All photos reprinted from Korean American. Copyright © 2022 Eric Kim. Photographs copyright ©2022 Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.
I have eaten Korean food for my entire life, but it wasn’t until the pandemic forced me to move back in with my mom that I actually learned how to cook the food I had grown up with — a way that many Korean Americans (and Koreans in America) end up reconnecting with their heritage.
“The dishes that many of us grew up with are the Korean [foods] that came over in the ’80s,” says Eric Kim, a cooking columnist at The New York Times. “That is why I think [in] the Korean American community, there is this staunch desire to preserve all.”
Kim is also the author of Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home, which he wrote with his mom, Jean, when he also returned home to Atlanta during the pandemic. Kim says his book does not try to define Korean or American cooking but instead creates a third-culture – or mixed identity– cuisine. “This book documents the discovery of my Korean American-ness and my attempts and my failed attempts to define it,” he says. “Because what I really believe is that our experiences as Korean Americans are so multiple and so vast that any attempt to define it is going to dilute it.”
Whether you are a fellow Korean American who craves the taste of home or you are interested in exploring a new cuisine, Kim and I will walk you through pantry essentials and simple recipes to welcome more Korean flavors into your own home.
(See two of Kim’s recipes from Korean American — Jean’s Perfect Jar of Kimchi and Gyeranbap with Roasted Seaweed and Capers)
Build your Korean pantry – try tasting and cooking with different jangs
The first and most essential step in exploring Korean American cooking is to build a solid foundation by investing in key Korean pantry ingredients.
Kim starts with the three jangs, or fermented pastes and sauces. Jangs, like other fermented Korean foods like kimchi (a popular side dish of pickled vegetables like napa cabbage), are meant to withstand both humid summers and long winters in Korea.
- Doenjang: If you are new to Korean flavors, Kim recommends starting with doenjang, or soybean paste. Doenjang is commonly used in doenjang jjigae, a stew that is often cooked with either beef or pork, tofu and zucchini. But Kim suggests experimenting with it, too: you can keep a tub in your kitchen to encourage a little dish mixology – try making glazes for fish or some homemade salad dressing.
- Ganjang: This is Korean soy sauce. It is usually a little sweeter than ones from Japanese brands, like Kikkoman. Kim often cooks with gookganjang, which is savory soy sauce made specifically for soups (try saying that three times fast!) that adds a deep flavor to clear broths, like rice cake soup.
- Gochujang: This paste is made with red gochu – Korean peppers – and thickened with rice powder. You may have tried it in mainstream Korean dishes like bibimbap or in kimchi fried rice. Careful — gochu isn’t exactly a mild spice, and gochujang is not recommended for the faint-of-tongue.
One more crucial ingredient that both Kim and I love is Korean red pepper flake-powder called gochugaru. Gochugaru is often used hand-in-hand with gochujang, but some home cooks, like Kim, just use gochugaru for a lighter texture or clear broth. Keep in mind that gochugaru burns easily, so make sure to lower the heat when the air in your kitchen smells like it’s got a little kick in it.
If you’re on the hunt for these ingredients, try going to a Korean or Asian-owned grocery store if possible, as opposed to using the “international” aisles of an American chain. Bigger Korean American chains like H Mart also offer online delivery if you don’t have a store within reach.
Be thoughtful about substitutions
Photograph by Jenny Huang/Clarkson Potter
This shortlist of pantry items (the full list is featured in the cookbook) covers ingredients that really shouldn’t be substituted if you are interested in authentic Korean flavors.
“Build your Korean pantry. Just start there and everything else can be substituted,” says Kim. Instead of being tempted to swap out doenjang for gochujang, or even miso paste, stock the ingredients listed above and focus on substituting different types of meat or vegetables or even starches, like swapping out spam in kimchi jjigae, or kimchi stew, or using instant noodles instead of rice cakes.
And in the case of some Korean ingredients like daepa, often called Korean scallions or leeks, or maesil-cheong, a fermented green plum syrup, they can be tough to find even with an H Mart nearby. You can find close substitutes at your local grocery store, like green onions for daepa, or maple syrup for maesil-cheong.
Make your own kimchi
Photographs by Jenny Huang/Clarkson Potter
Now that your pantry is stocked, it’s time for your first cooking project. Start with kimchi. It might feel daunting at first, but Kim says making kimchi really isn’t that hard, especially if you are making a smaller batch, and it’s a good teaching tool for cooking with gochugaru and gochujang. “Much of Korean cooking is around this conception of preservation, so when you learn how to make kimchi, you kind of learn the basics of Korean cuisine, which is at its core about extending the life of food.”
The possibilities of kimchi are endless. In Kim’s cookbook alone, there are more than 10 different recipes, including his mother Jean’s napa cabbage kimchi.
Find ways to incorporate Korean flavors into your everyday cooking
Kimchi has a long shelf life so once you make a batch, you have time to pick away at it slowly, adding a little bit to your meals.
Kim says another way to incorporate more Korean flavors is by eating more gim, roasted and seasoned seaweed that often comes in individualized packs. Gim is also a key ingredient in gyeran bap, which literally means “egg rice.”
Building a Korean pantry has let me incorporate more of these flavors into my everyday cooking, like adding a bit of gochugaru to my tofu stir-fry or adding a spoonful of ganjang to microwaveable dumplings. Kim says the heart of Korean American cooking is reframing what you think of basic pantry ingredients, and letting the flavors you bring in start to feel at home. It can be as simple as adding a hint of Korean ingredients to what you already know how to cook – that’s how I learned to appreciate the flavors, and even find comfort in them.
1 cup cooked white rice, preferably fresh
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
¾ teaspoon soy sauce, plus more to taste
2 large eggs
1 (5-gram) packet gim, crushed with your hands
Capers, for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Add the rice to a medium bowl and set aside.
2. In a medium nonstick skillet, heat the sesame oil and soy sauce over high heat. Crack in the eggs. Reduce the heat if the splatter is too much, but otherwise just cook until the whites have pillowed up, slightly crisped around the edges, and the white area around the yolk is no longer liquidy, about 1 minute (if your pan is hot enough; longer if it isn’t). Also, the soy sauce should have stained the whites and bubbled up, turning into a sticky glaze.
3. Slide the fried eggs over the rice, shower with the gim, and dot with a few capers. Season with pepper. Mix everything together with a spoon before tasting. This is where you can adjust for seasoning, adding more soy sauce as needed.
All photographs reprinted from Korean American. Copyright © 2022 Eric Kim. Photographs copyright ©2022 Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.
We’d love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at [email protected]. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.
If you love Life Kit and want more, subscribe to our newsletter.