If your only knowledge of Korean cuisine is bibimbap, it’s OK, Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard will forgive you. This comforting rice dish, mixed with pickles, vegetables, grilled meats, and topped with a fried egg, is the “gateway to bigger, better things,” as they are both fond of saying.
Hong and Rodbard are the authors of the new cookbook “Koreatown: A Cookbook.” It is an unusual cookbook; its point of view is not from your usual home kitchen—rather, its dishes, chefs, traditions, even down to the drinking games are from the many Koreatowns around the United States.
The pair worked for two years on the project, criss-crossing America—and like people who have spent a lot of time together, they tend to finish each other’s sentences.
Cravings can say a lot about people. Hong, the classically trained chef-owner at the popular Kang Ho Dong Baekjong in Manhattan’s Koreatown, has cheffy tastes; it’s fried chicken all the way for him: “Korean fried chicken, southern fried chicken, crappy fried chicken.”
For Rodbard, it’s doenjang jjigae, a fermented bean stew. “I could eat that dish three times a week,” he said. “It just hits you in a really unique place—it’s funky, salty, really beefy. There’s clams so it’s a little briny. Umami flows through your body when you eat it.” A self-described “white boy Jew from Kalamazoo,” Rodbard caught the Korean food bug years ago and wrote a guidebook to New York City’s top Korean restaurants—a project during which he met Hong.
The two have written one of those rare cookbooks you actually want to read from cover to cover, in a let’s-be-real, I-gotta-let-you-in-on-this voice, with entertaining sidebars, for example, “Q&A: Why Two-Year-Olds Need to Eat Kalbi” or the unquestionably relevant “How to Cook Korean Food at Home Without Pissing Off Your Neighbors.”
Along the way they invite in lovers of Korean food to wax poetic—from chef David Chang to Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold to Linkin Park DJ Joe Hahn. A final section includes recipes by guest chefs including Eric Ripert and Amanda Cohen.
But the heart of the book, and its inspiration, is Koreatown.
“It’s a very proud food culture that is [about] making food primarily for themselves,” said Rodbard of the unifying feature that links the Koreatowns that he and Hong visited.
With the exception of Manhattan’s Koreatown, where competition and real estate prices are high, he explained, Korean restaurants don’t market themselves.
“At most Korean restaurants there might not be lot of English on the menu. The dishes are uncompromisingly Korean,” Rodbard said, “I just love that about Korean food. You’re finding this very industrious, proud people, making it work for them, making food they’re proud of.”
“Koreatown” captures slices of America, taking readers to places that are staunchly traditional, with dishes that you’d find in Seoul, and others that seamlessly integrate Korean ingredients with the regional cuisine.
“We say it all the time with no hesitation,” said Hong, “L.A. has the best Korean food in the U.S. We almost say it’s better than Seoul, Korea, itself.”
The most prominent Koreatown in the United States is in Los Angeles, where it spans over 5 miles. “L.A. is the beating heart of Korean food and culture in America,” said Rodbard. “You’re going to find these restaurants that focus on single dishes: a bone broth restaurant, you’re going to find three, four different restaurants that serve chicken and ginseng [soup], or kimbap.”
In Atlanta, Hong and Rodbard visited friends Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee, who own the barbecue restaurant, Heirloom Market BBQ. “It’s American barbecue, there’s nothing about it that says Korean,” said Hong. “But when you ask Cody, ‘Hey what’s in this marinade? It tastes different.’ It’s Korean soybean paste, it’s Korean chili paste. Things like that work well with the South. It’s perfect integration.”
Manhattan’s Koreatown, focused on 32nd Street, has a different vibe, rising vertically and drawing a diverse crowd. “Walking out there at 11 o’clock there’s probably nothing like that in the world. You feel like you’re in Seoul,” said Hong.
The recipes, developed in Hong’s kitchen, include many of the “greatest hits” found in Koreatowns.
The longest chapter—and a hint as to what lies beyond Korean Food 101—is all about soups, stews, and braises. Winters get very cold in Korea (think Siberian wind chill), so dishes like stews are fundamental: soondubu jjigae (a soft tofu stew), seolleongtang (a beef bone noodle soup), and gamjatang (a spicy pork neck and potato stew). Seafood also figures prominently, often forming the base for stocks.
But even though its inspiration is rooted in Koreatown, the cookbook’s bottom line isn’t authenticity. It’s deliciousness.
When Hong looked to develop a recipe for kimchi fried rice, he asked himself, “What’s the best version of kimchi fried rice? That’s how I approached it.”
The result? It’s called “Our Mildly Insane Kimchi Bokkeumbap,” a version amped up with gochujang butter and “an insane amount” of bacon (that’s half a pound serving two people).
Rodbard makes a comparison to mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. You can have regular mashed potatoes, or “you can keep adding butter until it’s half and half. We just kept adding more and more bacon.”
“Are these recipes fusion? Are they Korean-Korean? We didn’t care,” Hong said.
Because—the bottom line in all of this—it’s what’s uncompromisingly delicious.
(“Koreatown: A Cookbook” by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard, Clarkson Potter, February 2016, $30)