Cooking in Translation

With the help of her Korean mother in Seoul and Italian-American mother-in-law in Brooklyn, a New Yorker becomes master of her own cuisine, and finds that taste buds have no borders.

Cooking in Translation

“Eating is not only [for] survival. This is who you are—what you eat.”

“I always wanted to come to New York because I think New York is the center of everything,” says Choi Yoon Hee, who arrived here from South Korea at age twenty-eight. “I’m a very curious person. I’m born to be international—it’s very natural for me.”

Choi Yoon Hee, two years before she came to America in 1981. (Photo courtesy Christine Colligan)
Choi Yoon Hee, two years before she came to America in 1981. (Photo courtesy Christine Colligan)

Growing up in a well-off family in Seoul in the 1960s and ’70s, Choi was exposed to plenty of international culture and cuisine, as well as more traditional Korean food: hearty stews, spicy noodles, fresh seafood—and crushingly rigid social norms, which chafed against her ebullient personality.

“I’m very talkative and I had a lot of questions in school—I’m different,” she recalls. “Since I was young I always felt like I didn’t fit there.”

By the early 1980s Choi had established herself as a successful jewelry designer in Seoul. She wanted to advance her career, but there were no jewelry design courses in Korea at that time.

So she came here.

Choi arrived in New York City in 1983, after a brief stint chaperoning Korean high schoolers in Virginia. She found a roommate in Flushing, Queens, and started working as an assistant designer for a jewelry company in Midtown Manhattan. In the evenings she took courses in jewelry and shoe design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design.

Like many young New Yorkers, she lived mostly on take-out meals. Her only complaint about American food: the huge portions.

“I went to a diner for the first time, and a whole family could eat [my portion],” she recalls. “It was so big. I just couldn’t eat it.”

At that time, Korean ingredients were already easy enough to find in New York City—especially in Flushing, where there was a large Korean community. But Choi had never cooked for herself while living at home in Seoul; maids, overseen by her mother, prepared her family’s meals. And in those early New York years, when she was focusing on her career, she had no free time to spend in the kitchen. Besides, she just wasn’t that interested in cooking.

But that changed after a fellow student at Parsons—a quiet, slim Irish-Italian New Yorker, seven years her junior—invited Choi to go with him to a shoe design show.

“I wasn’t really into cooking,” Choi recalls, “until after I got married.”

“New York and Seoul” – Colligan   (Audio by Anne Noyes Saini)

“I think I can find anything in New York and Seoul. It’s about the same—world is the same.”

Today Choi, fifty-nine, goes by “Christine Colligan.” Her English first name was suggested by an official at the American embassy in Seoul when she obtained her first student visa. It sounded good with her last name, so she kept it. Her Irish surname came when she married Richard Colligan—now fifty-two, the man she met in that shoe design class at Parsons. He was a young graphic designer and went out of his way to be kind to her. Both artists, they started spending time together visiting the city’s museums.

“I thought he was interesting to talk to because we are both artists and we see things artistically. I really liked him,” Colligan recalls. “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I wasn’t going to stop. If I want something, nothing can stop me.”

Christine Colligan today. Photo by Mark Rinaldi.
Christine Colligan today. (Photo by Mark Rinaldi)

Their friendship evolved into romance and after dating for two years, he brought up marriage. But Colligan was hesitant. She knew that marrying outside her culture would have special challenges.

“I told him: ‘If you want to marry me, you have to come to Korea to see what it’s like before we get married,’” she says.

The trip went well—he impressed her family with his burgeoning knowledge of Korean food and culture—and the two were married in 1986.

They settled in a little apartment on 10th Street in the West Village, and Colligan quit school to help her husband run a clothing store specializing in vintage t-shirts, shoes and boots. In her free time she took on freelance jewelry design projects. In 1988, their older daughter Sarah was born, followed by Becky in 1991.

Her Italian-American and Irish-American in-laws welcomed Colligan warmly—but at times, in those early years, they struggled to communicate across language and cultural barriers.

Colligan worked hard to bridge the gaps. Every Sunday after church she made regular visits to her husband’s Italian-American mother (herself the daughter of immigrants from Naples who settled in Brooklyn). The two often cooked together, and Colligan started learning her mother-in-law’s recipes.

“I wanted to learn her recipes because my husband grew up with that food,” Colligan says. “I learned what he liked and then I cooked that. Every time I cooked a good meal, he was really happy. Sharing a meal means you share your love. It’s the center of your togetherness.”

While she was learning Italian cooking from her mother-in-law, Colligan was also discovering her family’s Korean cooking traditions for the first time. At first she struggled to recreate favorite family dishes—such as squid stew (ojinguh jigae), mackerel braised with soy sauce (godenguh jorim), and spicy cold noodles (bibimguksu)—based on memories of watching her mother in the kitchen. Occasionally, phone calls home turned into long-distance cooking tutorials with her mother.

Left: Shopping for somyeon at a Korean grocery store in Flushing, Queens. Right: Boiling Somyeon noodles for her bibimguksu dish. (Photos by Mark Rinaldi)
Left: Shopping for somyeon at a Korean grocery store in Flushing, Queens. Right: Boiling Somyeon noodles for her bibimguksu dish. (Photos by Mark Rinaldi)
Recipe as told to Mark Rinaldi and Anne Noyes Saini.
Recipe as told to Mark Rinaldi and Anne Noyes Saini.

Colligan’s husband and his family encouraged her to keep cooking both Korean and Italian food.

“Whenever they came [to visit] when I first got married, I cooked Korean food. I cooked bulgogi [thin strips of marinated meat], japchae [noodles stir-fried with vegetables]—easy-to-eat food,” she recalls. “Whatever I cooked they accepted it.”

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Colligan on mixing traditional cooking with some modification.  (Audio by Anne Noyes Saini)

“My cooking is: I learn from whoever has a good idea with my own tradition—with a little bit of a modification.”

Over the years Colligan’s cooking evolved, melding her Korean traditions from home with those of her Italian-American mother-in-law.

From her own mother she learned how to extract deep flavors from simple ingredients, like radish, scallion, anchovies and squid. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law taught her to use the freshest possible ingredients in her cooking.

Colligan with her mother, Jong Ja Lee, on May 31, 1983, at Kimpo airport in South Korea en route to America. Lee passed away in 2006.
Colligan with her mother, Jong Ja Lee, on May 31, 1983, at Kimpo airport in South Korea en route to America. Lee passed away in 2006.

Her mother-in-law’s Italian cooking revolved around a few mild seasonings: olive oil, onion, garlic, tomato, salt and pepper.

“She cooked very simple food, but it always tasted so good,” Colligan says.

In contrast, staple Korean ingredients, several of which are fermented and specially aged, include scallion, garlic, sesame oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce, rice wine, spicy red pepper paste (gochujang) and funky-salty fermented soy bean paste (doenjang).

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding that Korean food is hot, but that’s not true,” Colligan explains. “There’s some hot Korean food, but there’s all different kinds: sweet or bitter and salty.”

Still, there are many similarities between the two cuisines. Colligan quickly realized that Koreans and Italians share a love of simple methods of cooking. She points to Italian primavera and Korean japchae—both light dishes that combine mildly seasoned noodles and vegetables.

“Both Koreans and Italians use a lot of garlic. And we both eat a lot of fruit and salad,” she adds. “The only difference is [Koreans] use red pepper [paste] instead of tomato.”

That distinction became clear when Colligan’s mother-in-law once mistook a Korean stew simmered with tofu, kimchi (fermented cabbage) and spicy red pepper paste for cheese and vegetables cooked in tomato sauce.

“She tasted it and was like, ‘Aaah!’” Colligan says, chuckling at the memory of her mother-in-law’s alarmed expression.

Colligan with her mother in law, Christina, during Sarah's fifth birthday in 1993. Christina passed away in September of 2012.
Colligan with her mother in law, Christina, during Sarah’s fifth birthday in 1993. Christina passed away in September of 2012.

Early in her marriage, Colligan worried about balancing both cuisines.

“After we got married I was cooking one day Korean food, one day Italian food—going back and forth every day.”

But today she is at ease cooking both, and has made limited forays into several others. She still makes mackerel simmered with soy sauce—one of her mother’s favorite dishes. But her mother-in-law’s way of making codfish—cooked lightly in olive oil with garlic, onion, and tomato—has also become one of her specialties.

“I love the way she cooked codfish,” Colligan says. “She cooked it very lightly, and the fish was very fresh, almost like tofu: soft, delicious, and melting in your mouth.”

Osso buco (veal shank simmered in beef stock with garlic, onion and tomato) and meatballs are also a regular part of her kitchen repertoire.

Over time she has learned to combine Korean flavors with common American ingredients. Salmon, a fish Colligan’s husband especially loves, is not commonly used in Korean cooking. But she marinates it in the same blend of salty, sweet and savory seasonings used in Korean bulgogi and then pan fries the salmon lightly, using the method she learned from her mother-in-law, to create a delicate crust on both sides.

Left: Colligan pan fries the Salmon. Right: Colligan's Bibim Guksu, topped with Samsek Namul and Salmon "Bulgogi." (Photos by Mark Rinaldi)
Left: Colligan pan fries the Salmon. Right: Colligan’s Bibim Guksu, topped with Samsek Namul and Salmon “Bulgogi.” (Photos by Mark Rinaldi)

Colligan’s blended cooking traditions reveal something about how she sees herself after living outside Korea for so long: as a mediator who moves deftly between different cultures.

“I’m Korean, I’m American, I’m Italian, I’m everything. I cannot define myself only as Korean,” she says. “I know these cultures, and I cook them, and my children grew up in them. I’m in them. I have a lot of hats. That’s me—I’m a multi-tradition person.”

Colligan on her American-born daughters.    (Audio by Anne Noyes Saini)

“Their tongue is used to my food. It’s in them already.”

Colligan with her daughters, Becky (left), and Sarah in 1998.
Colligan with her daughters, Becky (left), and Sarah in 1998.

Colligan took pains to share Korean culture with her American-born daughters, Sarah, twenty-five, and Becky, twenty-two. When they were young she brought them with her to Korea almost every year, spoke Korean with them at home and sent them to Korean language classes on Saturdays.

“I wanted them to grow up to be proud of what they are. I wanted them to be able to say who they are with their own mouths. I want them to know who they are,” she says. “I tried so much. But they didn’t want it. Later on they found it themselves.”

When the girls were old enough to help in the kitchen, Colligan took a different tack. Only when they asked for recipes or chose to watch her working in the kitchen did she show them how to cook. She purposely refused to force her blend of Korean and Italian cooking on them.

From left: Becky, Sarah and Richard Colligan in 2012.
From left: Becky, Sarah and Richard Colligan in 2012.

Both daughters are now grown and living away from home. Becky is studying Korean language at Yonsei University in Seoul, and Sarah, a recent graduate of Cooper Union in art and engineering, lives in Brooklyn.

Both girls are functionally bilingual in Korean and English. But at home they speak English—otherwise their father feels left out.

“They feel their identity. They feel proud,” Colligan says. “They represent East and West.”

Sometimes they call home to ask their mother how to cook a particular dish, and Colligan tutors them by phone—just as her own mother, back in Korea, once guided her cooking from afar.

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About the “Mother-in-Law Cooking Chronicles” Series: 

This Narratively piece is based on our forthcoming series of multimedia cooking features. We spend time with home cooks in New York City’s immigrant communities—our adopted “mothers-in-law,” who hail from every corner of the globe. We cook with them and learn their recipes. Then we share their cooking techniques, along with their personal stories of adapting to life in America.

These recipes and stories honor global food cultures and the immigrants who spread them throughout the world. The project also reflects our own experiences as the children of immigrant parents, grandparents, and parents-in-law—who shared their Italian and Indian cooking traditions with us, in the hope that we would keep these foods and traditions alive.