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The Korean food scene in Alabama's capital is 'home' for many

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we've been reporting this week from Montgomery, Ala. We've been focusing on the debate over voting rights in the state and the nation, something we talked about earlier in the program, and we have other stories that we'll have for you in the coming days. But before we leave you today, we want to focus on one other aspect of life in this city - the Korean food scene here. For that, we reached out to food writer Ann Taylor Pittman.

ANN TAYLOR PITTMAN: I am Korean American. My mother is Korean, and my dad is American. And I grew up in Mississippi, and I've written about that sort of cultural dichotomy before in stories.

MARTIN: Pittman says she was surprised to discover that Montgomery has a tight-knit Korean community, so she set out to learn how that came to be.

PITTMAN: There was always sort of an international community there because there is an Air Force base there. But the real catalyst for the Korean community was the launch of the Hyundai motor plant.

MARTIN: The plant, which opened in 2005, drew thousands of workers from Korea to Alabama, along with their families. Pittman says it is estimated that more than 10,000 Koreans live in Montgomery now. Most, she adds, are here for only a few years or even just a few months.

PITTMAN: All that to say, there are certain restaurants in Montgomery that cater to a very, very Korean clientele. The menus might be only - they might not be bilingual. They're only in Korean. The staff does not speak English. There are Korean newspapers stacked up when you go in to kind of help these people feel like, you know, they're in a home away from home.

MARTIN: Pittman notes that traditional Korean restaurants may feel unfamiliar to some Southerners, but for members of the Korean community in Alabama, those restaurants provide a sense of home.

PITTMAN: I think it's a wonderful cultural opportunity to have these traditional restaurants, Korean restaurants in Montgomery, to be able to walk into a restaurant and see people, almost the majority if not the entirety of the restaurant who look like your family, who look like the family you want your children to know, to hear the language spoken. You know, we don't have a lot of opportunities like that in the South, so it's really nice to see that.

MARTIN: And when she took her own Korean mother to one of the restaurants, Pittman says it was an emotional experience.

PITTMAN: You know, it made my mother tear up to walk in and see people who look like her and to be able to talk to our server in her native language. And when she tasted the food - I got this sesame sundubu, this tofu stew - and she tasted it, and she cried. She said it tasted like what the tofu vendor down the street from her would sell, and she would go there after school. So it is meaningful, and it is powerful.

MARTIN: That was food writer Ann Taylor Pittman describing the Korean food scene and the sense of community it provides for many here in Montgomery, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET HOME ALABAMA")

LYNYRD SKYNYRD: Turn it up. (Singing) Big wheels keep on turning. Carry me home to see my kin.

MARTIN: For Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Thank you for listening. We're back again tomorrow from Montgomery, Ala. Until then, we hope you'll stay safe and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.