The Kimchi Chronicles

 - rediscovering Korean cooking for an American kitchen -

Marja Vongerichten

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 364 p
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When I was growing up in Alsace, France, my room was just
above the kitchen. My mother and grandmother used to prepare
meals for the family’s coal company employees. Big pots of
traditional Alsatian foods bubbled below, and the scent would just
waft up into my room. I loved watching them cook, and eventually I
became the family palate—I’d taste the food and tell my mom what
was missing: a little salt here, a little butter there. One day, I realized
that I wanted to cook for a living, and I was lucky enough to
apprentice with some of the greatest chefs in France. I was trained in
classical French techniques, which were firmly based in stocks that
took hours to make and were heavy on the butter and cream.

When I was 23, I moved to Bangkok to work at the Mandarin
Oriental. It was the first time that I had ever traveled that far from
home. On my way to the hotel from the airport, I stopped at a food
stand on the side of the street and had a simple soup that changed my
life. This woman put a pot over a portable burner, added some water,
lemongrass, a little shrimp, and in minutes whipped up one of the
most flavorful broths I had ever tasted. It went against everything I
had learned, and from that moment all I wanted to do was to go into
the markets to explore these new flavors. Endless chiles and spices,
new fruits and vegetables that I had never seen before, it was all there
for me to discover. It transformed the way that I cooked, and today I
continue to be inspired by these bright and intense flavors.

When I met Marja, my life changed in every way, even expanding
my palate. Falling in love with her meant falling in love with Korean
food, even though it took me some time to come around. When we
moved in together, I opened the refrigerator and was turned off by a
completely overpowering aroma. (Anyone who’s had a jar of kimchi
in their fridge knows what I’m talking about.) I gave it a taste, though,
and now I’m addicted. It reminds me of the sauerkraut of my
childhood, but even better because it’s got a spicy kick. Actually, the
more Korean food I eat, the more I realize how similar it is to Alsatian
food. Both rely heavily on cabbage and pork; both emphasize
frugality and seasonality; both are unpretentious and satisfying. I’ve
even started playing with dishes that combine the two cuisines,
including a Korean version of Alsatian baeckeoffe (page 127).

Traveling to Korea with Marja to tape Kimchi Chronicles allowed
me to discover the origins of many of the meals I love that Marja
makes at home, like bulgogi and chicken braised with vegetables and
gochujang, the red pepper paste that’s the backbone of the Korean
kitchen. Like the food I tried in Thailand years ago, Korean cooking
allows you to achieve deep, developed flavors in a relatively short
time, which, incidentally, makes it great for entertaining. On
weekends in our country home, the kitchen counter is filled with
simple, comforting Korean dishes that our friends and family devour.
Marja often makes bindaetteok (page 67) to eat with cocktails, which
lately consist of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice mixed with Korean
soju. Sometimes I’ll grill something simple, like a good steak, and
we’ll eat it with whatever vegetables are in season and some rice and
kimchi on the side.

I’ve incorporated Korean food not just into my personal life, but
also into my professional repertoire. I’m working on putting a hot dog
with kimchi relish like the one on page 86 on the menu at the Mercer
Kitchen—it’s the perfect balance of sweet and sour, a relish that takes
the dog to a whole new level. My son Cedric, who is the executive
chef at Perry Street, now serves a dish with a sauce made of butter and
gochujang. At Spice Market, my Fast, Hot Kimchi (page 42) comes
tucked underneath a nicely seared piece of fish, giving it just the right
spicy bite.

Korean food is Marja’s passion, and it has been one of the most
important ways for her to reconnect with her roots. I’ve followed her
through her journey, and have been lucky to learn about the flavors
and traditions of Korean cuisine. Today, we’re excited to be able to
share all that we’ve learned and have come to love about Korean
foods and traditions not only with the Kimchi Chronicles television
show, but also with this cookbook. We both hope that you’ll enjoy the
journey as much as we have.

How did I, little old me from Uijeongbu, Korea, end up hosting a
public television series on Korean food and culture and writing a
Korean cookbook? It starts, as many good things do, in a
restaurant—in this instance a place on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle
called Jean-Georges owned by my husband, Jean-Georges
Vongerichten. I was talking with Charlie Pinsky and Eric Rhee,
friends of JG’s who produced the wonderful public television series
Spain . . . On the Road Again among many others. They were looking
for a new project to follow up on the success of that one, and had in
mind a series about Korea, a country they considered long overdue for
wider exposure and rife with intriguing food, culture, and sites. They
knew that I had been born in Korea to a Korean mother, was adopted
and raised in the States, and have spent my adult life reuniting with
my Korean family, often using food as a means to understanding my
background and my culture. When they offered me the opportunity to
introduce the ingredients, customs, and people of my native country to
a larger audience, I said all right!

During the last year I’ve traveled all over Korea with a terrific crew
and also brought them into my home kitchen in New York to re-create
some of the flavors and dishes we had encountered overseas for my
public television series, Kimchi Chronicles. We’ve even invited some
fun companions along for the journey, including our neighbors Hugh
and Deb Jackman and my sweet friend Heather Graham. At the end of
it all I’m thrilled to have created so many converts to the pleasures of
the Korean table, and to show those not familiar with the foods and
logistics of a Korean meal how well this style of eating fits with the
way many of us like to eat today.

I am passionate about Korean cuisine’s approachability and health
benefits, about the way everyone eats together and shares everything,
about the way it has connected me so closely with so many people in my life.

In a sense you might say that I myself am a somewhat recent
convert to the joys of Korean food, having been raised on the typical
American diet for most of my first two decades. The earliest record of
my existence is a birth certificate dated August 7, 1979 (although I
was born on March 15, 1976). My mother Yong Ye was a 19-year-old
Korean woman, my father an African-American serviceman who
abandoned her when she was 7 months pregnant with me. Left alone
with an infant and no financial support, she faced incredible
My first meal with my adoptive parents was at a US army base. I
had a hot dog (I ate just the bun and left the meat), a Coke, and vanilla
ice cream. One month later I officially had a legal name, Marja (a
combination of the names Margo and James), and left my original
name, Brenda Bae, behind. After living in Korea for almost a year, I
eventually left my birth country behind and moved to suburban
northern Virginia.

Fast-forward 17 years. I had always wanted to know my birth
mother, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I was willing to take
the practical steps to find her. I was feeling independent and ready to
go on what would turn out to be an extraordinary journey. Fortunately
my parents had kept meticulous records of my adoption, a sign of
extraordinary respect and compassion both for me and for my birth
mother that made it possible for us to reconnect so many years later.
Through the Korean embassy in Washington, DC, I was ultimately
able to track down my mother’s telephone number, which to my
amazement turned out to be an American number with a Brooklyn
area code! It took me 3 hours to work up the nerve to call her for the
first time and about another month to venture to New York to see her.
Our first reunion in New York was, needless to say, an emotional
experience. Seeing each other for the first time in so many years, so
many years during which I had grown up without her, was both
shocking and comfortable. It felt as though I were coming home, even
though we were thousands of miles away from Korea. We went to her
apartment in Brooklyn and she made bulgogi, a popular Korean dish
of marinated thinly sliced beef that she served with chonggak kimchi,
a kimchi made with Korean ponytail radishes. Although I hadn’t eaten
authentic Korean food in almost 2 decades, the meal was strangely
familiar; the food I had eaten for the first 3 years of my life had taken
root in my subconscious, and reawakening those sensory memories
helped me feel connected to my mother.

My rediscovery of Korean food actually began several years earlier,
when I was about 14. I was grocery shopping for my family at our
local supermarket in Virginia, one of my favorite weekly chores, when
I spotted a jar of kimchi. I snuck it into the shopping cart, eager for
some kind of connection to the place where I was born and raised, but
also worried that being excited about Korean food would feel like a
betrayal to my parents. As soon as I got home I surreptitiously opened
the jar and took a bite. The flavor—pungent, fiery, sour, earthy, full of
garlic-seemed to speak directly to a part of me that I felt, but couldn’t
quite articulate. I had a similar response to a Chinese takeout dish of
noodles with black bean sauce that my father often ordered. The
flavors of garlic and ginger, of chile and soy sauce were not distinctly
Korean like kimchi, yet when I ate this dish, my taste buds began
talking to me. I later found out from my birth mother that
jajangmyeon (a Korean-Chinese hybrid dish of chewy noodles with
black bean sauce) had been one of my favorite things to eat as a young
child. In fact I loved it so much that she bought it for me twice a
week, no small expense for her. To this day, it’s still one of my most
favorite comfort foods.

I started cooking Korean food myself after moving to New York
when I was 20. Every Sunday my birth mother and I would go to KTown
in Manhattan to stock up on Korean ingredients and she would
cook all sorts of Korean dishes during the week. I also traveled to
Korea several times, trips that consisted almost entirely of eating with
my biological family (with breaks for karaoke!), all of whom were
eager to share their memories of what I ate as a baby in Korea.
Food was and continues to be a bridge between my Korean identity
and my life in America, especially when I eat and cook with my
mother and my extended Korean family, and when I introduce my
American family to Korean food. At home in New York, I’ve
continued to cook Korean food with increasing frequency, even
converting Jean-Georges and our daughter, Chloe, to the wonders of
kimchi and gochujang (red pepper paste).

For me, life has come full circle and I have more love in this world
than I could ever have hoped for. Sharing meals with my family in
Korea, cooking and eating with my Korean birth mother in New York,
and introducing all of the dishes and rituals to my American family
and extended French family have taught me that our different cultures
are more intertwined than we can possibly imagine. These meals
demonstrate over and over again the importance of food and how it
brings us together and helps us to define who we are. No matter where
we’re from, we all value sitting at the table together, eating dishes that
we grew up with, dishes that we’ve spontaneously created by
combining ingredients from our multicultural pantry. We love to see
the similarities in seemingly incongruous cultures-Koreans and
Alsatians like my husband both use cabbage and pork in just about
everything! The kitchen, in other words, is the perfect arena to
celebrate cultural richness.

My hope is that you will come to know the joys of Korean cuisine,
the fiery, fermented, strong flavors, as well as the more subtle dishes,
the easy soups and simple grilled meats, the elegant noodles, and the
brilliant hangover cures. I have re-created all of these Korean recipes
in my American kitchen with an American sensibility. And my
husband, who knows a thing or two when it comes to cooking, has put
a Korean spin on many of his standbys—including tuna tartare (page
149) and even an Alsatian dish called baeckeoffe (page 127)—
showing both the subtlety and the versatility of seemingly exotic
flavor agents like gochujang and gochugaru. You can make all of
these recipes with ingredients that are probably already on your
grocery list (for the small handful that might not be, check out
“Pantry: My Korean-American Kitchen” on page 1.

Don’t feel you have to jump in the deep end if you are new to
Korean cooking. Incorporate one or two Korean dishes into your
regular menus (like a big bowl of spicy kimchi jjigae stew (page 58)
or thin and crispy Seafood and Scallion Pajeon pancakes (page 151) . .
. or serve up a selection of your own favorite salads in a Koreaninspired
banchan spread. Try one of the barbecue recipes in Chapter
Three for your next summer cookout and invite friends in for a
warming bowl of noodles after a late evening out or a cold winter
hike. Get to know the ingredients and use them to add excitement and
variety to your own go-to recipes. Cook and season according to your
own preferences. Korean cuisine is not based on precision, so be
daring and experiment.

The Kimchi Chronicles has been a delicious journey of rediscovery
for me, and one I hope you will want to take yourself, with me as your guide.
—Marja Vongerichten

Table of Contents

Foreword by Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Pantry: My Korean-American Kitchen
One: Kimchi and Banchan
Two: Vegetables and Tofu
Three: Korean Barbecue
Four: Meat and Poultry
Five: Fish and Shellfish
Six: Rice and Noodles
Seven: Cocktails, Anju, and Hangover Cures
Eight: A Little Something Sweet
Photo Credits


for Korean Ingredients and Equipment
Most of the ingredients called for in this book are
available at your local Korean or Asian grocery
store. If not, check out these great online sources. is a great reference for
Korean recipes. seems to have just about
everything a Korean cook might need, including
Korean cookbooks, music, and a great selection of
ingredients from their grocery section. is a great Korean grocery store
with locations that include those I visit nearly every
week in New York and New Jersey. Their website
is very helpful for finding great ingredients. is my go-to source for ordering
Korean ingredients online. They stock everything! is perhaps the most
informative Korean cooking blog around. The
website started as a video series and has
expanded into a great reference tool that includes
not only videos, but also recipes and descriptions
of ingredients. I reference it often.
are terrific Korea-based food blogs written in
English, especially helpful if you’re planning a trip
and want good restaurant tips.
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