Kristyn Leach Didn't Have a Link to the Food of Her Korean Ancestors—So She Created One Through Farming
When Kristyn Leach moved to Washington State for college, a friend, mortified that she had never had Korean food, took her out for her first bibimbap. Leach, who was born in Korea, was adopted as a baby and raised on Long Island—and her cultural and culinary landscape had been primarily shaped by her white, Irish Catholic family. It was important to her parents that their daughter feel like she belonged. Better not to dwell on the ways in which she was different.
Still, as a child, Leach was curious about her heritage. Even though she was only 6 in 1988, she distinctly remembers watching the Seoul Olympics. When she got older, she'd tell people she wanted to drive a Hyundai. "I mean, what kid dreams of owning a Hyundai?" Leach quips.
After college, Leach worked in agriculture in the Pacific Northwest before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. To supplement her farming gigs, she found a part-time job in the kitchen at Camino, a respected farm-to-table restaurant in Oakland. Many chefs who worked there went on to launch projects that were representative of their heritage. It inspired Leach to do the same. Drawing on her experiences in farming and restaurant kitchens, she subleased patches of land and started cultivating Asian vegetables like perilla, or kkaennip, an herb whose broad, fragrant leaves are ubiquitous in Korean cooking—used to wrap grilled meats or seafood and in fermented pickles.
Growing the perilla came easily to Leach; figuring out what to do with it was harder. "I was more familiar with Korean plants than I was with Korean people," Leach says. So she started bringing boxes of her produce to Korean community events. "Growing perilla was like having a friend who egged me on and pushed me out of my comfort zone," she explains. "However vulnerable I felt, I knew I could show up with those leaves and be welcomed."
Among those who welcomed her was chef Dennis Lee. Leach turned up unannounced at one of his restaurants in 2011 with a crate of perilla. She wasn't a total stranger to Lee— they had mutual friends—but it was, essentially, a cold call. "At that time, it wasn't easy to source perilla," Lee says. Shiso, perilla's Japanese cousin, was more readily available, but it is daintier, more floral, not perfectly suited to Lee's Korean-influenced cooking. "So we were really psyched to have straight-up Korean perilla leaves just drop into our lap. I told Kristyn I would buy as much as she could grow," Lee says.
That relationship between farmer and chef eventually flourished into a formal partnership. Dennis Lee and his two brothers (and restaurant partners) helped Leach secure a 10-year lease on 4 acres surrounded by walnut and olive trees in Winters, near UC Davis. The land, called Namu Farm, provides a steady supply of high-quality Asian produce for the Lee brothers' Namu Stonepot restaurants, including bitter melons, leafy greens and Lady Hermit chile peppers—so named for the U.S. market because "a hermit lady in Korea gave it to me," Leach deadpans.
Those peppers, bursting with a deep, earthy heat, hail from Sunchang, a region in South Korea famous for its gochujang production. It's just one of the heirloom varietals that Leach also preserves through Second Generation Seeds. The farming collective, which she co-founded, is dedicated to stewarding and improving the seed stock of Asian vegetables that are in danger of dying out, through a partnership with Japanese American-owned Kitazawa Seed Company.
Recent decades have seen a shocking decline in biodiversity as proprietary seeds developed by corporations have squeezed out heirloom crops cultivated by Indigenous communities and communities of color. "Korean chile peppers are such a vital part of Korean national identity," Leach muses. "Like, people are adamant that you can't use Aleppo pepper instead of gochugaru in kimchi." But, she explains, most of the peppers grown today in Korea are hybrid varietals owned by multinationals. "To me, this raises an interesting question," Leach says. "What makes a pepper Korean? Is it the chile itself? Is it who grows it? Is it the land that it's grown on?"
It's not hard to imagine a teenage Leach eating her first bibimbap, mulling over parallel questions about her own identity. "I don't have those visceral moments when I taste a Korean vegetable that transport me back to my childhood," she explains. As a seed saver, Leach must rely on the feedback of her extended Korean community as she decides what traits to emphasize in her crops year after year. "Breeding is a slow reinforcement of your personal preference. So I can love perilla for what it is, but if I'm operating in a vacuum, I may make some weird decisions." Were it not for the community's input, she might save only the seeds from summer's sweetest sagwa chamoe melons. "But they're also used for pickling," Leach says, "so if I breed a melon that's too sweet, the pickle won't last. It's not a birthright to grow these crops. I have to share them with people and hear their stories of what they should taste like and what they're used for."
While Leach may not have childhood memories of perilla, her 1-year-old daughter certainly will. "The other day I made her sit next to me while I packed it," Leach says, "and I just, like, wafted it in her face. 'Let's just Inception this into your tiny brain!'" She walks along the rows of perilla she has just transplanted from the greenhouse, the tiny seedlings planted among wind-sown wildflowers. "I owe a lot of the richness of my experience of having Korean community to this plant," Leach smiles. "It's probably the one thing I'll grow until I die. Even when I'm too old to farm, I'll always have a perilla patch."
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Mackenzie Chung Fegan writes about food, drink and culture. Find her on Instagram at @mackenzie_fegan.
This article originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, October 2021.