What’s for dinner? In this series, meet Northwest Floridians and find out how their dinner plate looks different than yours and why. From the gluten-free Huwa family to the vegan Holliday/Browning family, find out what factors determine our diet.
Editor’s note: In this series, meet Northwest Floridians and find out how their dinner plates look different than yours and why.
The Lenzi family doesn’t have savory without a touch of sweet.
Part Korean and part Italian, the Fort Walton Beach family has loads of flavor packed into one kitchen and sticks to traditional foods associated with their cultures. Andrew Lenzi said one of the trademarks of Korean food – what they eat most frequently – is the mesh of savory and sweet.
“The sweet is always subtle, but it’s present in almost everything we cook,” Andrew said. “Even when I talk about the stir-fries and kimchis, they’re very spicy, but they always have that hint of brown sugar or honey at the bottom.
Honestly, I love it.”
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Suk Hui Lenzi, Andrew’s mother, was raised in South Korea, surrounded by cheap, delicious street foods in her city and traditional Korean dishes at home.
She moved stateside when she was 30. And, because Suk Hui didn’t cook when she was younger, she lost access to her comfort foods – the ones she grew up eating.
“After I got married, you know, you crave some food and you don’t know how to get it, so you start to ask around,” Suk Hui said. “Most importantly, I depend on the internet a lot.”
In her search, Suk Hui stumbled upon Maang Chi – now one of her main resources for traditional Korean food recipes.
“She was actually in the same boat as Mom, more or less,” Andrew said. “She was a young Korean woman in America and she was like, ‘Oh, I need a recipe. I’ll look for one online.’ Only to discover there weren’t a lot of sources. So she started learning how to cook traditional Korean food and made her own tutorials. She’s become a small Korean internet icon.”
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Now, Suk Hui cooks traditional Korean food nearly everyday. Andrew sometimes spots his mother snatching the nearest piece of paper to write down a recipe that pops into her head.
“There’s like soy sauce and burns and stuff on it,” Andrew said. “It looks like an ancient treasure map.”
Their family eats a variety of proteins – chicken, beef, pork, fish and tofu. A go-to is roasted mackerel covered in salt and flour and pan-fried in a bit of oil, Andrew said.
Most nights, they eat some type of soup, rice, kimchi or stew. The latter consists of miso, tofu, potato, onions and a simple broth. Their most commonly used ingredients are cabbage, radish, garlic, potatoes, onions, red pepper flake and sesame oil.
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“We like to take the healthier option – not just for health reasons,” Andrew said. “Also because, I feel like the food, even if it’s not as strongly seasoned, it allows a lot of different flavors to come through. You’re not killing something with salt and sugar. You can taste the individual ingredients. We’ve had a lot of success with that.”
Andrew does prefer his food with a moderate level of spicy flavors, but nothing too crazy, he said. Spiciness is common in Korean foods though.
“They look for certain colors, too, like red,” Suk Hui said. “It’s more appetizing. It’s better than a beige color. Imagine seeing red kimchi versus beige kimchi, because they didn’t put as much pepper. It’s really popular.”
“My aunt also did a lot of Korean food cooking, and she was a spice lord,” Andrew said. “She would make a squid stir-fry, and it would be dark red – like maroon.”
Suk Hui thinks it’s best to limit their spices for health reasons.
“When you’re young, you feel invincible, ‘I can eat anything,’” Suk Hui said. “That population is aging and they realize that more (spice) isn’t always good – the consequences. I do believe peppers have strong antioxidants, but like anything, in moderation.”
Health consequences are common in Asian cultures, Andrew said.
“A lot of pickled veggies means a lot of sodium intake, so they do encounter issues with that when they get older, indigestion, ulcers – things like that,” Andrew said. “Also with a lot of Western influence in the 20th century, a lot more access to red meat and dairy, which is not traditionally a large part of their diet.”
Koreans don’t do much in terms of dessert. Andrew remembers occasionally stopping at Elim Bakery in Hawaii and ordering bingsu for their family to share. Think Poké in Fort Walton Beach offers the same traditional Korean summer treat, he said.
“It’s like a shaved ice,” Andrew said. “They load it down with some sweet red beans, condensed milk, mochi.”
“It’s very tasty,” Suk Hui said.
Korean food isn’t their only taste of culture.
Andrew’s father, Stephen, is an Italian who was raised in Philadelphia. He landed a job in Hawaii, where Andrew and his brother, Sam, were born and primarily raised. Suk Hui described Hawaii as a melting pot.
“Growing up in Hawaii – food culture is huge there – so that definitely had an influence on me,” Andrew said. “In Hawaii, when a few people meet up, if there’s no food, it’s kind of dismal. Someone always has a box of steamed buns or malasada or something.”
Hawaiian food is straightforward, Andrew said.
“It’s usually a bunch of ingredients tossed into a pot or pressure cooker, whether it be kalua pork, which is like slow cooked pork and cabbage, squid luau, which is squid and seaweed – somehow it turns out slightly sweet, but it’s good,” Andrew said. “It’s all very simple, but it’s good stuff. We grew up on it.”
As in many families, Suk Hui and Stephen worked 40 hours a week, and Andrew and Sam went to school and participated in extracurricular activities. Food was about practicality, Andrew said.
“A lot of stir-fries, yakisoba – stir-fried noodles with protein – fried rice,” Andrew said. “Due to the influence of my father’s mother, also some Italian food. We would make our own meatballs and stuff. It was fun.”
Some nights, their menu is traditional Italian pasta-based dishes, such as spaghetti, clams steamed in wine, cacciatore, chicken or eggplant parmesan.
While Andrew briefly lived on his own in Destin, he’s happy to be back home, relegated to the sous-chef duties as Suk Hui prepares dishes.
“A lot of chopping and washing,” Andrew said with a smile.
“Sometimes I will try to get inspiration from him,” Suk Hui said. “I will ask him, ‘What do you want to eat? What do you think we should try?’”
“Some of my ideas are a little ambitious,” Andrew said.
It’s prevalent in Asian culture for Andrew to be at home, Suk Hui said.
“It’s not that they want to live with the family, but it’s the saving issue – practicality,” Suk Hui said. “That’s how they save up some reserves. Tradition is, even nowadays, they don’t normally move out until they get married or change a job and move to a different city. It’s about saving.”
One of their most time-consuming undertakings is mando, Korean dumplings that can be steamed, boiled, pan-fried or deep-fried. The appetizer requires much chopping and squeezing.
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“If there’s too much moisture, it makes it difficult to steam and fry,” Andrew said. “We usually ring it out through a cheese cloth before we finish the process. We will make 200 or 300 at a time. It’s like a project of the day.”
They will sometimes incorporate the dumplings into soup, because they have meat and vegetables, Suk Hui said. It’s a common food they make for guests to take home, too.
“We get quite a few requests usually when there is an event happening among our network,” Suk Hui said. “When the mando comes out, people are like, ‘Love to take some of those home with me.’ One thing about Asian culture, a lot of people when they visit, they tend to want to take some (food) afterward. A lot of that happens … actually too much of it. They tend to expect one another like, ‘Do you have more of that?’ I really enjoyed it.’”
Andrew remembers when a guest took a little too much.
“We filled a Tupperware with a spicy pork bulgogi we prepared,” Andrew said. “She was like, ‘That’s great,’ and took the main container and left the Tupperware and rolled out on us.”
“It was just disappointing, because I wanted some for me,” Suk Hui said with a laugh.
One of their favorite entrees to create is a beef short rib, which they marinate for up to 20 hours and finish on a grill or pan.
“Think of it as a teriyaki with a more complex flavor profile and not quite as aggressive,” Andrew said. “It’s a little more understated.”
“We don’t do much entertaining, but when we do, this is a crowd-pleaser.”
The two have also adapted a couple of traditional Korean street food recipes.
“One of them is a rice cake, a fish cake with a little bit of shredded cabbage and a spicy sauce,” Andrew said. “The spicy sauce is dense; it clings to it. It’s called duck poke – very popular dish in Korea. It’s amazing – in moderation.”
The Lenzi family isn’t different from others.
Growing up, breakfast was utilitarian, Andrew said.
“Eggos in the toaster, go get showered, go get dressed, ‘Why are your textbooks still on the table?’” Andrew said.
Lunch was simple, a “pb and j.” Dinner, though, has always been a family affair.
“We’d come home, me and my brother would get started on homework, and we would all sit around, have dinner, maybe watch TV,” Andrew said. “It was nice. Now that we’re older, when we want to cook something nice, it’s a little project. It’s just an opportunity for us to bond.”