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Eric Kim didn’t originally intend to become a food writer.
Having grown up in Atlanta, Georgia, he came to New York to earn his undergraduate degree at NYU and graduate degrees at Columbia University. Once aspiring to be an English professor, he arrived at his food writing career almost by surprise. A self-taught home cook, he ended up working various roles for many food media companies including Food Network, Food & Wine and Saveur, and eventually he established the popular column “Table for One” while working as a senior editor at Food52. Then, last year, he was hired into his current role as a recipe developer and writer for NYT Cooking.
Kim’s debut cookbook, “Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home,” hit shelves this week. The book contains a mix of recipes rooted in his Korean American upbringing in Atlanta — from Crispy Lemon Pepper Bulgogi to Tomato-y Omelet Rice and Gochujang Chocolate Lava Cakes to Milk Bread with Maple Syrup.
In the book, he shares early memories of how, for his parents, scarcity of Asian ingredients bred innovation. For example, it led to a significant presence of jalapenos in home-cooked dishes until shishito peppers were more readily available in Atlanta as the Korean population grew. In another section, he describes feasting as a way to honor being alive. To that point, Kim strongly encourages everyone to write down their family recipes as soon as possible. “Really, it’s never too late,” he told me. “You will always be able to bring your family back to life after they pass with the cooking.”
'Korean is an adjective for American'
Most of all, Kim hopes this book will extend a hand to other Korean Americans who feel they’re “straddling the nations.”
“Korean is an adjective for American,” says Kim. “It’s an American cookbook and an American experience. All I can do is tell my family story well, and this is just one story. There is no one way to be Korean American, so there’s no one way for us to make Korean food.”
He laughed, recalling how the late television producer, Aaron Spelling, described one of Kim’s all-time favorite television shows, “Charmed.”
“When it first came out, he described it as ‘a show about three sisters who happen to be witches’ Yes, that’s exactly what this is. It’s a story about a mother teaching her son how to cook Korean food, and him learning to make the food his own. They just happen to be Korean Americans!”
'A bridge between motherland and mother cuisine'
The tagline, “Food That Tastes Like Home” is meant to evoke a humble, realistic view into the beginning of his cooking journey in his mother’s kitchen. He admits that he didn’t start cooking until he was an adult. The book begins with the story of how he ran away from home after a fight with his mother when he was a teenager.
“I’m definitely fusing my past and present self in this book,” said Kim. “In a way, it’s how I found a way to build a bridge between motherland and mother cuisine.”
When he first started to cook with his mother, whom he lovingly refers to as Jean, she was hesitant to take his suggestions or let him lead the way.
“I’d be looking through her pantry and she’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ Or I’d ask her things like, ‘What if we did a doenjang-glazed black cod?’ And of course she would just say, ‘That’s not what we do. No one does that!’ But I had to remind her, ‘Mom, we’re not writing a cookbook about Korean food. We’re writing a Korean American cookbook!”
As he continued the recipe development process for his book, he began tagging his Instagram posts with #KoreanAmerican and eventually decided to use it as the name for his debut book. It just felt right.
'Cuisine grows, and it can die if we don’t learn to make it for ourselves'
Kim is very aware of the expectations Asian Americans face working in media — to be the expert in the cuisine they represent. But as he continued the process of writing his book, he gained the confidence to shed that burden.
“I’m not here to didactically teach someone what gochujang is,” he said. “You can be easily pigeonholed into representing your entire parents’ country, and I don’t think that’s a burden anyone should hold. I wanted to talk about food in a way that wouldn’t put me in a box. My pen is my power. Whenever I feel powerless, I know the best way out of that feeling is to write it out. I’m not Maangchi, I’m me. Cuisine grows, and it can die if we don’t learn to make it for ourselves.”
The book itself is also visually stunning, and Kim attributes that to the great working relationship he had with his creative team. Having had much past experience on sets with all-white creative teams, it was imperative to him that he work with a team where a majority of them would be Asian American. He describes his photographer Jenny Huang, prop stylist Beatrice Chastka, and food stylist Tyna Hoang as “people across the diaspora of Asian descent whom I didn’t have to explain stuff to about presentation.”
“They brought a lot of prior knowledge to the table, and there was much trust between all of us to executing the vision I had,” he continued. “I’ve been on mostly white sets where there were so many questions to why the food looked a certain way or how it needed to be prepared. They were all extremely helpful.”
When asked the extremely tough question of which recipe is his favorite in the book, he responded with Gochugaru Shrimp and Seaweed Grits: pan-fried shrimp cooked in butter and marinated in gochugaru, and grits seasoned with toasted sesame oil and gim (dried seaweed).
“The flavors and textures just balance each other out. With the saucy shrimp and the blandness like jook (rice porridge) but underlying nuttiness of the grits. The flavors are like, kapow! It’s a dish my parents would ask me to make for their parties, and it became very popular amongst their friends.”
He also chose his Cheeseburger Kimbap: “Ground beef bulgogi with American cheese,” he said. “It has all the flavors you need to know a burger: meat, cheese, red onion, pickle and any restaurant’s ‘secret yum-yum sauce’ of choice. With the rice, oh man, it’s just the perfect match for the saltiness!”
'Now I feel like I’m finally me'
Kim hopes his book empowers his fellow Asian Americans to tell their stories, and encourages publishers to take those stories on.
“I hope that publishers will commission more books that don’t center around a white narrative,” he said. “It makes room for other people. If there are people who are looking to expand their interests, I hope they seek books available by more Korean American chefs like Sohui Kim and Maangchi. What I’m hoping is that we can show that cooking can be done in authentic ways, but more so authentic to the writer and done with respect to be paid to them.”
As to how he felt when he finally finished his book, he referred to a line from one of his favorite Novo Amor songs, “Opaline,” which he frequently uses in his cooking videos on social media: “Now I feel like I’m finally me.”