The Korean Table
From Barbecue to Bibimbap
By Debra Samuels & Taekyung Chung
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery By the Book Podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Debra Samuels: Hello my name is Debra Samuels and my cookbook is the Korean Table.
Suzy Chase: Welcome back Debra, your food story is like most of ours, growing up in America, broiled steaks and chops with sides of vegetables and baked potatoes. And the slice of homemade chocolate cake. How did you go from that to Japanese, then to Korean cuisine?
Debra Samuels: Thanks Suzy, it's fun to be back, yes it was a giant leap. Which I think I took when my husband and I went to Japan on a study abroad program. My culinary horizons were just opened up tremendously. I had very little experience with any ethnic food prior to that other than ... Pizza, that's not ethnic anymore. Bagels and loxs that's not ethnic anymore. I was just exposed to a whole new way of eating and I must have been quite open at that point in my life because I embraced it. And these flavors of saltiness from soy sauce and the richness of miso took hold. I would have to say that that's where it started. I was always an adventurous eater as a kid and I would eat things like liver and Brussels sprouts so I had an unusual palate I think, for a young child. But it definitely expanded when we went to Japan. And I'm not sure that many people know but there's a large Korean population in Japan and we were introduced to Korean food right away. Lots and lots of Korean restaurants. Mostly Korean barbecue. The other thing is is that Japanese are very big on pickles and fermentation and so everybody knows kimchi. And the Japanese, although it is not Japanese, it is Korean, they made it all the time along with their other milder pickles. I was introduced to that right from the beginning and so were my kids very early on. And they took to it, lucky us.
Suzy Chase: So fermented foods like kimchi started out as a preservation method for winter foods. But can you talk about the health benefit of fermented foods in general?
Debra Samuels: Fermented foods, they're very good for your gut. It gives you that all positive bacteria that swirls around in there, and it's very good for your digestion as well. And these pickles and fermented foods accompany almost every meal. And there is usually some order to eating things. When you see food that has a specific meaning, a specific place in your diet, you really get why it is served. It's considered a health food, fermentation is with miso, soy sauce is fermented, pickles are fermented. Fermented foods is part of their diet in every single meal.
Suzy Chase: Tell us about your collaboration with Taekyung Chung on this book.
Debra Samuels: I met Taekyung in the early nineties actually, on one of our trips back to Japan. And as a lot of expats do, they get together, and we met each other at an Indian cooking class in downtown Tokyo. We became very good friends. I went back to the States and she went back to ... She actually lived in Japan. We lost contact. And about I don't know, almost 17 years later, we were reconnected by chance. And at that point we were both food writers and cooking teachers. This was in 2007. She said to me, do you think Americans would be interested in a cookbook on Korean food? And at that time, very little on Korean food that was approachable. And it wasn't very popular. But I said, sure why not. We'll give it a go. Our common language, interestingly, is Japanese. So I translated about 15 of her recipes and took it to a publisher and they went for it. We were very, very lucky, because we were right at the beginning of this explosion of interest in Korean cuisine.
Suzy Chase: What are the five fundamentals in Korean cooking in terms of taste and colors.
Debra Samuels: It's another cuisine that shares this red, black, yellow, green and white color palette that relates to foods and also relates to the different major organs of your body. And this has a lot to do with the concept of balance. These philosophies were developed in this yin and yang from China and a lot of the Asian cuisine and religion and philosophies came out of China, up through Korea, and then through Japan. So they target eat, seaweed is good for one part of your body, garlic is good for your blood pressure. So they know all of these things that we might consider folk medicines or folklore but they really have a base in science. Koreans in particular are very aware and consider food to be medicine. Jun Sang is one of the major herbs in Korean cuisine, has its basic umbrella as good for everything. And you'll find it in stews, you'll find it in teas, you'll find it cooked with other vegetables. Again, it is thought to have a lot of health benefits. Seaweed, interesting, or seaweed soup, is known as birthday soup in Korea because all women who have given birth eat seaweed soup for a month after their birth, they replace the blood that's lost, and to rebuild the mother's iron. Packages of Korean seafood have pictures have mothers and babies on them in Korean groceries.
Suzy Chase: So you've organized the cookbook by courses and menu categories familiar to westerners. But in reality, Koreans don't eat meals in courses. Can you explain that? Debra Samuels: When you go to a Korean restaurant, a lot of times people are very confused because all the food comes out at the same time. The first things that appear in Korean restaurants now here are these little banchan, or these side dishes which really make up a bulk of the meal. Their concept is just to put everything on the table at one time and you eat around as you like it, I would actually say. Most meals have rice and soup, and of course some kind of pickles. And then the other food fills in. One of the barriers toward enjoying Korean food, we felt, was the fact that it was confusing for people to sit down and have everything put at them at one time and they're on a taste overload. So we did organize the way people would find courses in a western cuisine. So we were hoping that people would try one or two dishes per meal, until they got comfortable with making these dishes with unusual ingredients.
Suzy Chase: What is the difference between a sauce and a paste? Debra Samuels: That's a very interesting question. Sauces are things that you can use directly. I would say. And pastes are something that you're going to mix into a food. So a dipping sauce for scallion pancakes which is soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, red pepper flakes. You can just take your food and dip directly into that. But if you're putting together something like a kimchi paste, that is something that you're going to be cooking with and you're not actually going to be eating it directly in the form that it's in. So you'd be adding that to a stew or a soup or something and melt into the dish.
Suzy Chase: So I grew up in Kansas City and I have very particular ideas about barbecue and barbecuing techniques. What's the difference between Korean barbecue and American?
Debra Samuels: Well you know, I think part of it is the cuts of meat that you're using. Very rarely do you find thinly sliced beef in american barbecues that you almost flash cook. And it's almost an interactive activity where traditionally people would be sitting at a table, with a grill in the middle, and you would put your own food on and grill it, and within about a minute or two you'd be eating it. It's a communal way of eating, I would say, sitting around this grill. And that's what people find at Korean barbecues. That I would say is one of the main differences.
Suzy Chase: I always thought Korean barbecue was grilling. But I actually researched it, and the Kansas City Barbecue Society says that there are many forms of barbecue around the world, and it's the presence of smoke that unifies them all. So I guess Korean barbecue isn't grilling.
Debra Samuels: I did not know that that is the one thing that unified them. But that's interesting. My experience with Korean barbecue has always been in this manner where it's done in a communal setting. And it's just a lot of fun. Kind of like thinking of a fondue party. It's a barbecue party, that's basically what it is. That's what I would say.
Suzy Chase: So last weekend, I made your recipe for tofu and clam hot pot on page 84 and I used a beautiful beef bone broth that I got from my local CSA. And the combination of the clams and sesame oil and red pepper paste were really, really nice. And I saw that you call that a Korean comfort food.
Debra Samuels: It is one of those nice warming dishes. The combination of the heat of the red pepper and the different flavors of the briny sea and the meaty flavors are really very, very good. I'm glad you enjoyed that.
Suzy Chase: Why did you choose the soak in tofu as opposed to a harder tofu for that recipe?
Debra Samuels: I will tell you a couple things about this. This dish is called Sundubu-jjigae. Soon dubu is a soft tofu, dubu is tofu in Korean. The type of tofu that they use is really like a custard almost. The tofu is meant to break up and become part of the stew instead of eating different chunks. Americans are not, do not always have access to this kind of tofu, so we went to the next best thing, which is the silken or soft tofu which will break up when you cook it.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, I thought I was doing something wrong because I used the silken and it completely broke up.
Debra Samuels: It's in there. The silken tofu that, the custard tofu that they have is, you purchase in a package that looks like a log. And you just spoon or scoop it out into the hot pot or you just lay the whole piece right on top and it will break up as it cooks. It's a very popular dish and a lot of restaurants in Japan and China are devoted to just one particular cuisine. So there are a lot of restaurants that just deal with these hot pots, these tofu hot pots, or stew pots. If you ever get a chance, that's the way to really enjoy it.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Debra Samuels: www.cookingatdebras.com. I also have an Instagram account at Cooking at Debra's. And I am on Facebook as Cooking at Debra's or DGSamuels.
Suzy Chase: Great, thanks Debra for coming on Cookery By the Book Podcast.
Debra Samuels: Thank you so much Suzy, it was fun to be back.