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.