Given that my mother and her family spent 13 years living in South Korea, I felt fairly confident approaching Koreatown: A Cookbook from chef Deuki Hong and writer Matt Rodbard that focuses on the flavors of Korean-American cuisine.
I grew up with ganjang, or Korean soy sauce, at the table, plates full of bulgogi (think Korean teriyaki), afternoons spent making mandu, basically Korean potstickers, and tales of dduk, a rice cake akin to mochi, my mother bought from street vendors as a child. My sister and I would faithfully mush our Korean white rice in an attempt to make what she described.
Yet, a few pages into Koreatown and it was clear my understanding of Korean cuisine was quite limited. While my mother’s shared experience had primed my palate for Korean flavors, I had much to learn.
Mom lived around the coastal areas of Korea, her favorite food memories are of days at the market being treated to brown bags filled with fried mandu, her boarding-school American cheese on white bread, or the simple family meals made by Chaesee her beloved family cook.
It was a given that my review of Koreatown would incorporate my family, but would my grandparents enjoy the flashier flavors from Deuki and Rodbard over the recipes my grandmother had collected from her Korean friends.
I hit up the Asian market in Everett and found most of what I needed to complete an arsenal of recipes for our Korean feast. I cannot stress enough just how much garlic and scallions you will go through. Think Costco-sized bag; don’t skimp.
Koreatown, named for the pockets of Korean culture in America, is at once enticing and overwhelming. The average home cook could easily be reeling with all the jangs — doenjang, ssamjang, gochujang, etc. They don’t seem to end.
Deuki and Rodbard work hard to put us at ease. Their writing is friendly, encouraging and understanding of the fact that many will be using their book as an introduction to Korean food. Their book also accounts for the well-traveled palate. It’s a wide range to negotiate, but they do so with aplomb.
“Ingredient and gear sections can be super boring in cookbooks!” Rodbard writes. “We tried to make this one less so. Read it and we promise you will learn something.”
They deliver on their promise, not only was I laughing through much of their commentary, but my mother and I both purchased mandolins to aid in making our meal. (We went with the Japanese brand recommended by Kenji López-Alt of The Food Lab.)
Recipe descriptions are friendly, useful and entertaining. They encourage readers to reach out on Twitter should they get stumped on a recipe or ingredient. When I came across a banchan — those little plates of goodies complimentary at every Korean meal — recipe that didn’t clarify at what stage to add the garlic, I took them at their word and shot out a message on Twitter. Rodbard was quick to reply and I felt even more confident that both were prepared to hold my virtual hand through their cookbook.
This is food Deuki and Rodbard are both drawn to, Deuki for his Korean-American heritage, Rodbard because of his passion for the cuisine, and both because they love Koreatown. It’s distinctly Korean, but also American, and for this fact I found it more approachable and endearing.
The cookbook takes intermission with interviews from others chefs, critics and pop stars drawn into Koreatown for many of the same reasons: the unabashed homeyness of the dishes, the comforting soups, and the variety despite the often limited and humble set of ingredients.
Side note, if you don’t like your cookbook to cuss, the interviews drop a few F-bombs. But I felt it only added to the variety of the book.
The heat scale in the recipes can be trusted. You can always add more heat or garlic to kick it into high gear, but for folks like me who were born at spice “1” this is a particularly helpful aspect of Koreatown.
Another attraction to the book is the authenticity of its recipes. As attested by famed critic and Koreatown devotee, Jonathan Gold.
“The restaurants here are as good as the restaurants in Seoul,” says Gold in the book.
Our feast felt like the real deal. The meal included seven banchan dishes: scallion pancakes, two types of kimchi, daikon wrap, crunchy sesame bean sprouts, blistered shishito peppers, and bubbling egg made with anchovy stock. These accompanied plates of bulgogi, japchae, a sweet potato noodle dish, and bowls of doenjang jjigae, a fermented bean paste stew. Of course we had Korean white rice, seaweed and tea. We finished with a Korean-style dessert of fruit, followed by hodduk, a street food of fried pancakes stuffed with any variety of sweet fillings, and two types of ice cream.
While the recipes from Koreatown were reminiscent of the food my mom and grandparents ate in Korea, the dishes were a bit wilder than the subdued coastal flavors they remember. All seven of the banchan were a hit, especially the scallion pancake and the sesame bean sprouts.
My mom thought the japchae had better flavor than the dish she grew up eating, but grandma preferred her own bulgogi recipe. I sided with Koreatown, which pushed the boundaries of grandma’s recipes I grew up eating. At the end of the meal, the hodduk drew a “I don’t remember ever having these before.” from my mother, further evidence to me that Koreatown is an entity unto itself.
Bulgogi | 불고기
SOY-MARINATED GRILLED RIB EYE
Next to kimchi, and possibly bibimbap, bulgogi is the best-known Korean food product to grace American shores. Thinly sliced beef, usually sirloin, rib eye or brisket, is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sesame oil before landing on a smoking-hot grill or grill pan—or a tableside grill, if you want your house to smell like the magic of Koreatown. Although kalbi is more coveted, and thus expensive, bulgogi is really the workhorse of Korean barbecue. It’s what Roy Choi placed in a taco to start a culinary revolution. Any good Korean grocery store will sell pre-sliced beef for this recipe. This is the best bet, but you can do it yourself: freeze the meat for about 20 minutes so it’s stiff enough to shave with a sharp knife. Or you can ask your butcher to slice it for you. SERVES 4
FOR THE MARINADE AND MEAT
1 cup soy sauce
1 large white onion, grated
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons mirin
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons black pepper
2 pounds rib eye or sirloin, very thinly sliced
4 scallions, cut into 1-inch batons
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Vegetable oil, as needed
4 cups hot cooked rice
1 head red leaf lettuce, leaves washed, separated and dried
5 to 10 perilla leaves (optional)
1 cup Napa Cabbage Kimchi or other kimchi of your choice
1 cup Ssamjang
PREPARE THE MARINADE: In a bowl, stir together the soy sauce, onion, sugar, mirin, garlic, sesame oil and black pepper. If you have the time, refrigerate the marinade for a day on its own. Place the beef, scallions and sesame seeds into a large zip-top bag; pour the marinade on top. Compress the bag to remove excess air, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably 24 hours.
TO PAN-SEAR THE MEAT: Remove the meat from the marinade and pat dry. Preheat a large cast-iron skillet or grill pan over high heat, until smoking hot. Using a towel, rub on some vegetable oil. Working in batches, grill the marinated beef until cooked through, about 5 minutes, turning frequently until the meat begins to caramelize. Work in batches, serving the meat as it ready.
TO GRILL THE MEAT: Line the grill grates with foil. Heat on high until you can hold your hand 6 inches over the grate for only 2 to 3 seconds. Grill the marinated beef, uncovered, until cooked through, about 5 minutes, turning frequently until the meat begins to caramelize. Work in batches, serving the meat as it is ready.
Serve the beef with the rice, lettuce, perilla, kimchi and Ssamjang. To eat, make a lettuce wrap (called ssambap): take a lettuce or perilla leaf and pack on a couple spoons of rice. Layer with kimchi and some bulgogi and top with a dab of Ssamjang.
Pajeon | 파전
The pajeon, milder than Kimchi Jeon (page 66), is also a favorite at Korean restaurants. Unlike the kimchi version, where a single batter is poured onto a hot griddle, we think of this as a two-part process: char the scallion, then add the batter. This will give each pancake a set of nicely browned scallions (which is pretty much the best way to eat scallions, are we right?) without burning the outside. It also looks pretty cool when you line them up in a crisscross pattern.
MAKES 4 MEDIUM PANCAKES
1 cup Korean pancake mix
1 cup ice-cold sparkling water
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon doenjang
Vegetable oil, as needed
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut into
Kosher salt to taste
Jeon Dipping Sauce (recipe follows), for serving
In a medium bowl, combine pancake mix, sparkling water, egg yolk and doenjang. Refrigerate for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to warm, or the lowest temperature setting.
In a small frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add scallions in one layer and cook, flipping once, until charred. (Work in batches if necessary.) Season scallions with salt and set aside.
Generously slick a large cast-iron skillet with vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, drop ½ cup of batter into the pan for each pancake. Line charred scallions in the batter in a handsome pattern.
Drop the heat to medium-low and fry 4 to 5 minutes, until light golden brown along the edges, then flip and fry the other side for another 3 to 4 minutes, until golden and the pancake is cooked through. Fry longer if you like it crispier, but take care not to let it get too dark. Repeat with remaining batter, stirring between additions, and reheating and oiling the pan between batches.
Remove pancakes from the oil and place on a paper-towel-lined plate, turning once to remove excess oil. Place the pancake on a cutting board and cut to your preferred size and shape (we like ours squared off). Keep finished pancakes warm in the oven while you cook the rest. Serve with a small bowl of Jeon Dipping Sauce.
JEON DIPPING SAUCE
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons finely ground gochugaru
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. This will keep in the fridge indefinitely. MAKES ABOUT ½ CUP
Reprinted from Koreatown: A Cookbook. Copyright © 2016 by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard. Photograph of Bulgogi copyright © 2016 by Sam Horine. Photograph of Kimchi Jeon copyright © 2016 by Gabi Porter. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Publisher: Clarkson Potter
Who’s this for? Those with a love of Korean food trucks. Anyone with an interest in pub-style Korean eating (this food partners well with drink, or works to recover you from too much drink). Korean food lovers.