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Marja Vongerichten: Displaying Her Passion for Korean Food

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Korean food brought New Yorkers together on Thursday night at Astor Center for an event organized by  The Korea Society where  Marja Vongerichten showcased  recipes from her cookbook, The Kimchi Chronicles.  The cookbook accompanies the well-received and enchanting PBS series of the same name that is hosted by Vongerichten. Dubbed “Korean Cooking for the American Kitchen,” she and her recipe card reader/sous chef/sidekick Nathan showed the audience just how easy and quick it is, using typical ingredients from the Korean pantry, to pull together unique and creative dishes bursting with flavor.

Her techniques, expertise, and enthusiasm for the food of her birth culture were evident from the minute she stepped behind the makeshift cooking area that had been set up for the evening. Korean cooking is by feel, not necessarily by exact, precise measurements she reassured everyone. “Have fun with it!” she added. This made it all the more entertaining to watch her make the dipping sauce (below) to go with the bindaettoek (mung bean pancakes) or the spicy dressing on the salad where she worked by taste and not by what was written down exactly on the cards Nathan was trying in vain to follow.

When it came to julienning the cucumbers for the oi-nengguk (buckwheat noodles with cold cucumber soup), Nathan might have been in danger of losing his cooking gig, but he recovered by urging the audience to buy more books. He also shared his own introduction to Korean food with the group, which came when he first started working with Vongerichten. As he told the audience, “I have converted.” When he first ate kimchi, he hated it, but now a vat of it can be found in his refrigerator and he puts in on everything. He’s even spent time in the kitchen with Vongeritchten’s birth mother getting her to give him tips on how to prepare Korean food on his own. It was clear that he’s discovered a love for “the soul food of Asia,” as Vongerichten calls it.

Just as with American soul food, the cuisine of Korea is one born of doing the most with the fewest and often least expensive ingredients available, coaxing the maximum flavor out of everything that is put on the plate. Items like bindaettoek (photo below) are tasty, healthy, and simple to make, as are many dishes found in the cookbook. At the reception following the talk, it was clear that these crispy cakes must have a place close in everyone’s heart as they would disappear as soon as a new batch of them was put out on the table.

The Korean people themselves have had a turbulent history over the years including occupation by several foreign powers. Evidence of these influences can be found in dishes like Budae Jjigae or Army Stew, which has Spam, hot dogs, and American cheese among its ingredients. Vongerichten says that it is a great “meaty-cheesy-spicy” meal to have to ward off the effects of a late night on the town.

For Vongerichten, the cookbook and the series were part of a journey of discovering her Korean self. She would like to open up this largely unexplored culture for us to experience its beauty as well. She thinks that Korean food translates well worldwide and hopes that we are all adventurous and open to trying the recipes and to experimenting with the dishes in her book. When I talked to Vongerichten about the series itself, she had mentioned that she is also hoping that it will inspire Americans to seek out new flavors and to move beyond the familiar items like kimchi (opening photo), bi bim bap, and bulgogi so as to embrace the variety of foods found in Korean cuisine. (Read Woman Around Town’s interview: “Marja Vongerichten and The Kimchi Chronicles” here).

The Kimchi Chronicles cook book is available on Amazon and is filled with gorgeous color photos of the dishes that are prepared and eaten in the television series. It also explains the culture behind the cuisine and goes through the staples that can be found in any Korean pantry. Some of these items might already be a part of your kitchen if you do any kind of Asian cooking. The website for the show has what might be called a “starter pack” of seasonings to give you a jump on pulling together some of the delicious dishes from the cookbook.

The Experimental Gourmand is the story of a blogger, food writer, and experimental home cook. She enjoys exploring the local food event scene and finding fresh ingredients at her farmers markets with which to make great meals.

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