Korean family counts on teamwork in Philly marketplace. From portable stand to booming business in seven years

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S 7:30 in the evening. It's cold, wet, and dark. Kyu Chang Ro's No. 1 son Charlie is on the phone, jotting down the latest prices of turnips and white asparagus.

Ro's wife, Young, and two of their daughters are paring and trimming lettuces and cabbages. Other family members are washing vegetables and hosing down the store's cement floor. All are ready to call it a day.

Another son is waiting in the plush new air-conditioned white van, ready to take everyone home.

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When Mr. Ro came here from Seoul eight years ago, he had $700 in his pocket, a wife at his side, and five of their six children in tow. With an abiding Christian faith and solid pragmatism, he came in pursuit of the Great American Dream.

``I always wanted to come here ever since I was a boy. To me America was a paradise because it is a Christian country,'' he says, chatting in his tiny milk-white office in back of Philadelphia's bustling Reading Terminal Market.

``I studied the history of this country before I arrived. For the early settlers, it was church first, then school, then house. I liked that,'' he says with a confirming series of nods.

Ro, formerly an officer of high rank in the Korean Army, came here with his sleeves rolled up, ready to work. His first job was as a grinding operator in a local steel mill.

``Someone who had been an officer in the Korean Army could not have done such humble work in Seoul. They would laugh at me. But we wanted a good education for our children, so we came here. I worked in the mill and my wife, Young, worked as a seamstress,'' he explains.

He started the days then, as he does now, up at 3 a.m., spending time in prayer, Bible reading, and singing hymns until 5, then off to work. ``That prepares me for the day so I fear nothing,'' he says.

After a year, Ro was laid off from the mill. Undaunted, he and his wife opened a 4-by-8-foot portable fruit stand on the corner of 19th and JFK Streets.

Fastidious attention was given to freshness and quality. That meant being first at the distribution center early each morning to buy fruits and vegetables and keeping prices competitive. It also meant living modestly, being frugal, and working long hours. Most important, though, was work in a local Korean Presbyterian church, where Ro is a deacon and his wife an elder.

A year later Ro opened a modest 16-by-16-foot produce stand in Philadelphia's cavernous Reading Terminal Market. With his wife and family, including a sixth child who came to the US after his stint in the Korean Army, Ro's business has grown like kudzu.

According to David O'Neil, general manager of the market, Ro's business now grosses in the neighborhood of $1 million annually.

``Ro is not only industrious,'' says O'Neil, ``he has a knack of listening to people and getting what they want. As Ro says, `My best teacher is my customer.' And he displays his products well. It's the `pile it high, watch it fly' approach. He is without question the most successful produce dealer in Philadelphia.''

As each of the children finished college, they joined the company. With sons and daughters-in-law, there are now 12 in the family working with Ro.

Two other daughters have opened retail stands in local supermarkets, and the sons help with distribution, paperwork, and transportation.

Korean food is relatively new in the United States. Most Americans know sushi from egg foo yong, but not much about other Asian foods. A common comment with many people is, ``All I know about Korean food is kimchi [pickled vegetable], and I heard about that on M*A*S*H.''

Korean food, Ro explains, is primarily simple, usually vegetarian fare. ``Every meal consists mainly of boiled rice, kimchi, and clear soup. Sometimes a little meat or fish, and always some highly spiced vegetable dishes.

``New Year's Day (Ro observes the traditional Jan. 1 date rather than the Chinese new year) and Chusok (the Korean thanksgiving) are the special holidays. Then we dress in our han-bok [elaborate multicolored costumes of silk] and pay special tribute to our elder family members. And there is much royal food.''

Royal or court food, Ro continues, consists of more fancy dishes, usually combining beef and an expensive fish like shrimp.

As in the rest of Asia, rice is the staple food of Koreans. It provides the bland, starchy background for their garlic, chili, and spicy vegetable side dishes. Virtually no animal fat is used in cooking; sesame oil is preferred.

In Korea the number of dishes served at a meal can easily get out of hand. The late President, Park Chung Hee, once decreed that Koreans limit their dishes to four to five for breakfast, six or seven at lunch, and no more than 10 for dinner.

In Korean cuisine, unlike Chinese, beef is preferred to pork. Also unlike the Chinese, a frying pan rather than a wok is used by most Koreans. Chopsticks are used, however, so ingredients are always finely cut for easier eating.

Dessert is often fresh fruit or puffed rice cakes sweetened with sugar or honey.

No Korean table is set without kimchi. This uniquely Korean dish of spicy-hot pickled vegetables is a part of every meal, including breakfast. It most often consists of cabbage and is served cold as a salad or occasionally in soups.

``Every house in Korea has several large handmade earthen crocks of kimchi buried in the backyard. There it keeps and ferments for several weeks or months before it is eaten,'' one of Ro's sons explained. Recipes for it vary from family to family and village to village.

Recently the entire Ro family invited me to a sumptuous feast at their home just outside Philadelphia. Three young grandsons -- Samson, Peter, and Paul -- greeted me at the door dressed in their holiday finest. ``That's No. 1 grandson Samson,'' Ro said proudly. ``And the next is Peter and that's Paul. I named them myself. They're biblical names,'' he said, beaming.

An enormous dinner was prepared by the women of the family and spread on a huge dining table. We ate in shifts -- men first, then the women. There was little conversation, just the clicking of dozens of chopsticks.

Here are a few of the many beautifully prepared dishes served, including Young's recipe for the obligatory kimchi. Kimchi 1 large head Chinese or Napa cabbage Salt 1 carrot, grated 1 onion, finely chopped 3 scallions, chopped 1 inch ginger root, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 tablespoon (or less) ground chili flakes

Cut cabbage in half lengthwise, wash thoroughly, and sprinkle liberally with salt. Set aside for 2 to 4 hours at room temperature to allow to wilt. Wash salt off and chop into 1-inch pieces.

Combine with remaining ingredients and store in large jar in the refrigerator. Saengseon gwa Seu-Jeon (Fried Whitefish and Shrimp) 8 large shrimps, shelled, deveined, with tails intact 1 pound whitefish fillets Salt and pepper to taste 2 eggs, lightly beaten 4 tablespoons flour 4 tablespoons sesame oil

Butterfly shrimp by slitting them lengthwise to open. Season shrimp and fish with salt and pepper.

Heat sesame oil in frying pan.

Dredge shrimp and fish with flour, then dip in beaten eggs and fry lightly in sesame oil.

Serve hot with vinegar-soy dipping sauce.

The following dipping sauce is a Korean staple. It accompanies a great variety of dishes. Vinegar-Soy Dipping Sauce 3 tablespoons soy sauce 1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar Dash of pepper 1 teaspoon lemon juice or to taste

Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, and pepper in a small bowl. Stir. Serve with fish or meat dishes. KOREANKOREAN Jijim (Eggplant sandwiches) 1 eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds 1 tablespoon sugar 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons minced scallions 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1/2 teaspoon minced ginger 1 teaspoon toasted crushed sesame seeds 1 tablespoon sesame oil 1/2 pound thinly sliced beef 4 to 6 tablespoons sesame oil

Slice eggplant in 1/4-inch rounds. Set aside.

Combine sugar, soy, scallions, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds, and 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Mix thoroughly, add sliced beef, and set aside.

Fry eggplant slices in remaining ses ame oil. Remove from pan and quickly saut'e beef. Make sandwiches of beef between eggplant slices. Serve hot with vinegar-soy dipping sauce. Bulgogi (Korean Barbecue) 1 pound very thinly sliced rump or shoulder steak (freeze first to facilitate slicing) 4 tablespoons finely chopped onion 3 tablespoons sugar 5 tablespoons soy sauce 2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger 1 teaspoon sesame seeds 1 tablespoon toasted crushed sesame seeds 3 tablespoons sesame oil

Combine and toss all ingredients. Heat frying pan and saut'e meat, stirring constantly, and serve.

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