Exploring Korean Cuisine’s Earthy Flavors

November 27, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW YORK—A lot of cooks are familiar with Korean flavors, often for the simple reason that many Koreatown restaurants provide 24-hour food service.

When you finish your shift late, you appreciate not getting kicked out at 2 a.m., said chef Ben Pollinger. “Why are so many places open 24 hours?” He doesn’t know the answer, but, he says, “It’s awesome.” The grilled meats, the saltiness, a convivial atmosphere—all these elements are conducive to having a great time (think barbecues, if you will).

Korean food is known for being earthy. And literally so. Kimchi, that well-known spicy Napa cabbage dish, is traditionally buried in the earth during its fermentation time.

Likewise, the foundation of Korean cooking rests on fermentation: it is the jangs, or “sauces” that “the better the jangs, the less cooking you have to do,” said chef Hooni Kim, who runs two acclaimed Korean restaurants, Hanjan and Danji.

Pollinger, Kim, as well as chefs Kerry Heffernan and Michael Ginor recently spoke at an event, “Korean Flavors: Interpretation by the Masters” at the Institute of Culinary Education.

Kim left Korea when he was 3, but said he realized later in life that Korean food in Korea was very different to Korean food in the United States. “The best way to really introduce Korean flavors without having to go to Korea is to get the jangs from Korea,” where you can get artisanal-quality products.

There’s doenjang (a soybean paste), gochujang (a chili pepper paste), and ganjang (a soy sauce sauce). These derivatives all have their own uses.

Being fermented, of course, the scents are strong. “How could something that smells so awful taste so good?” said Kim, who added that at his restaurants, the stronger it smelled, the more his diners seemed to like the dish. “That’s what fermentation is.” Fermented products, in addition, have health benefits that are well-documented.


All four chefs demonstrated and offered tastings of their dishes. Pollinger made yellowtail crudo seasoned with Korean liquid seasoning, boricha sauce, white Korean radish kimchi, and doenjang.

Heffernan made lobster jigae with Korean sliced rice cake, which was buttery, but accompanied by a bold undertone of kimchi.

Ginor made Hudson Valley duck breast, smoked jujubes, pumpkin, jajang and scallion and Korean pear salad; and finally, Kim made a very spicy pork and gochujang Bolognese over wide noodles.

By the accompanying silence, one could say these dishes all went over well.

The desserts, provided by Korean pastry brand Besfren, were out of this world: chaps truffle (chaps comes from chapssaltteok or rice cake) and green tea cream and red bean paste chaps.

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