Meet the Korean-American Sisters Behind LA’s Hangari House, Who Honor Their Mother and Culture Through Plant-Based Cuisine

Photo: Stocksy/Marc Tran
Similar to millions of Americans in the midst and wake of the global pandemic, Los Angeles-based sisters Sally and Sarah We found themselves rethinking where their careers were headed. Sally, then a fashion retail store manager, and Sarah, employed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, both figured it was as good a time as any to change course and ultimately to bring work closer to home. In July 2022, the duo created Hangari House: a food business inspired by their mother’s cooking that “elevates popular Korean street food but keeps authentic Korean flavors and recipes,” Sally says.

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Though the sisters didn’t have professional culinary training, they were sure that their mother’s recipes had the special sauce—both literally and figuratively—to sustain a successful enterprise. “Our mom worked hard as an immigrant to give us ‘the American dream,’ and we wanted to do something for her,” Sally shares. “We grew up with good Korean food: authentic recipes she brought from her mom and sisters in Busan, South Korea.”

Sarah adds that the opportunity to share rich and delicious flavors—all the while honoring their family and cultural legacies—was a no-brainer as far as the risk of starting a small business was concerned. “We were blessed with bundles of plant-based foods since our mom wanted to create healthy dishes for us,” she explains. “She loves cooking, is great at anything she tries to make, and just has that detailed touch.”

Passionate about nature and animals, Sally always appreciated that their mom’s cooking was mainly vegan. (Despite the abundance of vegetables in the traditional Korean dietary pattern, veganism isn’t common in the culture’s cuisine at large. In fact, she says their mother was unfamiliar with the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” when she brought them to her attention.) Korean cuisine is perhaps best known worldwide largely for two staples: Korean barbecue and kimchi, the latter of which typically includes animal products despite its fame as a probiotic-packed, veggie-forward staple.

“Most Korean kimchi recipes call for jeotgal [salted seafood], which can vary from shrimp to anchovies,” Sarah explains. Yet no one in their family favors the taste of seafood or fish sauce, so their mother’s own kimchi recipe has always skipped jeotgal in favor of a secret blend of plant-based dupes. “This recipe is something she grew up learning,” she continues. “And the art form of fermenting is a skill,” not to mention a core component of kimjang culture (the traditional ritual of making and sharing kimchi). Tying back to their roots, the sisters add that the word hangari itself refers to a Korean earthenware vessel used to ferment kimchi.

While their initial plan was to focus on kimchi only for wholesale distribution, their business organically expanded to include other vegan family recipes. The duo travels around LA daily, setting up shop at farmers markets, food festivals, and other pop-ups. Sally notes that the broader interest in Korean food has come a long way since her childhood. She recalls the puzzled glances her classmates gave upon looking at her boxed lunch of kimchi and other Korean fare. Now, she takes pride in the fact that people are actively searching for authentic Korean flavors—and that Hangari House provides them in spades.

It’s no surprise that kimchi takes a starring role in their most popular dishes, which include kimchi fried rice with bulgogi-style (thin and marinated) Beyond Meat, kimchi pizza (modeled on jeon, a Korean pancake, but with a crispier texture to mimic pizza crust), and bibimbap (mixed rice bowls with assorted banchan, aka side dishes). Hangari House rotates the banchan on offer—such as garlic eggplant, shishito peppers, and braised tofu—on a seasonal basis, which are also available to purchase à la carte. However, their original napa cabbage kimchi remains a fixed staple year round thanks to a detailed fermenting process, which the sisters are still trying to perfect.

“Through fermenting, we have been creating banchan around local ingredients. That has been the [most] challenging part, but one we’re the most proud of sharing,” Sally explains. On this point, Sarah recalls a tough moment in which they miscalculated yields for a large batch of kimchi, which they had to toss out. “It was heartbreaking, as every dollar matters,” she says. Still, she was able to laugh it off with her family by her side.

On the heels of their one-year anniversary in July 2023, Sally recognizes how far they’ve come in a short amount of time. She remembers the first market they worked, for which they overestimated how much food to bring and exhausted themselves by unloading and reloading the items, on top of the lingering uncertainty of how their new venture would pan out. Nonetheless, leaning on and having faith in each other—and their mother’s recipes, of course—kept their spirits high. “I know it sounds cliché, but every moment was rewarding [by being] together,” Sally shares. “It became clear that we were going to give it our all and have fun building this company.”

“I know it sounds cliché, but every moment was rewarding [by being] together. It became clear that we were going to give it our all and have fun building this company.” —Sally We

Eventually, the We sisters hope to build Hangari House into a standalone storefront to serve as a home base for the plant-based Korean fare that’s as dear to their hearts as it is to their palates—as well as those of their growing customer base. Until their manifestations become a reality, they’ll continue to bounce around LA with a discernible dedication to crafting food made with and borne out of love.

While they’re grateful to learn alongside and spend quality time with each other, different forms of support from customers go a long way, proving that the risk to start a business in honor of their mother and Korean roots was worth taking. Sally cites one couple who frequents the Hangari House stall at one of the Vegan Playground night markets on a weekly basis. Happy to have repeat customers to begin with, she says that a small yet sentimental gift moved her in a big way. “After a few months, they brought us a card with a photo they took of us at the market,” she shares. “We both sincerely got caught off guard and became emotional; it was the most thoughtful gesture and we are forever grateful. Small things like that can really change everything.”

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