This story originally appeared on KUT.
Think Killeen, Texas, and the U.S. Army post Fort Hood probably jumps into your mind. Since the military facility was created in 1942, the town has had much of its identity and economy tied to the post. While millions of soldiers have flowed in and out of Fort Hood over the years, the town’s large population of Koreans an interesting food culture has sprouted outside its gates.
Killeen has about eight Korean restaurants. Because of the language barrier, many Koreans open up businesses like these, or barbershops advertising military shaves and tailors offering alterations of uniforms.
Koreans make up the largest subpopulation of Asians in Killeen. More than 2,000 Koreans live in the town, so having a choice of restaurants that serve authentic Korean food is a comfort to this community. Many on base at Fort Hood love this food too, and at the restaurant Koreana, they get more than a meal. Owner Hyosun Tartaglia treats soldiers like family.
“She’s had some customers actually come and see her before they see their parents, when they came back from overseas,” says her husband William Tartaglia.
William and Hyosun Tartaglia have been married for almost 20 years. They met in Korea and here in Texas, Hyosun owns the Koreana restaurant in Killeen, Texas. William Tartaglia says bonds run so deep between the soldiers and his wife, losing a customer can be heart wrenching for Hyosun.
“Sometimes I lose two people. Military people go to Iraq, and I miss a lot of my customers,” she says. “Some of them go to war and don’t come back. That’s something that’s too hard.”
After wiping a tear she smiles again when asked about her customers’ favorite dishes. Those who’ve served in Korea are the ones who can handle her spicy dishes, like ttukbaegi.
“Yes — very spicy thing. Love it,” she says.
The soup has noodles, vegetables and bulgogi — a thinly sliced, marinated beef or pork. A lot of diners order bibimbap, which comes in a large bowl with neatly placed, colorful mounds of items like diced carrots, cucumbers and seaweed. Steamed rice goes on top, under a fried egg and spicy chili sauce.
Korean food is how the Tartaglias met. In South Korea, Hyosun was working at a KATUSA, or Korean Augmentation To the United State Army, snack bar at Camp Humphreys for Koreans who work alongside American soldiers. One of William’s friends, Steve, ate there a lot.
“He just thought, I guess, that we would be good together,” William says, chuckling.
Steve kept nagging them to have lunch with each other until they got fed up. They agreed to meet so they could get him off their backs and they could go on with their lives.
“Obviously it didn’t work out that way,” he says. “We’ve been together almost 18 years now.”
William is retired now, and he helps buy fish for Hyosun in Dallas, and vegetables in Austin. Sometimes he goes a few miles away to the big Korean supermarket in town: O Mart.
It’s like a department store: It’s got a photo department, a food court, and you can buy $400 Korean rice cookers or special refrigerators for kimchi for up to $3,000.
When O Mart’s owner, Hosaeng Yu, is asked to showcase the store’s most popular product, he walks directly to the kimchi section. Kimchi is spicy pickled cabbage, and it’s Korea’s national dish.
Yu says Koreans eat kimchi “anytime.”
“Breakfast and lunch and dinner, too,” Yu says. “If they don’t eat kimchi in two or three days they’re going to find the kimchi. Where’s the kimchi!?”
Back at Hyosun Tartaglia’s restaurant Koreana, Capt. Javita Facion says she’s addicted to kimchi, though she’s never served in Korea. Fellow soldiers she works with introduced her to it.
“Since they’ve gone and they’ve talked about it so much, I guess you could say I’m hooked on the Korean food, because I love kimchi now,” Facion says, laughing. “So, every time we come to lunch, I get the kimchi fried rice because that’s my favorite.”
Troy Shoaf is a fan of Korean barbecue. At Korean restaurants, you grill the thin slices of meat at your own table. Shoaf started eating Korean food when he was in the Army and went to Seoul.
“What I’m eating here, it used to remind me of being in Korea, but now I just associate it with being with my family and our special moments,” Shoaf says.
At lunch, military customers pack the restaurant. Come dinner time, though, you’re more likely to find Koreans sharing a family meal.
Miae Puyun is the wife of a pastor at a Korean-American church. She says the food at Koreana is just as good as anything made back home, which in this instance actually doesn’t make her feel better.
“I miss home and mommy’s cooking. I miss it. I realize the food is making me more homesick,” she says. “But it’s getting better.”
But Puyun says she and her family came here to serve the many Koreans and Korean-Americans in Killeen, and so she eats this food often in her adopted home away from home.