As excited as I am by Korean cooking, I’ve had trouble finding a Korean cookbook that really thrilled me. I do have the Momofuku cookbook – it’s the source for my beloved kimchi recipe – but it’s a very cheffy cookbook and does not feature the sort of dishes one finds in a typical Korean restaurant. Korean food is exploding on the food scene right now, though, so I figured it wouldn’t be long until I found The One.
And then Koreatown crossed my threshold. I can’t remember where I first saw it recommended – it was amid my once-or-twice-annual cookbook checkout orgy, when I search Best Of lists for interesting tomes and put on hold every single one I find interesting. A few days later, my home library branch’s hold shelf will be groaning with my selections, and I’ll walk out with multiple bags stretched at the seams with cookbooks. This year I think I checked out about 38. It was quite a tower!
And of all those cookbooks, I found only one I really love.
Koreatown was exciting from the word go, before I tried any recipes. I pored over the whole thing, and my mouth watered at practically every page. It has a great balance of simple homestyle recipes with slightly more complex restaurant-style recipes, as well as a chapter in the back called “Respect: Guest Recipes” of dishes contributed by chefs, ranging from complicated, fusion-y things like deep-fried smoked broccoli in Korean sauce from Amanda Cohen (of NYC’s vegetarian wonderland Dirt Candy) to a grilled cheese with kimchi and Cowgirl Creamery cheese on King’s Hawaiian rolls.
I haven’t tried any of those yet, though they’re pretty intriguing. I’ve stuck to simpler fare: noodle dishes, kalbi (marinated short ribs), kimchi pancakes, ramen cooked the Korean way. (What is the Korean way, you ask? Korea’s own fabulous Shin ramen cooked with American cheese, of course! I suspect that the preparation is related to the intriguingly bizarre-sounding Army Base Stew, a fusion by necessity that used cheap and durable American processed foods – Spam, American cheese, hot dogs – brought to Korea by American soldiers during the Korean War.)
All the recipes I’ve tried have been really good. Yes, including – maybe especially – that Shin ramen with American cheese. (A revelation. I’m serious.) The cookbook has a charming lack of pretension, using convenience products where, well, convenient, as in the recipe for kimchi pancakes. The headnote remarks that almost all Korean restaurants use it, so why not? You’ll get the taste you’re looking for. I found that the pancakes didn’t cook up as crisp as I expected with what I consider a “slick” of oil on the pan – but then again, they actually said a “generous slick.” That’s pretty vague, and perhaps is a slight downfall of the book’s casual style. My second batch of pancakes, with more oil, was much better.
The japchae, a ubiquitous dish in Korean restaurants, was easy to make and just as tasty as expected; black bean noodles (recipe page shown at top, completed dish photo below), the other noodle preparation I tried, looked fierce but were actually mild and sweet. I’ve read that this dish is a favorite of Korean children, and it’s also the food to eat on Black Day, a day to mourn with your friends if you didn’t get any gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day, March 14.
I didn’t get any photos of the kalbi, soaked in a sweet-salty-garlicky marinade with apple and pineapple and grilled, but it was terrific. There are so many more recipes I want to try: pork and kimchi stew, a custardy dish called “bubbling egg,” soy milk noodle soup, sweet soy-braised chicken… the list goes on and on. I’ll be cooking, and learning, from this book for a long time to come.