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Living with an eating disorder, a teen finds comfort in her favorite Korean food

Budae jjigae, or army stew, is a Korean fusion stew that incorporates American style processed food.
Lauren Migaki/NPR
Budae jjigae, or army stew, is a Korean fusion stew that incorporates American style processed food.

Updated July 18, 2023 at 9:51 AM ET

A version of this story originally appeared on the Student Podcast Challenge newsletter. Learn more about the contest here.

Grace Go's award-winning podcast starts with her favorite comfort food, budae jjigae, which she describes as "ham, sausage, spam, a packet of instant noodles all cooked in a spicy broth topped with American cheese and chopped scallions."

Budae jjigae, which means army stew in English, was created in South Korea in the 1950s, during a time of poverty following the Korean War. "It contains traditional Korean staples such as gochujang and kimchi but with a twist of American foods," Grace explains.

Grace's entry, which explores her complicated relationship with budae jjigae and her own body, is the winner of the Best Mental Health Podcast Prize in this year's Student Podcast Challenge. Her podcast is called Discomfort Food.

"This was the first piece that I've made where I put myself in the spotlight," says Grace, a student journalist and rising senior at Mercer Island High School outside Seattle. That vulnerability, peppered throughout her podcast, is what caught our judges' attention.

With the sound of her mom's budae jjigae sizzling in a metal pot, all recorded on her phone, Grace invites listeners into her Korean American family's kitchen, and into her own journey with mental health.

Food as a source of comfort – and discomfort

Seventeen-year-old Grace Go submitted a winning podcast about mental health and comfort food.
/ LA Johnson/NPR
LA Johnson/NPR
Seventeen-year-old Grace Go submitted a winning podcast about mental health and comfort food.

"Many of us who grew up in an immigrant household know that our parents especially value food," Grace explains in her podcast. "But paradoxically, another aspect of our culture contradicts this idea, and prevents many Asian Americans from having a healthy relationship with food."

In her entry, Grace plays recordings of her family members commenting on her body, in both English and Korean. "Grace, I think you gained weight," says one person. Others tell her to stop eating, that she's getting bigger.

These passive comments took a serious toll on her wellbeing. "For years, I didn't eat properly, and it got to a point where I completely cut out foods I thought were bad for me, such as my favorite, budae jjigae," she explains.

"Then finally, in November of 2021, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder."

On her road to recovery, Grace looks at where she came from

In her podcast, Grace processes her diagnosis like a journalist. She researches mental health in Asian American communities and interviews experts like Joann Kim, the family youth program manager at the Korean Community Service Center near Grace's home.

Joann helped Grace through her own healing. In the podcast, Joann explains that there's a common group mentality that's often found in Korean immigrant communities – and it's reflected in the language. So instead of saying "me," there's the Korean word woori, meaning "us." She says that can create a lot of pressure to fit in.

"And that makes us really tied to what other people think about us, and that image that we present to others," says Joann.

Grace learns to love her discomfort food

Even with Joann's help, it took over two years for Grace to feel comfortable asking her mom to make her favorite dinner, budae jjigae.

"It wasn't a craving. It was a lot deeper than that," Grace recalls. "I ate the entire pot basically all by myself, and for the first time in a really long time, it didn't really feel like I was doing something bad. I was doing something good for myself."

Grappling with body image, while trying to understand how your culture, family and language can shape your understanding of mental health – that's a lot. Grace says she's sharing her story for anyone else who's going through a similar experience.

"My hope is that more resources will be provided to my community and mental health will become less stigmatized, so that one day, others who have experienced a similar journey to mine will be able to enjoy their discomfort food and find comfort within it."

Listen to Grace's podcast here.

Visual design and development by: Elissa Nadworny, Lauren Migaki and LA Johnson
Edited by: Nicole Cohen

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Janet W. Lee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]