How cookbook writer Eric Kim found home through Korean-American food: “I’m obsessed with nostalgia”

Food has always been a central part of Eric Kim’s story, though he initially didn’t think of it as a career. For years, Kim had his sights set on working in academia. Before that, he toyed with the ideas of poetry and pop stardom.

But fate ultimately brought him back into the kitchen, where he’s used his creativity and love of language to write about food that reminds him of home in all its many different forms. His debut cookbook, aptly titled “Korean American: Food that Tastes Like Home,” is a stunning culmination of that work packed with playful recipes like cheeseburger kimbap and crispy lemon-pepper bulgogi with quick-pickled shallots.

“Sometimes, when I’m writing recipe head notes, it feels like I’m writing a lyric because you have to be really concise,” Kim told Salon. “Everything kind of makes sense for me in the end, but I think that’s just because I like to make things sound prettier than they were.”

The cookbook offers readers a primer on what a Korean-American pantry looks like, how Korean cooking is interwoven throughout the history of America (especially in Atlanta where he grew up) and how Kim developed his “Korean-ish” meals for one — such as gochujang-buttered radish toast and caramelized-kimchi baked potatoes.

Watch Kim’s interview with “Salon Talks” or read the transcript below to learn more, as well as to find out what inspired his exodus from academia, what it’s like to interview one’s parents for a cookbook and what ingredient absolutely can’t be substituted in his recipes.

This conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length. 

One of the things that was really apparent in your book “Korean American” is this beautiful undercurrent of nostalgia. When you think back to the foods of your childhood, what comes to mind for you?

The title page of my book has a picture of me and my dog on the rug of the Airbnb we were shooting the book at, but I was holding a bowl of gyeran bap, which is egg rice, and that’s certainly something I remember very vividly because it has all the components of the flavors I associate with home. And the main flavor for me is toasted sesame oil, chamgireum. I can add it to a salad. I can add it to anything, and I know it will remind me of my mom’s food. I think it says a lot about Korean food too. It’s a very important seasoning to the point where there’s like a whole flavor word for it, kosoham, which refers to nuttiness

You had initially thought about pursuing a career in academia, then you got rerouted to food. What sparked that transition?

I was so set on just being in school for as long as possible because I really liked it. I always loved my English courses in high school and I remember in 10th grade deciding that I wanted to be a literature professor. And so, I kind of stuck with it for a good seven years. I went to school in New York, studied English and graduated a year early so I could go straight into a PhD program, because I thought that’d be a good idea, which it was not. But I’m really grateful for the experience because I think it taught me how to be an academic.

What journalism did for me years later was teach me how to present it to the world in a way that’s digestible, like literally and through my words. I just had an edit yesterday actually by my wonderful deputy editor, Patrick Ferrell, he said, “This word ‘temporalities’ is a little academic.” And I didn’t say it to him at the time, but actually my dissertation was going to be about temporality in ethnicity and 20th century literature. No one would’ve read it.

I think academia was my way of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I failed an exam and dropped out and went straight into this Food Network job. It was like this entry level position that really taught me so much. And from there I just kind of found food writing and everything happens for a reason. Even before academia, I was a poet. I thought I would be like a poetry MFA. I had a pen name, and I was publishing poems. Before that, I was a songwriter because I thought I wanted to be a pop star. Sometimes, when I’m writing recipe head notes, it feels like I’m writing a lyric because you have to be really concise. Everything kind of makes sense for me in the end, but I think that’s just because I like to make things sound prettier than they were.

I’ve been following your writing since you were at Food52, and I remember your first column there. What was it like developing your first column? Did that help you find your voice as a food writer?

I’m really grateful for that job. It was a horrible job, to be frank, and a really difficult place to work. But I think I really took from it just writing every day and editing every day. It certainly helped me to be writing in a consistent way with that column. I just knew that I had this obsession about cooking for one and loneliness because I was a very lonely 20-something year old. I found my voice in memoir writing. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but these personal essays, sometimes I would go a little more ambitious and longer and those are the ones that would resonate with people. I do think I found my voice there. It sounds cheesy, but it was sort of a playground. It was sort of two years where I just kind of like did whatever I wanted, in terms of writing.

“I had a pen name, and I was publishing poems. Before that, I was a songwriter because I thought I wanted to be a pop star.”

It was like splattering paint on a wall and seeing what stuck.

Now, I really love [my current] job because at The Times it is a little slower. It’s not slower, it’s a daily newspaper, but I just mean that my process feels a little more natural and I’m really grateful for my editors for kind of giving us room to really explore these obsessions that we have. My obsession happens to no longer be cooking for one because I’m happily in a relationship. 

I’m obsessed with nostalgia. My magazine columns kind of explore that. I don’t know that it’s necessarily just nostalgia that I’m interested in, but I’m interested in the way when we bring the past into the present, how that illuminates a truth about contemporary culinary life. That’s something that I’m always trying to get at or explore. And sometimes it’s just a recipe, but sometimes I do arrive at this nice kind of thesis statement that causes a lot of conversation between people and that I think that’s what I want. I want people to really think about their lives and the present in regard to food. I think it’s a great way to kind of learn about yourself.

What is your recipe writing process like? Because you take these dishes that were potentially served to your family or served to a group, and you translate that into a dish for one or two. You have several of those, like the radish toast or the kimchi baked potatoes. I feel like those are perfect for a single person.

That was a big conversation while writing the cookbook because for two years I was writing these recipes for one, which are really easy to test because it’s just a single serving, and frankly, they were just my dinners. I was like, okay, how do I write about this thing I just made for myself? And then, my editor for the cookbook, Raquel Pelzel, was sort of like, “Why are some of these recipes for one and why are some of them recipes for four? Why are some six to eight?”

Food media has it so that we’re all eating for four people, we’re feeding four family members or something. I wanted to really explore how people really eat, which is when you’re making a baked potato sometimes it is just for yourself and that’s like the perfect meal for one. Toast is not something that needs to be a recipe for four because you can just scale it up easily if you’d like, but it’s just toast.

I really have always been fascinated by the occasions of eating. I think when I was writing about cooking for one, I was really obsessed with the occasions where we find ourselves eating alone. And I think this book happens to have recipes for one because even when we’re happily engaged or even if we family around, sometimes you just have to feed yourself. I am, as a recipe developer, interested in how to scale down things that are very difficult or scale up things that don’t need to be scaled up. I did a Long Island Iced Tea that was in a pitcher. It was really fun to develop. That was a wild week for me. But I really enjoy that challenge because sometimes you do want to make a batch mojito for friends and sometimes you do want to make fried chicken just for yourself. I think the question that I was often asked at my “Table for One” column was “Why would anyone do this?” Or “What’s the reason?” And sometimes the reason was just to treat myself.

I remember that when this cookbook was first announced, it was going to be called “The Essentials of Korean American Cooking,” which sounds very serious. I was curious if your vision for the book changed during the writing process.

You’re very observant. When I got the book deal, that was just a placeholder title. I can’t tell you how many weird titles I came up with that just never stuck. But actually it does tell the story of how the project evolved. It started out as a survey. It was going to be a survey of Korean American home cooking across the country. I was going to travel. I was going to go into people’s homes and try to be like a serious reporter.

This was before I got to the Times. I feel like that wouldn’t have gone well because I feel like I learned so much about reporting on the job, a year after I filed the book. What it ended up becoming was a document of my education. I went into it with a lot of fear because I was like, who the hell am I to talk about Korean food? I’m not an expert.

I think when you write a book, people think you’re an expert, but I think what makes you an expert is writing it.

I don’t know if my publicist wants me to say that, but it’s true. This book starts with me at 17 years old and then ends with me present day. I wanted to show that the discovery process of Korean food and all of the preconceptions I had to let go of in order to really learn.

I learned just by kind of leaving my own pride or preconceptions about cooking at the door. And I think that’s important whenever you follow a recipe that you might not be familiar with. I think people have this impulse to sear your meat before brazing it. But if a recipe tells you not to, then just don’t do it and see what happens and you might learn a lot. I learned how to cook this way, especially through Nigella Lawson’s recipes. She’s a wonderful recipe developer, but she’s also a great reporter. She reports on the accounts of how people cook more than just the best way to do something.

That’s never been my job to show you the best way, but what I really believe is that the best way is honoring what the recipe writer wanted you to learn from it. I think that’s the way the book [writing] changed [me]. It went from me presenting myself as an authority to kind of completely letting that go. In the process, I learned so much and I hope people read this and learn the same things.

Your book opens readers up to contemplating the foods or the recipes that made them who they are. What advice do you have for people who are potentially looking to go down that journey?

I really hope that it encourages people to call their moms and to stand by their side at the stove to see how they cook their special this or that. I think writing it down or even just filming it or recording the audio, all these things are things we don’t think to do.

“When you’re interviewing your parents, they’re always lying.”

We’re like, oh, I’ll do that tomorrow. But tomorrow might not exist. I don’t mean to be maudlin or anything, but I really do believe that writing down your family recipes is a way to also hear stories.

Me asking my mother how she cooks something, it’s not just like the technique, it opens up a whole conversation about her life and the time period of that first food memory of that dish. I learned so much about my family and I think that’s something that I really want to encourage. I think going at it with an open mind. And, just having that reporter hat on, you don’t have to be a reporter, but when you’re interviewing your parents, they’re always lying.

You have to get them to talk straight and it kind of teaches you how to listen. And I think as children, we don’t always listen to our parents. But asking them for a recipe is like the one time you’re really listening. My parents enjoyed it. They like attention and they like feeling seen, as do I. We all have that in common. They really enjoyed having these conversations because when the hell else are you going to do that?

One thing I also want to just say is that some of us aren’t lucky enough to have our parents still with us, or our grandparents or our uncles and aunts. So I want to say too, is you always have your taste memory to lean on and going back to the kitchen to try to figure out a memory is one way to really honor that person’s life.

I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, so I was thrilled to see Atlanta pop up in your book. Did being raised in Atlanta, or perhaps the South at large, impact your sense of taste or what you’re looking for in a dish?

I think that I always kind of repudiated it in my maybe teens and twenties. I feel like no one really likes where they come. I had this realization that it’s not because Atlanta is lesser or anything. It actually has to do with the fact that I just wasn’t proud of the person I was when I was there because I wasn’t a fully-fledged human.

I think growing up is kind of trying to run away from yourself a little bit. So, spending time in Atlanta to write this book, was a really wonderful moment to recognize Atlanta restaurants and the Atlanta Korean-American community. It’s the community that raised me and it’s the community that taught me these early taste memories.

My mom wasn’t frying chicken at home. My aunt was at parties. The reason I even know what Korean fried chicken is because there are restaurants on Buford Highway that were making it. It was nice to pay homage to those little temp pools of restaurant memory. And a lot of those restaurants are still running and doing well. It was nice to kind of put a spotlight on them and to celebrate their food, which inspired a lot of the recipes in this book because I was a kid who went to restaurants with his mom in Atlanta.

In your opinion, what items belong in a Korean-American pantry? What do you keep on hand to throw together a quick dinner?

I have a line in there that says “you can’t cook this book without gochugaru.” Gochugaru is a Korean red pepper powder. It’s incredibly flavorful and versatile. If you have a bag of that and you keep it in your freezer, you can cook a lot of things in this book, including the kimchi, which is why it’s red. The red version has that crimson gleam. I also think kochujang is important. It’s made of ground up gochugaru, so they’re kind of related. And also related is doenjang, which is a fermented soybean paste. I think of it as the sister to kochujang, but much more original. It’s kind of like what Koreans were seasoning their food with before chili peppers came on the scene, chilies are actually quite new in Korean cuisine and people don’t realize that.

Then you go one step further, ganjang is soy sauce. So I think those ingredients are pretty standard and important to have. They’re also just really fun to cook with. I think they’re really versatile. I’m trying to really celebrate doenjang as something that you can use for all manner of things. I glaze fish with it. I make salad dressings with it. I’ve even put it in like my cacio pepe, like creamy pasta. It’s really good, lots of these recipes are on NYT Cooking.

I also think seaweed, like kim, which is a roasted seaweed, I use it for so much. It really tells the story of Korean food because Korea shores are rife with it. Kim is seasoned with salt and sesame oil. Sesame oil is, again, that flavor that really just brings me back home. It adds a nuttiness to something, just really makes you feel like the deepness of that dish. It’s a deep flavor. My mom says that it’s like, gip-eun mas, which means like deep taste. It’s like this low note that not many things can offer. I think those are my staples.

It’s really one of those things where you go to the Korean grocery store once, stock up on those few things, and then you can cook the rest of the book because you can get chicken anywhere. You can get jalapenos anywhere. People often ask me what they can substitute and there’s a dish called doenjang-glazed salmon and they’re like, “Can I make this with miso?” And I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s then you’re just not making the recipe. It’s like swap the salmon for tofu, but don’t swap the doenjang for miso, they’re not the same thing.” That’s something that I’m trying to teach people.

Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home” was released by Clarkson Potter Publishers on March 29.

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