Daejeong “DJ” Byun, from Seoul, faces the same problems as any other young mother. When she was at home in Korea, she had her mother and mother-in-law available and happy to care for her two sons, Jay, 11, and Tony, 9.
But since August, Byun has been in central Pennsylvania while her husband, Hosin Song, is busy in the economics department at Penn State as a visiting scholar. Suddenly she landed in a rural community without family support, without a job, without friends — facing how to navigate the everyday challenges of living in a foreign country.
She found support through Global Connections, a community-based, nonprofit organization affiliated with Penn State and the United Way of Centre County. And she found a friend in Polly Dunn.
Dunn, who was the coordinator for the International Friendship Program from 1999 to 2010, says that she enjoys the “personal side of hosting” the Korean family while they are here for six months. The program matches international visitors with community residents who are willing to share their time and interests with people from other countries and cultures. The locals welcome the internationals into their lives, including them in holiday celebrations and other events that are unique to our culture here in Happy Valley.
“Lucky for me, I met her,” said Byun, with a graceful and grateful nod to Dunn. “It’s so wonderful. She has shared a lot of American experiences. We helped with the Christmas tree, with carving pumpkins. My children love it.”
Byun will get to repay Dunn for her kindness on Saturday night when she prepares a traditional Korean meal in her host’s home that is open to paying guests who want to support the Global Connections mission. Byun will prepare a special soup — typically served to you on your birthday — that is made with seaweed and mussels. The main course is bulgogi or Korean barbecued beef, accompanied by side dishes of mung bean starch and sprouts and a sweet potato noodle dish. Lots of fresh vegetables will be featured as well as homemade kimchee, the fiery Korean accompaniment that is a mealtime standard.
Passport on a Plate: Home Edition Dinners commence next weekend and continue throughout February and March with small dinner parties that reflect the worldwide scope of the organization. The cost per person, $75, goes completely to Global Connections; the hosts pay for the food, supplies, beverages and the international chefs donate their time and expertise.
Marc McCann is making his way through his second year as executive director of Global Connections and is still learning the ropes about what it takes to raise funds to support the many programs that the organization offers. These include Conversation Partners, Conversation & Crafts, Cultural Competency, English as a Second Language, Global Voices music, International Speakers, Tax Assistance and Women’s Intercultural book groups. There are cultural luncheons held at Mount Nittany United Methodist Church twice during the spring and fall semesters; Found in Translation poetry readings held each fall at Webster’s Bookstore Café; an International Children’s Festival held every spring; and a Women’s International Night held in the fall.
Passport on a Plate is the annual fundraiser that helps drive all these small engines. Every other year the fundraiser alternates between a big gala for 200-plus attendees at the Ramada and this year’s rendition of Passport on a Plate: Home Edition Dinners, which will accommodate about half as many attendees but in small groups of 8 to 10 that share the intimacy of a dinner table in a host’s home.
McCann’s challenge is to find the hosts, who often reach out to an international friend to prepare the dinner.
“I found the Tunisian chef from another Tunisian grad student who I’m friends with, who has helped GC before,” he said.
That Tunisian chef, Hassene Ben Atitallah, is staging a dinner in the home of Carl Hill on Feb. 20 called “A Visit to a Mediterranean Virgin Island” and features classic Mediterranean “sun cuisine” of olive oil, tomatoes, seafood and meat with a distinctive spiciness classic to the North African desert.
Sarah Dufour is a program coordinator at Global Connections and her parents, Chris and Cathy, are hosting an Italian dinner on March 19 called “Southern Italian Nostalgia.” Chef Francesco Costanzo is native to Trani, Italy, studied in Milan and has been a professor of engineering science and mechanics/mathematics at Penn State for the past 18 years. Costanzo chose a menu of Apulian traditional breads and pastas, roast lamb and grilled vegetables and Baba au Rhum and profiterols.
Chris Dufour explained that “These dinners are a great way to get to know others in the community who share a passion for ethnic food who want to learn about and experience flavors from different places and learn about a different culture. Our whole family is contributing to the dinner by purchasing groceries and Italian libations with Francesco, creating a festive Italian theme in our home, and welcoming old friends and new friends to dine with us for the evening.”
On-cho Ng is a Penn State professor of history, Asian studies and philosophy, and department head of Asian studies. The Hong Kong native is accomplished in the kitchen, and will prepare two separate dinners this year, his 20th year participating as a chef. Ng has a following and his “Chinese Cuisine of the Pearl River Delta” is already sold out, but there are still seats available on Feb. 13 for “The Star Ferry Stops Here — A Hong Kong Culinary Adventure” in the home of Susan and Lewis Steinberg. Unlike when he started two decades ago and had to bring in groceries from New York City, Ng is able to find the Asian ingredients he needs right here in State College and recommends Asian Market on North Atherton and Far Corners as “very good Asian grocery stores.”
Talat Azhar, associate director of the Humphrey Fellowship program in the College of Education, will be trolling the Asian markets shopping for ingredients for the dinner to be held in the home of Ron and Sue Smith in Lemont on Feb. 20. The “South Asian Fusion” menu includes beef samosas with tamarind chutney, fish cooked in yogurt sauce, okra and cornbread with mustard greens cooked in homemade ghee.
It is one thing to be able to obtain the ingredients — quite another to know how to put dishes together. If you are interested in the inside story — on food, on daily life and on world context — a Home Edition Dinner can be your Passport on a Plate.
For more information about any of the dinners, including full menus, contact Marc McCann at 867-4223 or email@example.com. You can also view the invitation on the Global Connections website, www.gc-cc.org.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at chef firstname.lastname@example.org.
DJ’S BULGOGI (KOREAN-STYLE BBQ)
1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) beef (boneless sirloin or tenderloin) thinly sliced
1 yellow onion (the size of a medium Fuji apple) thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions, cut into 4-5 cm (1 ½ to 2 inch) lengths
1 small Asian pear, peeled and chopped
1/2 kiwi (optional)
1 tablespoon (or more) finely chopped garlic
80 ml (1/3 cup) light soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2/3 to 1 tablespoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper, use liberally
Shred the meat and place in a big bowl with the onion and scallion. Grind the pear and squeeze the kiwi fruit. The fruits tenderize the meat (especially the kiwi — use sparingly) and add natural sweetness. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a bowl and then pour on the meat, combining well. Marinate overnight in the refrigerator. Cook over high heat in a cast iron grill pan or wok without oil, stirring continually until done.