What Ji-Young, Sesame Street’s First Asian-American Muppet, Eats in a Day
It’s been quite a year for puppeteer Kathleen Kim and Ji-Young, the first Asian American Muppet character featured on “Sesame Street.” The iconic kids’ show has been on the air since 1969, with its 53rd season debuting Nov. 3 on Cartoonito on HBO Max.
Ji-Young debuted Thanksgiving 2021 with Sesame Workshop’s “Coming Together” initiative, created to support families through ongoing conversations about race and diversity. Thanks to Kim, Ji-Young is an electric guitar and skateboard friend with a “hwaiting!” spirit.
And a major way for Ji-Young and Kim to celebrate their Korean American culture and show their love is by sharing food with family and friends. TODAY Food spoke to Ji-Young and Kim about food that brings joy to their own lives, and how they believe food can help build and sustain a loving community on Sesame Street and beyond. .
What is your morning routine? What do you usually eat for breakfast?
Kathleen Kim: There are people who say, “Ah, 8 a.m., time to eat my oatmeal and blueberries like I do every morning.” Not me. I wish I was more like that, because I’m going to stand in front of the fridge too long and be like, “OK…what do I want? What do I want?” Sometimes I need coffee and sometimes I don’t. So yeah, following routines has never been my strong point, and being independent means my days aren’t regular, and I don’t mind that, I’m happy to follow my mood and love trying new things.
One thing that’s pretty consistent is that lazy weekend mornings are for breakfasts, doing crosswords with my husband, and playing video games with my daughter. She usually gets pancakes with a side of fruit, and my husband and I usually make avocado toast with a runny egg, omelets, or Shin ramyun zhuzhed-up.
Ji Young: I love mornings because every day is an adventure! So, I make sure to refuel with a good breakfast like yogurt and granola. In my lunch box, I usually have a sandwich or a kimbap accompanied by baby carrots and fruit. Then, the whole family sits down to eat almost every night! We mostly eat Korean food. This means rice, lots of banchan and a main dish like fish or jjigae (stew).
Do you have any go-to snacks you need to get you through the day?
KK: If I’m a healthy, responsible adult – veggie raw vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, or a banana (the potassium in bananas isn’t just good for preventing leg cramps in runners – but also arm cramps/ hands at the puppeteers!). If I’m looking for a fun treat, nine times out of 10 I’ll choose salt and crunch on something sweet and chocolatey.
On the set of our AAPI special “See Us Coming Together,” producer Janet Kim provided us with snacks from every Asian country represented in our cast and crew. Everyone had so much fun tasting them all! We have converted so many people to Korean Honey Butter Chips and Mochi Fritters.
JY: When we come home from school, my halmoni (grandmother) always cuts fruit for me, my brother and my sister. She can peel an Asian pear or an apple in one motion without breaking the skin ONE TIME! Maybe when I’m older like her, I can peel apples like her too.
What’s your favorite weeknight dinner?
KK: My favorite weeknight meals are quick and hard to mess up. Chicken thighs are a great protein for weeknights – they are cheap and very difficult to overcook. I put them in the oven at 400 while I make the sides and they always come out tasty, juicy with crispy skin. Farro is also quite forgiving and difficult to overcook. So I let it boil while I make farro bowl toppings from whatever I have in the fridge. My daughter loves blistered white beans and cucumbers with hers. And frozen kalbi or pre-marinated bulgogi cooks pretty quickly, so all that’s left to do is put in rice, ssamjang, lettuce wraps, and other things like cucumbers, hot peppers, and kimchi. Everyone loves to make their own ssam (wrap) and it feels like we’ve got our veggies without having to do a lot of cooking.
If I’m just eating, my favorite quick meal is, I’m embarrassed to say, I learned it on TikTok: where you pour boiling hot sesame oil over garlic, powdered chili and scallions, then add soy sauce and all, and pour this hearty goodness over cold silken tofu. Add a giant wooden spoon. Enjoy. So good.
JY: My family and I usually eat Korean food for dinner, but once a week we make TACO TUESDAY! (It’s Tuesday.) It’s my favorite because I can put whatever I want on mine, and I put ANYTHING on my tacos! Lettuce, tomatoes, beans, cheese and three points of hot sauce!
Ji-Young has already mentioned some of his favorite Korean and Korean American dishes: tteokbokki and bulgogi tacos. Are there any others that you like to eat?
KK: EVERYTHING. First of all, I will never say no to a noodle. My favorites are bibim-guksu (cold noodle salad), mul-naengmyeon (cold noodles in cold broth), kal-guksu (knife-cut noodle soup), jjajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce ), and of course I have a spot for instant ramen even though I know it’s not the healthiest. I also find that as an adult, the things I crave the most are the simplest Korean dishes that my mother always made for dinner that never necessarily got me excited when I was child – such as kimchi-jjigae (kimchi stew), gyeran-jjim (steamed eggs) and miyeok-guk (seaweed soup). Cold, bubbling kimchi situations like dongchimi (radish water kimchi) and cucumber soup/miyuk refresh my soul. If I go out for Korean, the BBQ is great, but if you want bossam (pork wraps), gejang (soy marinated raw crab) or sundae (blood sausage), I’m always down.
JY: I love spicy stuff! If my mother says: “It’s too much meh-woh (spicy) for you!” it just makes me want to try it more! I love kimchi bokkeumbap. It’s kimchi fried rice. My mom likes hers with a fried egg. I like mine with gim (dried seaweed) on top!
What are some of your family’s favorite meals?
KK: I married “bacon mac”, my husband’s family’s baked macaroni dish that has a little tomato and lots of chopped bacon. It’s perfect.
JY: My mom makes me miyeok-guk on my birthday! It’s a seaweed soup that new moms eat to strengthen themselves after having babies. So you eat it on your birthday to remind yourself of how awesome your mom is.
Is there anything you would like to learn to cook or bake?
KK: I would like to add more Korean dishes to my repertoire. I’ve always been too intimidated to try making my own kimchi, but Eric Kim from The New York Times has an accessible recipe I wanted to try!
JY: Oh, my halmoni is trying to teach me how to make different Korean soups and stews, but it’s hard because she doesn’t measure anything. I say, “Halmoni, how much garlic should I put in?” She simply says: “This a lot”, and draws a shape with his hand or points to a spot on his finger. Or, sometimes she says, “Until it’s enough.” I guess she has her own special measures of Harmoni.
Recently, Padma Lakshmi stopped by Sesame Street to present samosas, while chef Melissa King shared dumplings. Are there any other Asian dishes you hope to introduce to the neighborhood?
KK: I’d like to see seaweed become more widely accepted as a food – and not just in dried nori for sushi. Koreans use different seaweeds for soups, side dishes, to flavor broths, etc. Not only is it really healthy, it is a very ecological culture!
JY: Oh my, everyone MUST try Tamir and Gabrielle’s Grandpa ZZ’s Triple Cheesy Macareenie. It’s so good and it makes me feel like part of their family to share a dish that is special to them. OH MY GOD. Can you imagine if everyone in the world could try everyone’s food that is special to them?? We could ALL be like one big family!!!
Is there someone you would like to sit down and share a meal with?
KK: I never met my grandfather, so I would like to share a meal with him. I would like to thank him for escaping his family of seven, including my father, from what is now North Korea at the start of the war. And to see if it’s really true that my dad and I got our gossiping gift from him.
JY: Well, let’s see… the Linda Linda because they are the coolest! And Tony Hawk because I bet he could show me how to get my ollies higher!
What do you like the most in food?
KK: I love that food is such a fundamental and nurturing demonstration of care. I love that it can be familiar and comforting or new and exciting. I love whether it’s a shared experience or just for yourself, and I love how food can tell a story. One of my favorite questions to ask someone I’m getting to know is, “What was your favorite family meal growing up?” You always get those unexpected and personal stories from just one question because it’s about so much more than the dish itself. Food is inextricably linked to who we are and where we come from.
JY: What I love about food is that wherever you are, whoever you are with…food can feel like home!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.