For one Korean American woman, honoring her family recipes began with a lunch from 3rd grade
For Sarah Ahn and her family, meals are more than just food. Each recipe holds a key to their family tree, and each plated dish comes with a personal story.
That’s why, in 2019, Ahn began to record and share these recipes with the world, telling her family’s story through food one delicious recipe at a time.
“Growing up, my mom told me that [her mom’s food] was absolutely amazing, and she wished she’d collected more of her recipes and was able to pass them down onto me,” Ahn told In The Know by Yahoo. “When I heard that, I thought it was so important to collect my mom’s food. I just figured the best way to do that was to use a website [rather than] collecting it in a notebook.”
Thus, Ahnest Kitchen was born. With the help of her mom, Nam Soon, Ahn began to painstakingly record the step-by-step instructions for making authentic Korean dishes.
But Ahn didn’t stop at a website. She also began filming her mom in the kitchen and sharing the videos to TikTok. There she tied together the delicious recipes with the deeply personal stories they came with.
From Korean kimchi hot dogs (김치 핫도그) to mini Spam kimbap (꼬마 스팸 김밥) to radish kimchi (깍두기), Ahn and Nam Soon’s recipe videos were a hit.
But it was one recipe in particular that gained @ahnestkitchen viral fame — her mom’s custom-made Korean cafe sandwich (카페 샌드위치), which garnered over 10 million views.
However, like all of Ahn’s videos, this was more than just a delicious, restaurant-level sandwich recipe. As she filmed her mom carefully constructing every layer of the sandwich — from the toasted Asian milk bread, sprinkled with sugar, to the freshly shredded cheddar cheese — Ahn told the story of how this particular sandwich came to represent assimilation and third grade shame.
“Back in third grade, my mom packed me kimbap for lunch. … But one day, this one girl was looking at my food quite intensely, and by the look on her face, I knew she thought it looked disgusting. … She asked me what the hell I was eating and why it looked so gross,” Ahn recalled in her video.
“I remember feeling absolutely petrified and embarrassed. … That was the first time I realized that the food I was eating was different and that I didn’t fit in as much as I thought I did. I went home that day and told my mom, ‘Umma, please, don’t pack me the kimbap anymore. Can you just make me a sandwich instead?'”
For Ahn, filming this deeply personal story for TikTok wasn’t an easy decision. “I actually hesitated a bit if I wanted to share that,” Ahn told In The Know. “It was such a vulnerable moment for me. … It’s an experience that I never shared with anyone. In fact, my mom didn’t even know that people said that about her kimbap until I made that very video.”
For Nam Soon, who had never questioned why her little girl no longer wanted kimbap lunches, the story came as a bit of a shock. “When I translated the meaning of the final video, I think she was initially a bit heartbroken,” Ahn told In The Know. “She had no idea I went through that, and I think a lot of our parents don’t know what we went through, because we just never wanted to share that embarrassment with them. … To be honest, we did shed a few tears.”
According to Nam Soon, hearing the truth behind her now-famous Korean cafe sandwich all these years later was difficult at first. “But she says now, thinking back about it, she’s glad that she made the street sandwich, because it’s something that is universally accepted,” Ahn said, translating for her mom. “And so she just felt happy that she was able to make that for me and fix the feelings I had.”
Thus, for Ahn and Nam Soon, cooking and filming for Ahnest Kitchen is more than just a fun project. It’s become a special bonding opportunity, one that’s brought them closer.
“I think we have more reasons to hang out with each other. We’ve always hung out together, but now we’re just creating fun new ideas together. … We’re unlocking our creativity together, and I think that’s something we’ve never done,” Ahn told In The Know.
In teaching Ahn her treasured family recipes, Nam Soon is learning a lot too. “[In teaching] me all these recipes, she’s learning a lot,” she said, with Ahn translating for her. “We fight here and there trying to get the recipe so perfect, and she says through all of that, she feels like our relationship has gotten a lot closer and continues to get closer.”
More than just the delicious recipes or the deeply personal stories, it’s that close-knit relationship that resonates so much with viewers, who leave such comments as “She’s our mom now” and “I’m so jealous. Can she be my mom and teach me all her recipes too?”
For Ahn, such comments have a deep impact. “We don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. We just try our best to make sure the bills are paid every month. So be able to show that side where we’re authentically ourselves … and for people to relate to that … it means a lot.”
While Nam Soon is deeply appreciative of all the love and support, TikTok’s adoration is a bit of a mystery to her. “Of course, it makes me feel good that people want me to be their mom, but I’m really just a normal mom,” she told In The Know.
(However, over 111,000 TikToker followers and 174,000 Instagram followers would likely beg to differ.)
While Ahn’s authentic Korean lunches might have been met with looks of disgust when she was a kid, these days, Korean food is all the rage.
Now, TikTokers of all ages and nationalities are both cooking and eating traditional Korean dishes on the regular, with hashtags like #kimchi, #kimbap and #bibimbap yielding billions of collective views on TikTok.
But Nam Soon doesn’t begrudge this newfound appreciation for Korean food.
Rather, in a series “Korean Mom/Cook Reacts,” Ahn has her mom watch and review young TikTokers as they prepare Korean dishes, which she does in a very sweet and encouraging way — even inviting the TikToker “to the potluck” at the end (the Korean equivalent of being “invited to the cookout“).
Another series, dubbed “Shop With Us,” brings viewers along as Ahn and Nam Soon pick up groceries from their local Asian supermarket or peruse the aisles of Korea Costco.
For those looking to bring Ahnest Kitchen off their phones and into their own kitchens, Ahn and Nam Soon might have exciting news to share soon.
“We are in the talks of a potential cookbook,” Ahn told In The Know. “I don’t know how much I can say so far, but watch out for something in the future — and hopefully, you all could support us!”
Judging by comments from Ahnest Kitchen followers — like @joshuaalase, who wrote in response to a TikTok video, “thank you Sarah! bro I’ve been cooking everything, you guys are the best 🙏🏾❤️” — anything this mother-daughter duo publish is sure to be met with a ton of support.
To keep up with Ahn, Nam Soon and all the delicious recipes from Ahnest Kitchen, you can subscribe on their website or follow them on Instagram and TikTok.
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