Is there a better way to understand a cookbook than by living it out in real life?
That was my case when I met up with chef Deuki Hong and food writer Matt Rodbard in Los Angeles's Koreatown for a lunch feast of Korean-style sashimi. They are the authors of Koreatown: A Cookbook. At 272 pages long and endorsed by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, it may be the last Korean cookbook that you will ever need.
The hardcover is filled with just about every Korean dish that you've devoured and then dreamt of recreating in your own home. From a pork belly-heavy rendition of bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) that calls for a half-pound slab of bacon to dishes like kongguksu (cold soy milk noodle soup) that haven't quite hit the mainstream American palate, this book is suitable for both Korean food die-hards and the Korean food-curious.
I sat down with Hong and Rodbard to get a better understanding of their magnum opus on Korean cuisine, and to find out once and for all whether LA or New York has the better Koreatown.
MUNCHIES: What is your new book about, exactly? Matt Rodbard: It's all about just taking Korean food and translating it. We were pretty straight up. We wrote with a voice that we thought was approachable for the general food audience. As a journalist, I love writing about Korean culture and its effect on the rest of the world. I am fascinated. We think of the book as an informal ethnography through food.
Deuki Hong: We're just real.
How did you guys meet? Matt: We worked on a guidebook together for Korean restaurants in New York. I was a judge on it and ate at 78 Korean restaurants. Deuki was a judge, too, and I thought he was the coolest dude. He thinks about food in a smart way.
Let's set it straight once and for all: Which city has the best Koreatown—LA or New York? Matt: LA is more important than New York. It's fucking three-and-a-half miles long here. I love LA because there are a bunch of single-topic restaurants that specialize in just one dish. I can name dishes and keep on going, and there will most likely be a place here that specializes in it. Even with Korean barbecue, you can get smoked duck barbecue, and so on and so on.
Deuki: Well, the food in LA is better—hands down—but the culture and energy in New York is unmatched anywhere in the world. It may be spread out here and bigger, but if you are on 32nd Street on a Friday night, it feels like Korea.
How do you think Korean beef barbecue got as big as it got in America? Deuki: We try to stress that Korean food is not only Korean barbecue all the time. It is great but we want to give people a complete photo of Korean food as much as we can. We are a peninsula—how can we not be fish-centric?
What were some of the challenges you faced when writing this cookbook and about the complex cuisine of Korea?Matt: We wanted to be genuine to Korean food culture in America, but we didn't want the recipes to be overwrought and we didn't want the writing to be flat, so we really worked on the text. That was my challenge as the writer.
Deuki: We took two years writing this book, and my biggest challenge was to realize that we weren't your grandma's Korean cookbook, nor were we writing a cookbook about Korean tacos. A lot of the recipes are as-is.
You've been associated with making Korean cuisine more mainstream in America. What kind of compromises to the cuisine do you think will come with that transition? Matt: I hope there will not be any compromises in the quality of the food. You might start to see people put kimchi on their tacos and see chefs start to put Korean-style fried chicken on their menus. Most of our recipes are uncompromised snapshots of Korean dishes, and we are trying our damndest with the book to educate people on the cuisine.
Deuki: There is nothing wrong with these fusions. The way I view it, I have this mission and I have to be ready for any compromises in the food that may come with that. I want everybody to be talking about Korean food, not just LA and New York. We have things in the book like bacon and butter. These things aren't Korean; but in that same respect, when you turn those pages, you will have Korean pork neck soup.
A cuisine will never advance if fusions don't happen. Is a kimchi taco OK in the middle of Oklahoma? It is fine, because it means that someone there is appreciating Korean food and knows what kimchi is now. It's less cringe-y for me because my goal is the same, and that Korean taco means that I've succeeded.
Thanks for speaking with us.