The smell of red pepper paste and anchovies enticed me, a Korean-Californian resident, to order Koco Table’s kimchi fried rice. The white rice turned red by gochujang mixed with kimchi offered me the savoriness I missed.
The Northwestern-Medill Journalism program was not my first summer camp so being away from home was normal; but it was the longest – five weeks. With the majority of the suburban Evanston being white, though, I expected five weeks without Korean food. I packed two cup ramens and finished them within two weeks.
The reality? There is a variety of authentic Asian foods simply ten minutes of a walk away from my dorm, East Fairchild. With Northwestern University reaching all-time highs in the number of international students admitted, Evanston’s Asian cuisines – particularly Koco Table – experienced increases in business. “I’ve seen a lot of new faces,” Jason Shin, manager of Koco Table, said. “We even made a bar area because sometimes, so many customers wait.”
The Northwestern International Office reported in The International Student & Scholar Statistics 2017-2018 that 5,444 total international students enrolled for the 2017-18 school year, compared to 5,363 a year before. 67 percent of international students were Asian, with China, India and Korea being the top three countries of origin. “If Northwestern wasn’t here, I don’t know what business Koco would have,” former Koco employee Helen Lee said.
Debbie Kaltman, Coordinator of International Student Experience at Northwestern, said that although the process of adjusting varies by student, the office tries to let students know that frustration is natural. The office is working on an international student handbook that includes a list of standard grocery stores in Evanston and Chicago as well as more specialty ones, such as H-Mart, for more familiar foods.
“A lot of Indian students use Krishna lunch where they can order online or pick up at Tech [a university department] or Norris [a student union center],” Kaltman said. “The Office of Residential Academic Initiatives also offers an international cooking class series once a quarter. In the past year, we had a Chinese dumpling class.”
Even with Northwestern’s efforts, adjusting to new foods often proves difficult. Although not as authentic, Asian restaurants are a relief. Specifically to Koco, Shin said that while all foods are from the Korean menu, he does think about the American taste. The chef often asks Shin whether the customer is Korean then adjusts the sweetness or spiciness accordingly.
“Honestly, the food is okay but definitely not the best Korean food I’ve ever had,” Lee said. “It’s also pretty expensive, so if you ask any Korean student, the reason he goes is because Koco is so close, and they miss the food.”
Aside from authenticity, Shin believes that Koco helps spread Korean culture. He gets excited when seeing customers taste Korean food for the first time and often watches them eat to better perceive their reactions.
Eyeing the chalkboard menu advertising bulgogi, bibimbap and tens of other dishes, I finished up my lunch. It may have been too sweet, but it was still the taste of home I was looking for.
Jenny Huh, Grade 12