Born in Seoul, Korea, and raised in Los Angeles, Ambassador Sung Kim assumed the role of U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Indonesia in October 2020, bringing with him a wealth of experience in diplomacy. Ambassador Kim’s multicultural background has shaped his worldview.
Before his tenure in Indonesia, Ambassador Kim held notable ambassadorial roles, including Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2011 to 2014 and Ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines from 2016 to 2020. His contributions to diplomatic relations extended even further as the Special Representative for North Korea Policy in Washington.
In an exclusive interview, we had the privilege of discussing Ambassador Sung Kim’s profound connection to food. He graciously shared captivating stories of his favorite culinary memories, offering a glimpse into his upbringing and the diverse flavors influencing his palate. Moreover, Ambassador Kim expressed his affinity for Indonesian cuisine, highlighting the remarkable array of dishes that captivate his taste buds.
As an ambassador, what are the unique parts of the job that you enjoy?
Being an Ambassador means many meetings, long hours, and serious conversations. But it also means I get to experience some of the most wonderful food and culture and meet some of the most interesting people. I always enjoy learning about the history and traditions – and, of course, the foods – that shape how people think and see the world.
What is your favorite type of cuisine?
Another thing about being an Ambassador is that one must keep an open mind. This makes landing on a favorite cuisine difficult, as I have been fortunate to experience many of the world’s foods. But I do love a good steak – some of the best beef comes from the United States, and a well-cooked steak goes with just about anything. We are working on making our world-class USDA beef more available for foodies here in Indonesia. Speaking of foodies in Indonesia, I should mention I have become a huge fan of Indonesian cuisine. It’s fabulous.
To you, what would make a perfect meal?
A good meal can either be the backdrop for an experience or the center of the experience itself. Either way, good company is always essential, whether in a five-star restaurant or at a simple street-food stall. When enjoyed with friends and family, well-crafted food and a glass of excellent California wine equals perfection.
What is the most unforgettable food experience you have had?
I have been incredibly lucky to have served in places with amazing food. Dim sum in Hong Kong, sushi in Tokyo, galbi and naengmyeon in Seoul, lechon in Manila… One recent experience that really stands out is a great Indonesian dinner my family and I had in Jogja while enjoying a stunning view of Borobudur Temple.
What is your favorite street food, and where do you usually eat it?
Nasi Goreng, of course. I like to enjoy the many regional variations and ingredients in my visits across Indonesia. Simple, hearty, and tasty.
Do you have any specific food that evokes special memories?
Having spent much of my childhood in Seoul and Tokyo, traditional Korean and Japanese dishes often bring back special memories from my childhood. My dear late mother was a terrific cook, so whenever I have one of her favorite dishes, I think about her, our family gatherings, and all the wonderful experiences my parents gave me growing up in Seoul, Tokyo, and later Los Angeles.
Is there any food you can eat every day without getting bored?
I’m from California, a place with agricultural roots and a deeply ingrained appreciation for fresh food. Maybe this is not a fashionable answer, but I love a fresh salad bursting with nutrition, flavor, and local, seasonal ingredients.
Culinary culture in the United States is all about innovation and constantly reinventing things that may seem standard – a salad in California might include fresh Alaskan crab, flavorful citrus fruit, or bright red juicy tomatoes. A fresh salad can be anything you want. Fresh Alaskan seafood is also something I can eat every day.
As a Korean-American who grew up in Los Angeles and had to move countries regularly, what is the one Korean food that reminds you of home?
Los Angeles is the epicenter of a new food movement that incorporates the diversity of the United States right on your plate. Korean, Mexican, Italian, and Japanese influences combine to create some of the most incredible – and truly American – foods. Things like kimchi tacos, sushi burritos, and pizzas topped with apricots and cotija cheese are just a few of the culturally-plural foods you might find in my hometown. And you might even find them served out of a truck.
I know many Indonesians don’t drink wine, but I would be remiss if I didn’t add that California is home to some of the best and most interesting wines made today, and I am proud to see that industry, in particular, focusing on inclusion of new, under-represented groups both in terms of who is making the wine and cultivating new audiences to appreciate it.
In the context of a country shaped by immigrants of all backgrounds, having more people of diverse backgrounds and more women among them as leaders in key industries is a very important consideration. More often than not, wines and foods made with passion and respect for their history taste better too.
What are your favorite local dishes, and where do you usually go to eat them?
Sambal. These flavors are so evocative of Indonesia – such a harmonious mixture, done just a little differently in each part of the country. Every country or region has its own version of sambal, but Indonesia’s seems to be one of the most unique and authentically true-to-place. Tempeh, beef rendang, and gado-gado have also become my favorites.
Where are your top dining places that are always on your favorite list?
There are way too many to choose from. I would feel terrible leaving out some that I love, so I will say “no comment” here. But I will say that I love Indonesia’s diversity and depth of food culture.
This is why I am so proud to use our Ambassadors Fund For Cultural Preservation to support the preservation of Indonesia’s culinary heritage and traditional food making through a grant “Pusaka Rasa Nusantara”- it is the first project out of the 900 around the world dedicated to preserving cultural heritage in the form of food. We are working with local partners to document and share indigenous recipes, conserving the culinary practices, recipes, and traditions that underpin Indonesia’s diverse cultural identities.
What is your go-to comfort food, and where do you usually get them?
Can we consider jamu a food here? Jamu makes you feel good, no matter what ails you. I think Jamu is Indonesia’s best-kept secret for promoting culinary happiness. All the good things together form something even better – that’s what Indonesia is all about.