Warm tofu with kimchi and pork belly stir-fry (dubu kimchi), left, and Hanjan’s spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki) from My Korea.
In My Korea, Hooni Kim shares a Korean pantry primer and 90 recipes from his restaurants.
Scallion pancakes (pajeon) from My Korea.
Our cookbook of the week is My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes by Hooni Kim. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Warm tofu with kimchi and pork belly stir-fry (dubu kimchi), scallion pancakes (pajeon) and Hanjan’s spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki).
Chef Hooni Kim eats out a lot when he’s in South Korea. And although he’s in the business of food — at the helm of New York restaurants Hanjan and Danji , which became the world’s first Michelin-starred Korean restaurant in 2012 — he doesn’t like to think too much when he’s at the table. Rather than viewing his visits as information-gathering missions, he considers eating an act of pure pleasure.
“That’s why I don’t enjoy eating at my restaurants — I’m always thinking and analyzing. It’s very stressful and you’re never content. I don’t dine out like that, especially in Korea, where it’s just so fun,” says Kim. “When I come back, I rely on memory; where the food has had enough impact that I can remember the flavours. I don’t remember because I want to cook it, I remember because I want to eat it again.”
Using his recollections as a springboard, Kim experiments with different techniques and ingredients. He likens the way he balances the traditional and the interpretive to passing food through a prism. Classic dishes refract, coming out at different angles.
Take tteokbokki , rice cakes in a spicy, vivid red gochujang sauce. Typically stewed until meltingly tender, the version he shares in the book (which is on the menu at Hanjan) has a soft interior, exceedingly crisp exterior and heady chili flavour.
Kim had his first bite of “almost violently good” tteokbokki while visiting his grandmother in Busan, and it made such a profound impression it remains his earliest taste memory. He was just four or five years old, he recalls in the introduction to his debut cookbook, My Korea (with Aki Kamozawa). Later, the popular street food became the inaugural item on his list of summer-vacation “must-eat” foods.
Born in Seoul and raised primarily in New York City, Kim trained at acclaimed restaurants Daniel and Masa . It was at the latter — the most exclusive sushi restaurant in the U.S. — that he began to establish his style of Korean cooking. While he looked forward to eating Korean food on annual visits, he had little experience making it. At Masa, the family (staff) meals he prepared evolved into his first menu for Danji. He refers to the experience as a “complete rediscovery” of Korean food.
“Korean food in Korea was always the best-tasting food that I knew of,” says Kim. “I think Masa (Takayama) is the one who told me, ‘When you open your restaurant, you have to cook who you are.’ It made me really look within to see, ‘What kind of chef are you?’ … That’s the most honest way to cook food, I think. When the answers are within.”
My Korea includes a Korean pantry primer and 90 recipes from his restaurants, with chapters devoted to fundamental sauces and condiments, banchan, kimchi, muchim (quick-pickled vegetables), soups and stews, rice, noodles, anju and snacks. Jangs and other preserved or aged ingredients (fermented, dried, pickled, salted, dehydrated) are essential.
When he opened Danji in 2010, Kim says he felt like a New Yorker with a passion for Korean food. As he travelled to South Korea more often, he began craving the artisanal jangs and other ingredients that require time and craftsmanship to create. With each trip, he gained knowledge and confidence.
“I never really learned how to cook Korean. I just know how to cook in a professional New York kitchen as well as at home in the U.S. … Not having been professionally trained as a Korean chef, I do a lot of things differently,” says Kim. “I learned how to cook from very good restaurants. I learned how to extract flavours from very good ingredients at the best places. And that’s what I did with the Korean food I put on the menu and in the book. It’s not the most traditional techniques. I can’t even say it’s French or Japanese. But definitely with my background, it uses the best techniques I know to make the food the most delicious.”
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