There’s No Christmas Lunch Like a Korean American Church Lunch

At the Dongsan Korean Reformed Church in Yonkers, N.Y., the cafeteria is twice the size of its worship space. The spacious, high-ceilinged room is filled with more than 40 round dining tables encircled by white folding chairs. After the 11 a.m. service every week, lunch is served and the tables fill up like a high school cafeteria.

On a recent Sunday, hungry, boisterous parishioners formed long lines for their servings of miyeok guk, a savory seaweed soup, which burbled away in three giant pots on the stove. Everything is made from scratch, and with good vibes only.

Despite the church’s large, industrial kitchen, lunch at the Dongsan Korean Reformed Church feels less like a restaurant meal and more like a neighborhood potluck.Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

“You have to cook with joy or the food won’t come out right,” Soon Geum Jang, 73, said. If there’s anything difficult about feeding 400 to 500 parishioners every week, the kitchen’s head chef Young Hee Kim, 65, said it’s producing that sheer volume of food. But cooking together, with friends, “it’s not hard.” Every Saturday morning, Ms. Kim and her team meet early at the church to prepare food for the next day’s lunch.

According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Korean Americans identify as Christian. But that number used to be even higher. For decades, church lunches have been pivotal spaces for Korean immigrants as they established themselves in the United States, and these meals continue to flourish as hubs of community bonding for many who are the first generation to arrive here. More than just a meal, they are a key opportunity for conversation, gossip and fellowship.

But the Korean Americans born here are now finding third spaces beyond work and home — that aren’t church — to be with other Korean Americans. In a rapidly evolving world where Korean pop music, food, film, culture and community can be found virtually anywhere, the after-service lunch is becoming a less central experience for younger Korean people.

More than just a meal, the after-service Korean church lunch is a key opportunity for conversation, gossip and fellowship.Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

There is one exception: On Christmas, when children come home and get dragged to church by their parents, the generational divide seems to collapse, if only for a day.

“On a typical Sunday, services were basically segmented by age, and people were quick to leave right after,” Rachel Kim, 30, said. Her father is the senior pastor at Open Door Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Va. “Christmas lunch, however, compelled people to linger and mingle.” It was, she said, one of the few times she saw English and Korean spoken in the same room.

Recipe: Dwaeji Bulgogi (Spicy Pork Bulgogi)

Sweet and spicy dwaeji bulgogi can be wrapped in grassy, aromatic perilla leaves for a beautiful eating experience.Credit…Armando Rafael for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Monica Pierini.

Korean American churches pull out the big stops for Christmas, cooking more elaborate meals of banquet dishes like fried mandu and jeon, the various pan-fried fritters, patties and pancakes that line the buffet trays at Korean parties; japchae, janchi guksu and other party noodles; barbecued favorites like galbi, bulgogi and the spicy pork variant, dwaeji bulgogi; fancy braises like galbi jjim and dak bokkeumtang, otherwise known as dakdori tang; and all manner of soups and stews, but predominately miyeok guk, which is, in Korean cultures, traditionally eaten on one’s birthday.

Miyeok guk, a savory seaweed soup often imbued with mussels, is a common lunch item after Christmas service at Korean American churches, as it’s a dish traditionally eaten on one’s birthday.Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

Food that’s “imbued with that magic of Christ being born” made everything feel more special, the novelist R.O. Kwon recalled of her early days attending the St. Raphael Korean Catholic Center in Norwalk, Calif. But now as an adult, having left the church at 17 years old, she mourns not just the loss of her faith but also the loss of that community, a theme she explores in her novel “The Incendiaries.”

“I really wish there was some other way to gather with the community,” Ms. Kwon said, somewhere Korean Americans could go every single week. Somewhere that isn’t church.

For Koreans born and raised in America, church can often be a reminder of a life left behind, and with that comes wistfulness and, sometimes, pain. But Christmas lunch can conjure something else: a flood of good memories, and a reminder of the beautiful aspects of that kind of fellowship.

Recipe: Wanja Jeon (Pan-Fried Meat and Tofu Patties)

Unlike most traditional jeon recipes, these wanja jeon start on the stovetop and finish cooking in the oven, which means you can make them in advance.Credit…Armando Rafael for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Monica Pierini.

Where Ms. Kwon thinks back fondly to the smell of wooden chopsticks snapping, Rachel Kim recalls the squeaky-white Styrofoam plates, brimming with rice, kimchi and bulgogi. On a recent visit home for Thanksgiving, the best thing Ms. Kim ate was a flavorful lettuce banchan at church.

In college at the University of Virginia, Ms. Kim met another pastor’s kid (or “P.K.”), Eunice Ko, also 30. At the time, being the child of the Korean Central Presbyterian Church’s pastor meant that Ms. Ko never had to worry about a sense of belonging in her community within Centreville, Va. Without shyness, she could walk into the cafeteria and say hello to any one of the 4,000 parishioners.

Ms. Ko, now in her second year at Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennsylvania, no longer attends church, and that sense of home and automatic acceptance is something she never takes for granted. It’s “what I look for in a community now,” she said.

The chef Daniel Harthausen incorporates Korean flavors at his pop-up restaurant, Young Mother. One of his favorite Korean banquet dishes, wanja jeon, is a regular item on his holiday menu.Credit…Kate Thompson for The New York Times

It often takes growing up to realize how much work goes into cultivating a network of like-minded people. It’s harder than you’d think.

For the Virginia-based chef Daniel Harthausen, 28, who runs the pop-up restaurant Young Mother and won HBO Max’s “The Big Brunch,” it also takes growing up to realize how much work goes into the foods that raised you, even something as seemingly simple as a meat patty.

A touch of baking soda in Mr. Harthausen’s meat mixture gives his patties lightness and lift. Credit…Kate Thompson for The New York Times

One of his favorite church lunch dishes, wanja jeon, recalls his childhood growing up in Cheyenne, Wyo., where his family attended a small church that became a community hub for Koreans in an area that otherwise didn’t have many Asians. The church’s basement had a full kitchen and dining hall, and the meal after Christmas service meant a potluck of “large, shareable stuff.”

“It was really the only time I grew up where I was around other Korean kids,” Mr. Harthausen said, “and the only time I really felt connected to my culture.”

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