Alisha Ramos Attempts Japchae

“Food is the thing that helped me feel the most Korean.”

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Alisha Ramos is the founder and CEO of Girls’ Night In, a modern self-care company that’s best known for its popular weekly newsletter. Cooking is her “way of unplugging,” even when she can’t perfectly recreate a Korean noodle dish she grew up eating.

My identity is tightly tied to food. Not necessarily because I grew up cooking myself, but because it was such a big part of growing up in a Korean household.A little bit of background: I grew up in Seoul, South Korea. My mom is Korean. My dad is Dominican. I grew up surrounded by my favorite foods, like Korean barbecue; that was my norm for the first six or seven years of my life.

Then our family moved to the United States. We moved to the South — to Georgia. You can imagine the culture shock. We mostly ate at home for every meal, and my mom would of course always make Korean food Kimchi: jjigae (stew), dubu jjigae (tofu stew), bulgogi, galbi (Korean barbecue), bibimbap, gimbap (seaweed rice rolls), and japchae noodles. It was very comforting.Growing up with home-cooked Korean meals helped me maintain a sense of my identity. Food is the thing that helped me feel the most Korean.

Food is the thing that helped me feel the most Korean.

I watched the show PEN15, and there’s a scene where the mom is packing lunches for her daughter to take to school. I really identified with that because my mom would make me kimchi-fried rice, and I’d look over at my friends with, like, PB&J and Reese's. I would have an extravagant bento box filled with white rice and bulgogi. In hindsight, I super appreciate that.

Ever since I started my own company, time is a valuable and lacking resource. I view cooking as one of my key forms of self-care. I love how it forces you to step away from work and all the screens. It's very tactile. You get to feel all the textures and smell all the smells. It feels methodical and calm when I'm following a recipe, or even just improvising and making something off the cuff. I feel at peace when I'm in the kitchen.

I feel at peace when I'm in the kitchen.

I always say to my fiancé, "Oh, are we getting enough nutrients?” I try and think about health this way. We love meat and rice and carbs, of course, and are always trying to eat more vegetables. I don't like this idea of coding certain foods as bad or negative or things that you should feel guilty about eating. I do think it is about just being mindful and, yeah, getting scientific.

My mom never actually taught me how to make any of her Korean dishes. Whenever I call her — and I'm sure this is the case for a lot of immigrant children — and ask her for a recipe from the past, she would just say, "Oh, you know, this ingredient, that ingredient, a pinch of red chili pepper flakes, mixed with soy sauce, and then — bam — you get the meal." I'm like, “That's not a recipe.” I can’t follow that.In Saucy, I tried to make something called japchae; I grew up eating it a lot as a child in Korea. It's a pretty simple rice-noodle dish mixed with a lot of different vegetables. You prep a bunch of different veggies separately and basically make bulgogi — marinated beef. It's almost like it's a rice bowl, but in noodle form. I love how colorful it is. I think that's the main draw of it for me.

But I wouldn’t say this went as planned. Where I'm located now, it can be difficult to find the right Korean ingredients. Even finding good kimchi is hard. I was missing the sweet potato glass noodles, unfortunately.Photos by Anna Meyer

I'm hoping any Korean readers out there won't chastise me for this. On a side note, I recently started driving lessons so that I can drive myself to the local H Mart, which is a Korean superstore. Next time it'll be perfect.