The term “catching lightning in a bottle” is often used to describe when something beyond tangible is captured at just the right time.
Some things are too good to be summed up in a literal sense, like the story of SungWoo Lee of South Korea, who after years of following the Kansas City Royals from afar on the Internet and social media, journeyed thousands of miles to at long last get his first taste of Kansas City baseball, its food and its fans.
He arrived Tuesday evening to a hero’s reception at the airport, greeted by news cameras, well-wishers and his local welcoming party of Dave Darby, Jeff Huerter and Chris Kamler, among others.
One of the first gifts he received? That iconic slice of Americana, an apple pie — because that’s how we say “welcome to America” in the Kansas City, with food. It certainly wouldn’t be his last taste of Midwestern hospitality.
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SungWoo’s every move could be tracked through his Twitter account, @Koreanfan_KC. Within hours SungWoo was eating pizza and sharing beers with fellow fans and Twitter followers at a Royals watch party in North Kansas City, where I first had the pleasure of meeting him.
The next morning found SungWoo visually narrating his trip through pictures on Twitter, starting with apple pie for breakfast, then posing with a Satchel Paige statue at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the morning before lunch at Arthur Bryant’s and a tour of the Boulevard brewery in the afternoon.
Less than 24 hours after his arrival, you could say he was already one of us — a Korean prince of Kansas City.
The SungWoo tour stopped Thursday at Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadiums, before taking in the Chiefs preseason game that evening and a day trip to Arkansas on Friday to watch the Royals’ AA minor-league team. President Barack Obama could only wish to have had the whirlwind SungWoo-treatment when he was in Kansas City the previous week.
By the time Saturday rolled around, SungWoo was already a local superstar and hadn’t even seen his first live Royals game yet. Before he could finally sit beneath the lights and cascading waterfalls of Kauffman Stadium, there was serious business to tend to — the pregame parking lot tailgate.
In Kansas City we are the perennial champions of the tailgate. And on this warm August afternoon, our city did not disappoint.
I was inspired to come up with something special to honor him at SungWoo’s first live Royals game. Tuesday evening we had discussed differences in Korean and American food, specifically barbecue styles. I came up with the idea of incorporating elements of both cuisines into one of baseball’s most universally beloved foods — the hot dog.
Kimchi and bacon sprang to mind immediately, as both are distinctive, highly flavorful foods from each country that I cook with often and make myself. The rest of the components came together naturally from there, as I thought of utilizing the bright flavors of pickled daikon and cucumber, and finishing with a Kansas City-Korean barbecue sauce and fried quail egg, a nod to the classic egg topped Korean rice dish, bibimbap. Thus, the “SungWoo Dog” was born.
By the planned Saturday start time of 3 p.m., fans were already in fine form with various camps set up in Lot N of the Truman Sports Complex, complete with smoke signals emanating from grills and kegs of ice cold Boulevard beer being tapped.
The main section had tables stretched in a long line, each topped with piles of food from the hordes of Royals fans pouring in from all around the region. There were cupcakes, cookies, chips and chafing dishes brimming with grilled meats and, of course, Kansas City barbecue. If Leonardo da Vinci had painted “The Last Supper” inside a Costco, this is what it would have looked like. It was truly a sight to behold.
I set up my table and went to work assembling the SungWoo Dog for the guest of honor and other fans to enjoy as an edible insight into the food cultures of Korea and America, a symbolic representation of his amazing journey.
When SungWoo came over to try his namesake hot dog, I was humbled to see his face light up as he tasted familiar Korean flavors mixing with the tastes of the town that had adopted him as its own. Many others were eager to try the SungWoo Dog, their interest piqued by the funky kimchi and fragrant fusion barbecue sauce. Food, like sports, has a way of transcending culture and language to unite people.
The rest of the pregame festivities were spent with people young and old, friends and strangers alike, feasting and conversing, young and old. Many people only knew each other by Twitter handles or avatars, meeting in person for the first time after years of digital commiseration, “#TrustTheProcess” and Ned Yost jokes. After another win Saturday night, all anybody could do was celebrate and talk about the SungWoo magic.
If any fanbase comes by their pessimism honestly, it would certainly be long-suffering Royals fans. But at a time when cynicism is easy, the SungWoo phenomenon seems to have brought out the best in people in a wonderfully organic way, including the Royals, who haven’t lost since he arrived in Kansas City.
Monday night, SungWoo will throw out the first pitch before the Royals take on the Oakland A’s, hoping to ride their Korean good luck charm to an eighth win in a row.
The Royals may or may not make the playoffs this year, and SungWoo will soon return home to Korea with a heart and belly full of memories. But for now a city, a baseball team and their fans seem to have captured lightning in a bottle, and boy, does it taste delicious.
The SungWoo Dog
The SungWoo Dog is inspired by the idea of mixing two different barbecue cultures, Korean and Kansas City, combining elements and flavor profiles from each in the form of baseball’s iconic food, the hot dog.
4 kosher all-beef hot dogs
4 hot-dog buns
1 cup kimchi, homemade or store-bought
4 slices thick cut bacon, cooked, cut in 1/4-inch lardons
4 quail eggs, fried sunny side up
1/2 cup smoked burnt ends, or smoked brisket, roughly chopped
1/2 cup pickled daikon radish, julienned
1/2 cup quick pickled cucumber, medium dice
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, black and white mixed
Kansas City-Korean Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows), or favorite Kansas City barbecue sauce (Gates or LC’s)
1 bottle Boulevard Wheat Beer
Preheat grill or pan on medium high heat. Grill hot dogs until well seared on all sides, 3-4 minutes. When done, keep hot dogs warm in a pan with half a bottle of the beer over low heat, then drink the other half.
To assemble the SungWoo Dogs, put 4 split-open hot-dog buns on platter, then garnish each with 1/4 cup of the kimchi. Lay grilled hot dogs on top, followed by the burnt ends, bacon, pickled daikon and cucumber. Drizzle with the Kansas City-Korean Barbecue Sauce and top each with a fried quail egg and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.
Kansas City-Korean Barbecue Sauce
1 medium to large smoked tomato, or roasted tomato
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon Kochujang, Korean chili paste
1/2 teaspoon Kochukaru Korean chili powder, or red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/4 to 1/2 cup grapeseed or canola oil
Combine all ingredients except grapeseed oil in the jar of a blender and blend 30 seconds to thoroughly mix. Slowly drizzle in oil to emulsify. Pour into a bottle and refrigerate until ready to use.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes a “nose to tail” cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local-farm-to-table foods.