be part of that uplifting celebration and inspire other adoptees to share and celebrate our multifaceted experiences the best way we know how: through food.

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Illustration: Nancy Pappas

My Korean-ish Brown Butter Blondies

The recipes that came out of this potluck — from myself and chefs Katianna Hong and Eric Ehler — are uniquely Asian American, with an Asian dish accented with an American ingredient, or an American dish enhanced with an Asian twist. For my recipe, I foolishly tried to take on the impossible: changing my mom’s rice pudding. I confidently substituted in anchovy and kelp-fortified broth for the milk, added sesame oil, and swapped in medium-grain sushi rice. I topped it off with lots of scallions and a seaweed-heavy Korean rice seasoning that Katianna makes at her restaurant, Yangban Society! It looked gorgeous — but had all the wrong textures and flavors. Ultimately it just didn’t taste like home.

So instead, I put a new spin on my mom’s cookie bar recipe (which I found out in the process is just the one from the back of the Toll House chocolate chip bag). I added doenjang, a Korean fermented soybean paste similar to, but more savory and nutty than, Japanese miso; a kiss of sesame oil just to make people say, “Hmm, what is that?” when they take a bite; and more brown sugar than white sugar in an homage to brown sugar boba and my mom’s butterscotch blondies. Plus a trio of modern twists: a brown butter base, semi-sweet chocolate wafers for pockets of melty chocolate, and flaky sea salt to finish. The result was a Korean-ish Brown Butter Blondie with super-crisp caramelized edges and an indulgent doughy, just-set center.

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui | Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang | Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

My mom hasn’t tried them yet, but I’m confident she’ll love them. The best part about these blondies is it isn’t one versus the other. They’re both incredible in different ways, with different stories behind each recipe. I’ll still request her signature adaptation of the back-of-the-bag recipe — chocolate-peanut butter cookie bars made with peanut butter chips — when I come home, and maybe she’ll add a tub of doenjang to her next shopping list. (I spotted it at Wegmans last time I visited!)

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Illustration: Nancy Pappas

Katianna’s SPAM in Biscuit Blankets

My first potluck invite went to Katianna Hong, chef-partner of Yangban Society in Downtown Los Angeles. We connected immediately when Yangban, a Korean deli concept, opened in 2021. Katianna and I were both adopted from South Korea and grew up in upstate New York. Our families had very similar palates and food traditions, from casseroles to that infamous Uncle Ben’s boil-in-bag rice. 

But somehow, we had both fallen in love with food and made careers out of it. She is the first person who taught me how to make Korean rice seasoning — a dealer’s choice blend of toasted sesame and perilla seeds, seaweed, fried garlic, salt, sugar, and nutritional yeast (in hers) — which is like a souped-up version of furikake. I now keep a jar of it beside my stove for easy access and bought the ingredients to make my own when I run out.

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui | Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang | Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

Get the recipe:
SPAM in Biscuit Blankets

When I came to dine for the third time at Yangban, Katianna dropped a special plate of something she had been experimenting with on the table, an off-menu special of SPAM in a Blanket. Instead of Pillsbury Crescent Roll dough, she made a laminated, flaky-layered, buttery biscuit as the “blanket,” which was more like a luxurious cashmere shawl. Inside was a crisp-yet-tender piece of SPAM wrapped in a piece of nori (reminiscent of Hawaiian SPAM Musubi); on top was a sprinkling of her housemade Korean rice seasoning; and on the side was a creamy honey mustard, made with Korean hot mustard and Kewpie mayonnaise. 

The plate of SPAM in a Blanket was gone in minutes, and I begged Katianna to give me the recipe. Thankfully she not only obliged — so you can now make SPAM Pigs in Biscuit Blankets, too! — but also brought them as our first bite for our potluck. They were devoured in minutes then, too, leaving only buttery crumbs and trails of honey mustard in their wake.

Katianna turned the tables on me when she asked to put my blondies on the menu at Yangban Society — and we’re going to serve them à la mode with her signature buffalo milk soft-serve. It was perfect timing, as I’ll be selling them starting May 19 in collaboration with local Los Angeles bakery The Very Best Cookie in the Whole Wide World. They’ll be available to ship nationwide, and 20 percent of the proceeds will go to Adopteen, The Park Adoption Community Center’s program for young AAPI adoptees looking to connect with their native culture, even sponsoring trips to visit their birth country. I love that we are able to collaborate in this special way, and my dream pairing will always be salty SPAM and biscuits chased with decadent brown butter blondies.

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Illustration: Nancy Pappas

Eric’s Cheesy Budae Ramyum

The next new member of the Adoptee Potluck Club is Chef Eric Ehler, who previously worked at Chinese restaurants Mister Jiu’s and Lazy Susan in San Francisco and now runs popular pizza pop-up Outta Sight. I befriended Eric, a fellow Korean American adoptee, on Instagram after watching his heartfelt and moving videos in February 2021, where he responded to Clarence Kwan’s misinformed critiques accusing him of “adopting a white gaze” at his then-restaurant Lazy Susan, and then gracefully explained how he discovered his Asian American identity through Chinese food in the small town of Holstein, Iowa. As a Korean person with a white name, I understood how hurtful adoptee erasure is, and we shared the same Asian American identity origin story of discovering and loving the flavors of Asian cuisine through Chinese American food.

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui | Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang | Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

For our potluck, Eric shared his Chinese-Korean rendition of Budae Jjigae, aka Korean Army Stew. His Budae Ramyun starts with a base of Chinese aromatics, bacon, and kimchi; is more noodle-focused than a stew; and has a few ounces of melty Velveeta cheese (instead of American cheese, which is typically in Budae Jjigae) as a nod to the casseroles of his youth. The recipe combines three facets of his identity: his Korean roots, his American upbringing, and the Chinese food he’s cooked professionally in San Francisco. It is his platonic ideal of comfort food, and now has become one of mine. 

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Illustration: Nancy Pappas

Leah’s Bubble Tea

I felt like I was going on a blind date with actress Leah Lewis on the day of the potluck. Let’s rewind for context. My first encounter with her work was through Netflix’s The Half of It, a beautiful and surprising twist on the young adult rom-com, which I watched with my mom during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Leah and I connected over Zoom for a story at Domino, and I started eating dried squid from H Mart per her recommendation. 

A little less than a year later, a week after the tragic murder of six Asian American spa workers in Atlanta, she and I Zoomed again, but this time for a roundtable at Glamour with three of her close friends, fellow Asian actresses Nicole Kang, Momona Tamada, and Adeline Rudolph. We were all grappling with what it meant to be Asian in America and our journeys in discovering and rejecting our “Asian-ness,” so the call served as a safe space and virtual support group to help process our emotions. At the time, Leah told me, “I’m still learning what it is to be Asian American … All of me is Asian, but I grew up in a white household, so it feels almost like impostor syndrome. But I am so, so proud to be Chinese.” 

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui | Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang | Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

In the year since then, Leah shared with me that she’s started trying to make her own dumplings, something that I have also attempted a few times over the years. She also started making her own Taro Green Milk Tea with Brown Sugar and Honey Boba at home — which was her delicious contribution to the potluck — and frequently stocks up on new pantry staples at Asian grocery stores. This combination brings her a little closer to all of her homes: the Chinese one she never actually visited, the Florida one she grew up in, and the Los Angeles one where she finds comfort in a mix of her mom’s German cuisine and an unlimited supply of seaweed snacks. 

When we finally met in person after almost two years of online friendship and video chats, it felt like I’d known her forever. When she complimented my custom Korean corn dog earrings, I grabbed my extra one from my purse and she put it on. She actually still has it, so I think they are our friendship korn dogs now.

We Saved You a Plate

Credit: Illustration: Nancy Pappas

When a few invitees couldn’t make a cross-country trip, I asked my friend Nancy Pappas, a fellow Korean American adoptee, to illustrate a few postcards representing the foods that helped build us. (She is a talented illustrator and designer who recently had her first solo exhibition, “Essential Ingredients: A Recipe For Rediscovery,” at Pearl River Mart in New York City, showcasing the ingredients that connect her to her Korean roots.) I asked every potluck member to share the dish that first connected them to their native culture, the dish that connected them to their American side and upbringing, and what they cook now when they’re seeking comfort. Nancy drew stunning postcards for herself and our mutual friend Chef Kristen Kish, and I sent one back to them with my defining dishes. 

Credit: Illustration: Nancy Pappas

I first met Kristen Kish, winner of Top Chef season 10 and chef-partner at Arlo Grey restaurant in Austin, at the top of the World Trade Center when I was working at Bon Appétit. We spoke off-the-record first, exchanging similar stories of our upbringings as transracial adoptees and our favorite ways to eat kimchi. When I later profiled her for Bon Appétit about her beautiful cookbook, Kristen Kish Cooking, it was only the second time I had ever written about my adoptee identity and journey. (The first was for Glamour, about how the TV show This Is Us surprisingly made me rethink finding my birth mother.) Since then, we’ve become good friends, catching up over Korean BBQ and FaceTime, and recently cooking together virtually for an event with The Park Adoption Community Center’s Adopteen program). 

I’ve learned so much about myself through getting to know Kristen, and she’s become like an unnie (older sister) to me. Had we both not been Korean adoptees, I don’t know if we ever would have connected on this level. I’m so thankful that we did.

Credit: Illustration: Nancy Pappas

Nancy Pappas is Kristen’s lobster. Kind of. Not in the Friends way or the Cheddar Bay Biscuit way, but an actual work of art: a five-foot lobster that Nancy painted for Kristen and her wife, Bianca. 

I was also first introduced to Nancy through her art. Actually, it was through someone saying to me: “Do you know Nancy Pappas, the illustrator from Cherry Bombe? She’s also a Korean adoptee. You should be friends.” Whenever someone says that to me — you should be friends because you’re both Korean, both adoptees, or both Asian, even — my knee-jerk reaction is to not be friends with that person just because we have culture in common. That came from a place of insecurity and not wanting to compare myself to someone else who is like me in many ways, or feeling like not enough. 

But I am so thankful that I pushed away those intrusive thoughts and went to dinner with her at one of my now-favorite restaurants in New York, Haenyeo in Brooklyn. We shut the place down after eating, talking, and laughing so hard that I think kimchi almost came out of my nose. I have a photo from that night that Nancy took of me that I think is the happiest I’ve ever been to be sweating and crying over a dish as I made a long cheese pull of Chef-owner Jenny Kwak’s Dukbokki Fundido, a delicious marriage of Mexican and Korean cuisines. 

Three years and multiple collaborations later, I’m thrilled to take the postcard Nancy illustrated for me and prominently display it at the entrance of my home so it’s the first thing people see when they enter. With this, I can finally share all the homes that I’ve come from, and the people along the way who made any place — whether at my karaoke stomping grounds at Gagopa in NYC’s Koreatown or at a potluck in a colorful, maximalist rental in LA — feel like home to me. 

There’s an indescribable feeling of comfort that comes with chatting with fellow Asian American adoptees. But I’ll try. It’s like being wrapped up in a soft sherpa blanket … but it’s made of warm rice. It’s like being gimbap. Or onigiri. Or zhongzhi. It’s a baseline of understanding and shared experiences I don’t have with anyone else. 

Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui | Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang | Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

Until Next Time …

Through getting to know all of these wonderful people, I got to know myself better. I discovered that everything I cook is layers of food memories stacking on top of each other. Some are Korean, some are quintessentially American, but all of them are 100 percent 수지. (That’s the Korean name I was born with, translating to Choi Soo Jee.) And all of them are 100 percent Alyse Whitney.

Even if we weren’t talking about being adoptees or being Asian, it felt like a safe space with wide open doors to open conversation. I was lucky enough to create an almost-all-Asian team with food stylist Tyna Hoang, photographer Andrew Bui, and prop stylist Casha Doemland. Two of my best friends — my amazing co-producer Jess Kane and videographer Joel Russo — flew in to help make this magical day happen and represented two big parts of my American side. Jess and I are both Jewish (me half, and her whole) and we all spent many nights in NYC eating KBBQ and doing karaoke together. They make me feel at home wherever we are.

Thinking back on this day, I’ll remember the laughter echoing through the kitchen when I fed Tyna a bagel while her hands were covered in biscuit blanket dough, and when Leah and I sang along to Paramore’s “Misery Business” while scooping jammy eggs out of kimchi-spiked broth. And that time Eric accidentally left a boba straw behind his ear for half the photos while Leah taught us how to make her signature boba. Making Katianna laugh while dancing and holding shrimp chips was a core memory. 

We gathered for a chosen family meal and built a community around a table covered in an H Mart haul of snacks. We karaoked “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” a capella outside into my boba-shaped microphones, adopted new traditions, and quite literally created a snapshot of who we are right now. 

CREDITS

Guest Editor and Producer: Alyse Whitney
Creative Consulting: StudioHaliBey
Co-Producer: Jessica Kane
Photographer: Andrew Bui
Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang
Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland
Illustrator: Nancy Pappas
Videographer: Joel Russo
Photo Assistant: Yasara Gunawardena
Location: Dazey Bungalow