Back in March, before the world was turned upside down by Miss Rona, I spoke to chef and cookbook author Hooni Kim about a few of his favorite Korean recipes for cooking on weeknights. We were coming up on spring, and the collection of dinner ideas he shared were meant to be the next installment of our new Wednesday Nights in America series.
Then Wednesday nights in America changed, as did Wednesday nights across the globe.
Along with each chef- or cookbook author-driven recipe collection, I’d planned to learn one more dish from a home cook, too. But, along with lockdown came the very real end to that opportunity. There would be no side-by-side cooking with strangers, at least for the short term. Which was upsetting not only because it derailed our publishing plans, but also because some of the best meals (and conversations) I had this year were with people I didn’t know before I stepped foot inside their doors.
Once I realized this would be no short diversion—that the cook-alongs we put on hold couldn’t resume in a few weeks, or even a few months, I knew we’d have to approach the series a little differently. Are there Wednesday Night Zoom cooking-with-strangers parties in my future? Possibly. But nothing’s set in stone.
Still, the conversation I had with Kim back in March is just as relevant as it was then, and the recipes just as great. And with the world opening back up bit by bit, it’s not as hard as it was in the early days of quarantine to get your hands on the groceries you’ll need for these dishes. So here they are: four favorite recipes ready for your own Wednesday night dinner rotation.
Kim didn’t learn to cook Korean food at home. He says that his mother’s version of home cooking “was bringing in takeout from Korean restaurants.” As a single mother (Kim’s father died when he was two years old, after which he and his mother moved from Korea to London and eventually New York), she was busy with work and would usually give Kim money to order takeout or to eat in at a neighborhood restaurant when he wasn’t eating at a friend’s house.
And while Kim would return to Seoul each summer at the insistence of his mother, who believed “the best way for [him] to not forget [his] roots was to spend summer vacation—every summer vacation—in Korea,” it wasn’t until he was a professional cook, working under Japanese chef Masa Takayama at his eponymous New York City restaurant, that he really learned to cook traditional Korean dishes.
“Masa loves Korean food,” says Kim. “I was the only Korean [on the kitchen staff] and everyone assumed I knew how to cook Korean food, so he would tell me what he wanted for family meal and I’d have to make it.” By then Kim was an accomplished cook, and he at least knew what these dishes should taste like. He relied on his sense memory, recalling those summer visits to Seoul (as well as Busan and Soando, where his grandparents lived), to get the food to taste right. He started watching videos of YouTube sensation and cookbook author Maangchi to learn Korean techniques.
Eventually, Kim would open two of his own restaurants, Danji and Hanjan, both in New York, both focused on Korean cooking. (Danji was awarded a Michelin Star, the first ever for a Korean restaurant.) He began traveling to Korea several times a year, to taste the food in different regions, to study with master chefs, and to immerse himself in the food culture there so that he could bring even more authentic flavors and techniques to his own kitchen.
When New York City went into quarantine this year, Kim was one of the first chefs to pivot his restaurants to a take-out model. At Hanjan, he started putting together heat-and-serve meal kits packed with a rotating menu of bulgogi, grilled gochujang-marinated chicken, bibimbap kits, stews, scallion pancakes, and assorted banchan (Korean side dishes) such as sweet and savory black beans.
If you’re in New York, you can order these kits for delivery on any given Wednesday—or any night of the week, for that matter. If not, you can make many of Kim’s favorite weeknight dinners right in the comfort of your own home: his cookbook, My Korea, was released in April, and it’s full of many of the same dishes available at Hanjan and Danji, both traditional Korean recipes and the modern adaptations he’s created based on his experience as a third-culture cook. Here are a few of those recipes he’d gladly make on a weeknight, including one from another Korean cook Kim greatly admires.
1. Doenjang Jjigae
This is the dish “all Koreans remember from their childhood,” says Kim; the quintessential “every-Korean-household-has-their-own-version” kind of recipe, served for “breakfast, lunch, or dinner.”
His rendition of the classic stew is made with zucchini, tofu, and onions simmered in a richly savory, spiced broth. The flavoring that defines it is doenjang, or fermented soybean paste. Doenjang has something in common with Japanese miso; but, as Kim explains in My Korea, the process for making it is slightly different, and results in a “more intense flavor and character.”
Especially for doenjang jjigae, Kim urges you to seek out artisanal doenjang because of its “complex, nutty character and probiotics.” Not hard to do, since it’s easily purchased online—his favorite brand is Jook Jang Yeon (although at $26 for a 500-gram jar, it’s a bit of an investment). You can find commercial versions for a bit less: Maangchi recommends Haechandle, available at H-mart; Kim also suggests Sempio, available on Amazon.
Jook Jang Yeon is part of a growing trend, Kim says, of companies producing ingredients like doenjang using traditional methods. “For a long time no one sold naturally-fermented soybeans in the US, because it was expensive and time consuming to make,” he says. In recent years, artisanal producers have started popping up in Korea, making doenjang and other fermented ingredients in the style families once did at home. Which is good news, because, Kim says, “the mass-produced ones don’t have the same intensity and character.”
“If you ask any Korean living abroad what’s the one dish they miss the most,” says Kim, “it’s this dish, because for so long, unless you were self-importing a naturally fermented brand like Jook Jang Yeon, you weren’t able to recreate it in a way that reminded you of your mom’s or grandmother’s doenjang jjigae.”
Kim also points out the versatility of this dish. He likes to make the recipe below with beef, but if you don’t eat red meat, he says could substitute shrimp or some other seafood—or go vegan and add more vegetables, such as potatoes.
Doenjang Jjigae (된장찌개 / Fermented-Soybean Stew)Hooni Kim
Pajeon are an example of what Koreans refer to as an anju: a dish to be eaten with alcohol. (Kim says to go for a makgeolli—a lightly sparkling rice-based drink—to sip alongside; he sells the Kooksundang brand at Hanjan.) It’s unconventional to make a family dinner out of anju, but since you’re likely not heading out to sit inside a bar right now, you might as well bring the mid-week bar (and bar food) home to you.
I wrote about Kim’s scallion pancakes earlier this year as a smart, quick, and inexpensive dinner move. The reason I bring that up is because, for Kim, pajeon is a spring dish. He says he only puts them on the menu at his restaurants when scallions (pa in Korean) are in season. But, once you know the method for making pajeon, you can widen your jeon (savory pancake) repertoire, substituting with kimchi, finely shredded carrots, or whatever mix-ins your family might be into. “Some people,” Kim adds, “like to put meat or seafood in theirs.”
What makes Kim’s version of pajeon really stand out is that he combines the roughly chopped scallions with just enough batter to hold them together. He likes a scallion pancake “that’s really all about the scallions, since they’re so important in Korean cuisine.” And while his recipe calls for three bunches, sizing of scallions can vary greatly throughout the year. In spring, Kim says, “you’ll see one bunch of scallions selling for a dollar at most American markets; but in spring and early summer at many Korean and other Asian grocers, they sell scallions for six bunches per dollar.” And those bunches can be massive. Maangchi walked her top viewers through a Korean market a few years ago and you can see just how big those scallions are.
Point being, buy a couple extra bunches if the ones your market carries are meager, or stir in just enough of the batter to make however many scallions you have just hold together. Leftover batter, Kim says, can be kept in the refrigerator for two to three days.
Pajeon (파 전 / Scallion Pancakes)Hooni Kim
Kim credits Maangchi as a “real inspiration for learning [his] traditional Korean cooking skills,” and admits he’s made her version of Korean fried chicken at home more times than he can count.
In fact, he even had the opportunity to cook the wings alongside Maangchi when she held a pop-up at Hanjan for the Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking release party in 2017. What makes Maangchi’s version of this very popular restaurant dish (which is also the most popular recipe on Maangchi’s website) so good is that after the chicken wings are fried with a simple coating of potato starch, they’re tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce made from either rice syrup or honey. (I’ve tried it both ways and can vouch for either, but will probably opt for honey when I make it again—the honey syrup is darker and of course will take on the flavor properties of whatever kind of honey you use to make it.)
It’s the sugary sauce, Kim says, that “makes the chicken stay crunchy all night long and even into the next day if you want to eat it cold.” Better yet, there’s no marinating, no resting, no waiting around at all. The recipe goes from raw to finished in less than an hour. For pairing, Maangchi likes pickled radish, but any simple green salad—or if you’re cooking in late summer, plum salad—would be an excellent accompaniment, too.
Dakgangjeong (닭강정 / Korean Sweet, Crunchy Fried Chicken)Maangchi
4. Pork Belly Sliders
These pork belly sliders, Kim explains, are quick to make, because the pork can be portioned and left in the marinade for five to six days in the fridge. Then, it’s simply seared in a pan and piled on a bun with mayo and sliced cucumbers.
The sliders are based on jeyuk bokkeum, a stir-fry made with thinly-sliced pork shoulder that’s marinated in gochujang and served with rice and banchan. Instead of shoulder, Kim likes to slice pork belly into ¼-inch square slabs since it’s “a little fatty and a little more tender.” The method works with thinly sliced pork tenderloin, too. The secret, no matter which cut you go for, is to score a quality jang (in this case gochujang), since that’s where the bulk of the flavor comes from. (Again, Kim prefers Jook Jang Yeon, but also recommends the Sunchang variety from Chung June One, which he writes in My Korea “is the most popular brand in Korea and has been for years.”)
“Gochujang is my favorite jang,” says Kim. “When we were opening Danji in Hell’s Kitchen 10 years ago, we were the only Korean restaurant.” In an effort to appeal to lunchtime crowds—and, perhaps inspired by his fervent devotion to White Castle—Kim put jeyuk bokkeum in a slider. It swiftly became a best-selling item. It only takes one bite to know just why.
Spicy Pork Belly SlidersHooni Kim
A note on an essential Korean ingredient, and the weeknight way around it
In Kim’s restaurants, the kitchen team makes dashi—a broth made with some combination of seaweed, anchovy, and dried mushrooms—every single day. While it’s used in Korean cooking the same way chicken or beef stock might be used in Euro-centric cooking, Kim says dashi doesn’t have quite the same longevity and will “taste flat by day three.”
However, he also realizes most people don’t want to devote two hours each night to making fresh dashi on the stove. So he recommends this smart shortcut: “Keep a pitcher of water in the fridge and simply add the dashi ingredients to it.” Periodically, you can add more water to it or refresh the pitcher with more seaweed, anchovies, or mushrooms. “The flavors aren’t going to be as nice as the cooked version,” Kim says, “but the complex umami character that will infuse into the pitcher, even without heating it, will make it better than using plain water.”
Originally Appeared on Epicurious