How this Korean American cook and mom of 2 honors her birth and adoptive mothers through food

Eun Ae Koh.
Eun Ae Koh has developed a following on social media for her candid, raw, sometimes emotional videos exploring food and her Korean heritage as an adoptee who grew up in the Midwest and was raised by white parents. (Laura Metzler Photography.)

When Eun Ae Koh is in the kitchen, she’s often thinking of two women: her adoptive mother, who wasn’t a natural when it came to cooking, and her eomma, or Korean birth mother, whose heritage inspires Koh to prepare dishes like Korean dumplings and kimchi.

Born in Korea, Koh was adopted as an infant and raised in Illinois by white parents. She says she didn’t feel a connection to her Korean heritage growing up. “There was no diversity where I grew up. My world at that time, until I left Illinois, was really small. I didn’t have any Korean food until I started making it myself. I have actually never been to a Korean restaurant outside of my trips to Korea, I just cook!”

Now living in Washington, D.C., with her two elementary-school-age children, Koh has found meaning, connection and healing through food — with her own children, with the Korean birth mother she's never met and with her adoptive mother, whom she lost to cancer when she was 16.

“She’s like a legend to my kids, because they will never know her; they’ll only know her through stories,” Koh says of her late mother. “So the joke is always like, ‘Yeah, your Grandma Claire never cooked!’ She had three recipes, and they were all ones that I didn’t like. She made a broccoli-and-chicken casserole, a tuna noodle casserole — such a Midwest ’90s thing — and then she would make fish in the microwave.”

Done is better than perfect, and I think it applies in the kitchen with both of my families. You just have to show up."Eun Ae Koh

Koh says her adoptive mother’s cooking was truly her act of love — a spirit she brings to her own cooking for her two children. “I still feel close to her when I cook, because I think she would be really shocked that I have become a mother who cooks all the time,” she says.

Koh shares with a smile, “I knew that she loved me so much, and it had nothing to do with how she cooked. Done is better than perfect, and I think it applies in the kitchen with both of my families. You just have to show up.”

While Koh grew up without any ties to her Korean background, cooking has become an integral piece of her mission to reconnect with her heritage as “a transracial adoptee finding her way back home.” Her children, she says, were a catalyst for that desire to reconnect.

“As a parent, you want your children’s lives to be easier than yours was, so you try to pick and choose the things that were really hard for you so they don’t have that same generational trauma,” Koh says. “I didn’t want to pass along that same doubt and self-hatred and self-loathing that I have carried for a really long time.”

Her commitment to enabling her children to feel proud of their heritage goes beyond just preparing traditional meals for them. She also makes a point to include them in the entire experience so that they can feel pride and real familiarity with cooking and sharing their culture through cuisine.

“When we go to [Asian supermarket] H Mart, it’s not this fanfare of new, exciting things. It’s like, ‘OK, I see these things in my house every day. … It’s as normal as what chicken tenders and mac and cheese were to me growing up. They don’t think twice. They’re not old enough yet to understand how special it is,” she says. “My son will offer up to people, ‘My mom makes kimchi all the time, I can bring you some!’”

A photo of various Korean dishes and a bowl of rice.
Koh, who plans to meet her birth father for the first time this fall, says learning to prepare Korean dishes helped her hone and honor her cultural identity. Pictured here: "thrice cooked bacon," pa kimchi (green onion kimchi,) kkadugi (radish kimchi,) pickled cucumbers, kkaenip (perilla leaves,) samgyeopsal (pork belly.) (Courtesy of Eun Ae Koh)

Today, Koh has built a community of over 275,000 followers on social media by sharing not only traditional Korean cooking, but also her unique experiences as a Korean woman who was adopted and raised in a different culture. Even more compelling, she openly shares the very raw and emotional moments in her heartwarming journey to finding pieces of herself by reconnecting with her family in Korea. She honors her biological mother by maintaining key Korean cooking traditions, like seaweed soup, which is prepared every year on a person’s birthday as an homage to their mother.

“That was one of the first dishes where I felt really connected to my birth mother and this gift she gave me,” says Koh. “I have a lot of complicated feelings about whether she even really had a choice to do what she did, and how things ended, but I feel very close to her when I make it, even though she and I are not in contact. And that’s her choice and I respect it, but when I cook it I feel a lot of both gratitude and grace towards her.”

Through food, this mother of two has been able to better understand her unique cultural identity, and help her kids find theirs.

“When I’m cooking Korean food, I feel a lot of love towards my Korean family because I love cooking for people,” she says. “It’s my way of sharing in my everyday life. It’s very hard for me to express how I feel with words, so cooking is a way that I do that. In many cultures, that’s the way parents showcase their love. There’s a healing aspect to it, because even though I’m only experiencing this cuisine as an adult, my children are growing up with it.”

Eun Ae Koh's Korean Dumpling Recipe

- 1 lb. ground pork

- 1 lb. raw shrimp (deveined, shells removed)

- 2 eggs (whisked)

- 4 tbs. rice cooking wine (suggested brand: Shao Hsing Red Label)

- 2 tsp. sesame oil

- 4 tbs. soy sauce

- 2 tsp. fish sauce

- 2 tsp. guk-ganjang, or Korean soup soy sauce (Suggested alternative: 1 tsp.

soy sauce, 1 tsp. fish sauce)

- 8 cloves garlic (peeled and minced)

- 10 oz. shiitake mushrooms chopped finely (stems removed)

- 6 tsp. ginger (peeled and minced)

- 1 tbs. (more if frying) vegetable oil or other neutral cooking oil

- 1 tsp. kosher salt

- Dumpling wrappers (These can be found in the frozen section of any Asian grocery store).

1. In a large bowl, add the ground pork.

2. Devein and remove the shells of the shrimp. Finely chop. Add to pork.

3. Whisk two eggs, and add to pork and shrimp.

4. Add rice cooking wine, sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce and guk-ganjang to the pork and shrimp.

5. Peel and finely mince 8 cloves of garlic and add to mixture.

6. Wash and pat dry 10 oz. of shiitake mushrooms. Remove the stems.

7. Finely mince the mushrooms.

8. Peel and finely mince 6 tsp. of ginger.

9. In a pan, add 1 tbs. of vegetable oil (or any other neutral oil).

10. On medium heat, add a pinch of kosher salt along with the mushrooms and ginger. Lightly sweat for 5-

minutes. Add to the pork and shrimp mixture.

11. Mix until all ingredients are fully combined. This is best done by hand.

12. Prep your dumpling-making space. Dumpling wrappers can harden quickly. To avoid this, place a damp towel over the unused dumpling wrappers and the dumplings that have been assembled.

13. Prior to assembling, you will need a small dish of warm water.

14. Lay out the first dumpling skin. Add a spoonful of the filling in the center of the skin. Take care not to overfill your dumpling.

15. Dip your fingertip into the warm water, and trace it around the outer edge of the dumpling to help seal it.

16. Fold the dumpling in half over the filling so that you’re left with a half-moon shape. Press the edges of the dumpling together tightly to seal. You can stop here, or you can keep going if you’d like to create a pattern.

17. To create a standard dumpling fold, fold small pleats along the sealed edge while pressing tightly between each pleat to ensure the dumpling stays closed during the cooking process.

18. Repeat until you’ve made the desired number of dumplings. These dumplings are delicious both fried or steamed.

19. Frying instructions: Pour a thin layer of vegetable oil into a pan to coat the entire surface. Let the pan come to temperature on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add dumplings. Work in batches. Do not crowd the pan. Cook for one minute before adding a 1⁄2 cup of water. Cover the dumplings and cook for 3-5 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking for 2-4 more minutes until the added water is fully evaporated. Remove dumplings from the pan once the bottoms are the perfect golden brown. Repeat until all dumplings are cooked.

Note: This filling freezes exceptionally well, so I always make a double batch. You’ll thank your future self when a dumpling craving hits.

Paid for by Wayfair

The GreenPan Reserve Healthy Ceramic Nonstick 2 Piece Frying Pan Set is extra tough and scratch-resistant and promotes even heat distribution.

$120 at Wayfair