Q&A with Kim Sunée, Author of A Mouthful of Stars
If you often find yourself stricken with wanderlust, or if you constantly daydream about the tastes and spices of food from foreign lands, I've got the cookbook for you. A Mouthful of Stars, written by Kim Sunée, is a collection of recipes and stories from Sunée's travels all over the world. She was adopted from Korea when she was three years old, spent her childhood in New Orleans, studied abroad in France when she was in high school, and she hasn't stopped traveling since. Her first book, Trail of Crumbs, was a memoir and focused on her beginnings and never-ending search for home. A Mouthful of Stars ventures more into her world travels, her favorite places, people she's met in different countries, and the tastes and meals she's experienced all over the globe.
This book is a combination of travel narratives and recipes, and there's even some poetry sprinkled throughout the pages. It's organized into chapters, each focused on specific countries and cities, like Paris, Italy, India, and Mexico. The recipes range from sides and entrees to desserts and cocktails. There's something new and exciting with each turn of the page!
Today is the official launch of Kim's new book, and I was lucky enough to receive the opportunity to reach out to her with some questions about traveling, writing, and, of course, eating. Kim also wanted to share a recipe with us and all of you, so continue reading after the interview for her Curry Leaf Cocktail recipe!
1. In the introduction to A Mouthful of Stars, you talk about studying abroad in Europe and how you’ve been traveling ever since. Where was the first place you visited and why did it make you want to continue traveling?
The first place I traveled that made a lasting impact was Paris and then Spain, when I was 18. The flavors were so new to me--even a simple loaf of bread and amazing olive oil--and I just remember tasting every bite and thinking: I want to eat like this for the rest of my life.
I think the universal words that convey "hunger and enthusiastic eater" are always written all over my face. (My grandfather didn't call me chowhound for nothing.) In my personal experience, it seems that grandmotherly types pick up on it the most. I have very specific incidences in Greece, Siena, Mexico, and South Korea where this happened to me. Let's just say, I was very well fed by the women cooks and enoteca owners, and they often slipped me family recipes...
2. What was it like growing up in New Orleans after being adopted from Korea? Were you able to easily adjust to Southern foods?
I was young enough--approximately 3 years old--to not know what I was missing in terms of "Korean" food, although I do remember preferring bowls of steamed rice over cookies and milk as an after-school snack. Then I grew up eating what everyone else ate--jambalaya and gumbo; shrimp and oyster po-boys and spaghetti with meat sauce, etc.
3. Where would you say “home” is for you now? Have you found it yet, or do you think you will always travel?
I will always travel, if I am fortunate enough to be able to do so. Travel is so much about discovery--of other cultures and of oneself. As far as home, I have learned or accepted that "home" isn't something unattainable for me. I think I was afraid to actually want to "be" home, to find a place to call home because it always seemed so elusive, especially for someone who was rootless and without a known history, details like a date of birth... But now home is the people I love and cherish--friends and family alike. And the food we cook and share together; I feel strongly that the memories we create in the kitchen can be very grounding.
I've always felt that going back to France feels like instahome, both in the cities and the southern regions. Mexico as well and Italy. And now that I no longer live in the Southern U.S., I feel even more at home the minute I land in New Orleans or North Carolina....it's always about the people though, isn't it? And the food.... so when with gesture and very few words someone understands that I want to be at their table, eating whatever they are cooking...that makes me feel instantly at home.
4. This book is a mixture of recipes, narratives, and poems. How long have you been writing poetry and incorporating food?
I've been writing poems since I was nine years old. At that age, I wanted to be a poet or an astronaut; since math was not my forté, I stuck with words and food. Recipes are like poems to me sometimes--they have their own language and rhythm.
5. Of all the places you’ve traveled, do you have a favorite? Or somewhere you keep returning to visit?
I spent about a month in French Guiana, which was not at all a luxurious trip. We were with a physicist and a French survivalist known as "Tarzan" and he took us on a survival trip up the Mana River; we slept fitfully (wild animals, snakes, mosquitoes) in hammocks along the banks of the river. We somehow ate amazing food--fish and hearts of palm cut right from the tree. Truly unlike any other travel experience but it taught me so much about fear and strength and what one can learn from traveling to an unfamiliar destination.
As for return visits: I always go back to France--I spent a rich and informative decade there. Italy as well. And back home to New Orleans or other places in the South to visit friends, like in North Carolina and Birmingham.
6. What inspires you when it comes to creating recipes?
When I'm cooking for friends and family, I usually am inspired by what I find locally and seasonally and just throw together something. As for wanting to "create " or rather "reinterpret" a recipe, I'm usually inspired by a recent trip. When I returned from Tuscany, for example, after cooking and eating with Frances and Ed Mayes and their friends, all I wanted was to eat wedges of fresh pecorino cheese and pici pasta just like I had it there--with a glug of good olive oil, fragrant garlic, chile flakes, and some fresh crushed tomato....I ate a version of that pasta every day for about a week.
Strong food memories--like a certain dish at a Parisian bistro or my grandfather's remarkable crawfish bisque (there's a recipe in my first book, Trail of Crumbs)--inspire me to try and capture or chase a specific flavor; I don't always succeed but I have fun trying. Good food photography is also inspiring; there are so many excellent food blogs with exceptional food photography.
7. If you could pick between food, traveling, and writing, which one would you say is your favorite? Or are they all a package-deal?
Definitely a package deal! I count my travel days in meals. The writing comes later and it's a much more difficult process...for me, anyway.
"I cook a lot with curry leaves, especially after having spent summers cooking with Indian chef Suvir Saran and his partner, Charlie Burd, at their American Masala Farm in upstate New York. And as I have experimented over the years with ways to infuse simple syrups, I’ve found that curry leaf makes for a super-fragrant and spiced hit of syrup. I like it with a dry sparkling wine or mixed with gin, muddled cucumber, lime juice, and mint." --Kim Sunée, A Mouthful of StarsCurry Leaf CocktailServes 1
Curry Leaf Simple Syrup1 cup water1 cup sugarA few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juiceAbout 20 fresh curry leavesBrut Champagne or sparkling wine, such as prosecco or cavaCucumber spear, for garnish
To make the simple syrup, combine the water and sugar in a small pot. Bring to a low boil, stirring occasionally. Add a few drops of lemon juice to keep the sugar from crystallizing. Add the curry leaves. Remove from the heat and let steep for about 1 hour. Remove the curry leaves and chill until ready to use. The syrup will keep for up to 2 weeks.
For each cocktail, pour 1 to 2 teaspoons simple syrup into each champagne flute; fill the rest of the way with Champagne. Garnish with the spear of cucumber.
From A Mouthful of Stars: A Constellation of Favorite Recipes from My World Travels by Kim Sunée / Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC
To keep up with Kim's travels and food adventures, and to see pictures of the delicious food she creates and encounters, you can follow her on Instagram.