What Ji-Young, Sesame Street’s first Asian American Muppet, eats in a day: ‘I like the spicy stuff!’

It has been a quite a year for puppeteer Kathleen Kim and Ji-Young, the first Asian American Muppet character featured on “Sesame Street.” The iconic children’s show has been running since 1969, with its 53rd season debuting Nov. 3 on Cartoonito on HBO Max.

Ji-Young made her debut on Thanksgiving 2021 with the 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-rocking, skateboarding friend to all with a “hwaiting!” spirit.

And a major way Ji-Young and Kim celebrate their Korean American culture and show their love is by sharing food with their families and friends. TODAY Food talked to Ji-Young and Kim about the food that brings them joy in their own lives, and how they think food can help to build and support a loving community on Sesame Street and beyond.

food, what ji-young, sesame street’s first asian american muppet, eats in a day: ‘i like the spicy stuff!’

Ji-Young and Kathleen Kim. (TODAY Illustration / Getty Images, Zach Hyman)

What’s your morning routine like? What do you typically eat for breakfast?

Kathleen Kim: There are some people who are like, “Ah, 8 a.m. Time to have my oatmeal and blueberries like I do every morning.” Not me. I wish I was more like that, because I’ll just stand in front of the fridge for too long going, “OK … what do I want? What do I want?” Sometimes I need coffee and sometimes I don’t. So yeah, sticking to routines has never been my strong suit, and being a freelancer means my days aren’t consistent, and that’s OK with me, I’m happy to follow my mood and I love trying new things.

One thing that’s pretty consistent is that lazy weekend mornings are for proper breakfasts, doing the crossword puzzle 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 do avocado toast with a runny egg, omelets or zhuzhed-up Shin ramyun.

Ji-Young: I love mornings because every day is an adventure! So, I make sure to fuel up with a good breakfast like yogurt and granola. In my lunchbox, I usually have a sandwich or kimbap with a side of baby carrots and fruit. Then, the whole family sits down to dinner together almost every night! We eat Korean food most of the time. That means rice, lots of banchan and a main dish like fish or a jjigae (stew).

Do you have any go-to snacks you need to get through the day?

KK: If I’m being a healthy, responsible adult — veggie crudité, hard-boiled eggs or a banana (the potassium in bananas isn’t just good for preventing leg cramps in runners — but also arm/hand cramps in puppeteers!). If I’m looking for a fun treat, nine times out of 10 I will pick salt and crunch over something sweet and chocolaty.

On the set of our AAPI special “See Us Coming Together,” producer Janet Kim supplied us with snacks from all the Asian countries represented in our cast and crew. Everyone had so much fun taste-testing them all! We converted so many people to Korean honey butter potato chips and mochi doughnuts.

JY: When we get home from school, my halmoni (grandmother) always cuts fruit for me and my brother and sister. She can peel an Asian pear or an apple in one motion without breaking the peel ONCE! Maybe when I’m older like her, I’ll be able to 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 weeknight protein — they’re cheap and really hard to overcook. I throw them in the oven at 400 while I make the sides and they always come out flavorful, juicy with a crispy skin. Farro is also pretty forgiving and hard to overcook. So I let it boil away while I prep farro bowl toppings out of whatever I have in the fridge. My daughter likes 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 out rice, ssamjang, lettuce wraps and other stuff like cucumbers, hot peppers and kimchi. Everyone enjoys making their own ssam (wrap) and it feels like we’ve got our veggies in without having to do much cooking.

If I’m just feeding myself my favorite quick meal is, I’m embarrassed to say, I learned it on TikTok: where you pour boiling hot sesame oil over garlic, chili powder and scallions, then add soy sauce and stuff, and pour that warm deliciousness over cold silken tofu. Add giant wooden spoon. Enjoy. So good.

JY: My family and I usually eat Korean food for dinner, but once a week we do TACO TUESDAY! (It’s on Tuesday.) It’s my favorite because I get to put whatever I want on mine, and I put EVERYTHING on my tacos! Lettuce, tomatoes, beans, cheese and three dots of hot sauce!

Ji-Young has previously mentioned some of her favorite Korean and Korean American dishes: tteokbokki and bulgogi tacos. Are there any others you love to eat?

KK: ALL OF IT. First of all, I will never say no to a noodle. My favorites are bibim-guksu (cold noodle salad), mul-naengmyeon (cold noodles in chilled broth), kal-guksu (knife-cut noodle soup), jjajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce), and of course I have a soft spot for instant ramen even though I know it’s not the healthiest. I also find that as an adult, the things I crave most are the simplest Korean dishes my mom would make all the time for dinner that I never necessarily got excited about as a kid — like kimchi-jjigae (kimchi stew), gyeran-jjim (steamed eggs) and miyeok-guk (seaweed soup). Cold, brothy kimchi situations like dongchimi (radish water kimchi) and cucumber/miyuk soup refresh my soul. If I’m going out for Korean, barbecue is great, but if you wanna go in on some bossam (pork wraps), gejang (soy-marinated raw crab) or soondae (blood sausage), I am always down.

JY: I like the spicy stuff! If my mom says, “That’s too meh-woh (spicy) for you!” it just makes me want to try it more! I love kimchi bokkeumbap. That’s kimchi fried rice. My mom likes hers with a sunny-side-up egg. I like mine with gim (dried seaweed) on top!

What are some of your family-favorite dishes?

KK: I’ve married into “bacon mac,” my husband’s family’s baked macaroni dish that features a little tomato and a lot of chopped bacon. It’s perfect.

JY: My mom makes me miyeok-guk on my birthday! It’s a seaweed soup that new mommies eat to get strong again after having babies. So, you eat it on your birthday to remember how awesome your mommy is.

Is there anything you’d like to learn to cook or bake?

KK: I would like to get more Korean dishes into my repertoire. I’ve always been too intimidated to try making my own kimchi, but Eric Kim from the New York Times has an approachable recipe I’ve been meaning to try!

JY: Oh, my halmoni tries to teach me how to make different Korean soups and stews, but it’s hard because she does not measure a THING. I say, “Halmoni, how much garlic do I put in?” She just says, “This much,” and makes a shape with her hand or points to a spot on her finger. Or, sometimes she says, “Until it’s enough.” I guess she has her own special halmoni measurements.

Recently, Padma Lakshmi dropped by Sesame Street to introduce samosas, while chef Melissa King shared dumplings. Are there other Asian foods you hope to introduce to the neighborhood?

KK: I’d love 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 stocks, etc. Not only is it really healthy, it’s a very eco-friendly crop!

JY: Oh my gosh, everybody HAS to try Tamir and Gabrielle’s Grandpa ZZ’s Triple Cheesy Macareenie. It’s soooooo good and it makes me feel like part of their family to share a dish that’s special to them. OHMYGOSH. Can you imagine if everyone in the world could try everyone else’s food that’s special to them?? We could ALL be like one big family!!!

Is there anyone you would like to sit down and share a meal with?

KK: I never got to meet my grandfather so I’d love to share a meal with him. I’d like to thank him for escaping his family of seven, including my dad, 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 gift of gab from him.

JY: OK, let’s see … the Linda Lindas because they’re the coolest! And Tony Hawk because I bet he could show me how to get my ollies higher!

What do you love most about food?

KK: I love that food is such a basic and nourishing show of care. I love that it can be familiar and comforting or new and exciting. I love that it can be 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 these unexpected and personal stories from just that one question because it’s about so much more than just the dish itself. Food is inextricably tied to who we are and where we come from.

JY: What I like about food is that wherever you are, whoever you’re with … food can feel like home!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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