The author swapped a high-flying career on Wall Street to make kimchi
Judy Joo grew up in a food-obsessed family in New Jersey, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her parents met in the United States – her father, a war refugee from North Korea, had moved to the US after studying medicine in Seoul, while her mother arrived on a university scholarship.
Judy’s ‘typical tiger mom upbringing’ had its desired effect, fast-tracking her into a career on Wall Street selling fixed income derivatives. But the lure of cooking was strong. Along with the usual piano lessons, her childhood was spent picking perilla leaves for her mother, forced to fold dumplings with her sister, and dodging vats of various ferments and pickles around the house.
Judy left Wall Street for the French Culinary Institute, and is now a ‘French-trained Korean American Londoner’ with a UK cooking show, restaurants in both London and Hong Kong, and this cookbook to her name.
Korean food is hot right now, but we’ve only scratched the surface
While Korean food is as familiar as Chinese in parts of the US, the K-food explosion only hit our shores relatively recently. Bibimbap (mixed rice), Korean barbecue, fried chicken and kimchi are becoming household names here, but there’s so much more to Korean food we’ve yet to discover, which is what this cookbook proves. There’s the wonderful soups and stews, hearty and nourishing for those cold Korean winters. There are noodle dishes, such as the iced summertime favourite, naengmyun, made with chewy sweet potato noodles. We are reminded that Korea is a small peninsula in an entire chapter devoted to seafood. Then there are the wealth of small dishes, the pickles and sides, the pancakes, salads and dumplings. And, of course, the meat: the grilled, smoky short ribs that we’ve come to love are just the beginning.
Our obsession with Korean fried chicken (KFC), as worthy an obsession as it is, can also hide the fact that Korean cooking is a wonderfully healthy, balanced cuisine. Kimchi and ‘bone broths’ may have only recently been discovered by health crusaders, but they’re ancient staples in Korean households. Judy gives recipes for the seaweed soup (miyuk guk) fed to breastfeeding mothers for strength, and a ginseng chicken soup dubbed ‘Korean penicillin’ that no cold dare survive.
Korean home cooking really can be as simple as you want it to be
While formal Korean banquets have tables littered with hundreds of little side dishes, known as banchan, modern Korean home cooking is much more relaxed. Homely one-pot wonders such as kimchi fried rice, or ‘Mum’s BBQ chicken’ sound almost as comforting to cook as they are to eat.
Some of the recipes are Judy’s own modern interpretations, drawing on Korean flavours to make weeknight favourites more interesting, but no more difficult: think grilled lamb chops in a Korean sweet-and-spicy marinade, or ‘Koreanized’ burgers. Even the pork belly lettuce wraps, or bossam, made famous by Momofuku, prove to be weeknight cooking material.
The book aims to prove that even though the ingredients and flavours may be unfamiliar, these recipes are simple to master.
But do I need to buy a new pantry of ingredients to make these dishes?
Judy outlines the essentials in a chapter called the Korean storecupboard – and unless you’re a competent Korean cook, there will be ingredients listed that you don’t have, and perhaps have never heard of. Jujubes, or daechu, are Korean dried dates used to flavour soups, teas and desserts. Gochugaru, Korean chilli flakes, are used in almost everything, including kimchi. Doenjang (Korean soya bean paste) is coarser and stronger than Japanese miso, and sweet potato noodles (dangmyun) have an unusual chewy, stringy consistency. You could find substitutes, but it’s these flavours and ingredients that make Korean food truly unique, so it is worth stocking up.
Plus, you don’t have to confine their use to Korean dishes. Just whack some gochugaru on pizza or steamed vegies like Judy does.
Cook the book
Recipes and images from Korean Food Made Simple by Judy Joo (Murdoch Books, $45, hbk).