Judy Joo’s Korean Food Made Simple

Story by Ada Tseng.

The Cooking Channel’s Korean Food Made Simple, hosted by Korean American chef Judy Joo, is the latest installment of a culinary television series that previously included Mexican Food Made Simple and Chinese Food Made Simple. Part travelogue, part how-to guide, Korean Food Made Simple sent Joo all over Korea to gather inspiration, from fish markets in Seoul and the streets of Busan to the small islands off the coast of Korea. (“I’ve been to more places in Korea than my relatives, who have lived there their entire lives!” says Joo.) After exploring different foods around the country, she returned to London, where she’s been based for the last several years, to show audiences how to re-create Korean flavors in a regular home kitchen.

Joo was thrilled when she was approached to do Korean Food Made Simple, as she’s proud of her heritage and has brought a lot of Korean influences to the menu at the Playboy Club London, where she has been the executive chef since it opened in 2011. Some of the dishes that appear on the show — like the Spicy Mussels with Bacon and the Steamed Ginger Infused Sea Bass with Zucchini — have actually been served at the Playboy Club. “We also make our own kimchi at the Club,” says Joo. “And we have a version of the Korean fried chicken in our sports bar.”

Growing up in New Jersey, Joo was no stranger to the local disco fries or fast fixes at Taco Bell, but she mostly ate Korean food at home. Her mother taught her how to cook authentic Korean food, but she jokes that helping out in the kitchen as a kid felt more like slave labor than fun.

“This was when there was nothing pre-made,” says Joo. “So it’d be me and my sister in front of a mound of meat making dumplings. I remember brushing sheets and sheets of dried seaweed with oil, salting them and then having to fry them. Then going to the garden to pick sesame leaves. It felt like chores.

“Also, [traditionally] you’re supposed to cook each vegetable separately to keep it from getting infected by other ingredients,” continues Joo. “And you want to keep the integrity of the color, so if the vegetable is light, you’re not supposed to use soy sauce. But no one has time to cook seven different vegetables separately in one pan to make one dish!” She laughs. “So I say, just cook it all together, and if the carrots are a little brown, it’ll be OK.”

She also shares tips and shortcuts for any home cook who might not live near a Korean market. For example, if you can’t find mirin, a sweet rice wine that is common in Korean cooking, Joo says it’s perfectly fine to substitute Sprite or 7-Up. And if you can’t find thinly sliced beef, partially freeze it and cut it with a knife. “I don’t think that you have to be completely authentic or traditional in order for people to get a good taste of a cuisine,” says Joo. “Food is always dynamic. Food in Korea has changed tremendously in the past years and decades. It’s like languages; it’s always evolving.”

One of Joo’s favorite meals to serve at a dinner party is do-it-yourself kimbap. Instead of pre-rolling the Korean sushi prior to guests arriving, Joo gives each guest their own squares of seaweed and lets them make their own. Joo is also a big fan of do-it-yourself bibimbap, where she encourages guests to choose their own vegetables for the mixed rice dish.

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Judy Joo with Seoul chef and restaurateur Lucia Cho.

Though Joo is now a recognizable TV food personality — she is one of the few who can claim to have been on Iron Chef as a competitor, an official Iron Chef (the only woman in the Iron Chef UK lineup) and a judge — her road to success was a winding one. Born to a physician father and a chemist mother, Joo initially aspired to a career in the sciences and ended up working in banking for many years before she had what she calls her What Color Is Your Parachute? moment and began to soul-search about what she really wanted to do with her life.

“My parents were not thrilled,” says Joo of the prospect of her giving up her prestigious gig on Wall Street. But to contextualize, she grew up in a stereotypically overachieving Asian American household where her parents were also “not thrilled” when she only got into Columbia and not Yale, where her sister went. She toyed with the idea of joining the Peace Corps (“My dad was like, ‘Why do you do that? That’s why I left North Korea!’”), but eventually enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York. Soon after relocating to London with her husband, she ended up working at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant and worked her way up from there.

But it wasn’t until she got into television that her parents started to understand the significance of her new career path. “When I got invited to the Blue House in Korea —the White House of Korea — that’s when my parents were like, ‘Oh, maybe you are doing something interesting and important,’” she says. “That’s when they realized I wasn’t just a line cook, I guess.”

Episodes of Korean Food Made Simple can be seen on the Cooking Channel, and a cookbook with recipes featured on the show will be available next year. 

This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here

My mother, Alzheimer’s and Vietnamese Cooking

Story by Andrew Lam.

“Why don’t you call me anymore?” she asks on the phone, her voice plaintive, barely above a whisper. “No one remembers me, no one cares if I died.”

“Mother, I called 3 days ago.”

“Liar! That never happened.”

It happened. She just no longer can recall.

Five years ago, my mother, who is now 81, was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and her short-term memories are almost non-existent. Unless something very dramatic—death, divorce, accidents, and marriages—happens to those very dear to her she retains nothing of the immediate past. She has, too, become paranoid and housebound, and the once vivacious, outgoing and beautiful woman has become frail and depressed. Though my two older siblings and I visit my parents in Fremont practically every week, as we all live in the Bay Area, my mother nevertheless feels isolated and confused due to her increasing dementia.

But when it comes to the distant past, and especially when it involves cooking, it is another story altogether. “Mother,” I say her on the phone, changing the subject. “How do you make banh tom co ngu?” It’s a Vietnamese fried shrimp cake made with yam. “Well,” she responds with no hesitation, “you need both rice powder and starch. You need to make sure it’s of equal part and the shrimp you keep the head, that’s the best part. You need to have good, light oil.” She rattles off the recipe with increasing confidence. “Be careful, if you use too much starch, it doesn’t get crunchy.”

I already know how to make banh tom co ngu. In fact, I learned dozens of dishes from her by simply watching or listening and occasionally assisting her in the kitchen over the years. I asked because I simply wanted to hear her talk with confidence, to have her in her element, and not in her self-pitying voice when that dominates her outlook in old age—a mother abandoned.

I want my mother, that is, at her best: cooking and providing for her family.

Indeed, ever since I can remember, there was some sort of party or another every week in our house during the war in Vietnam. My father, a high-ranking army officer in the ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam), always had important guests at our house. Since I was four, I remember Vietnamese ministers, generals, visiting dignitaries, and yes, even American stars—Robert Mitchum and John Wayne and Jennifer Jones—had grace our dining tables during the Vietnam War. And Mother—with the help of servants—would always be cooking, and entertaining Father’s guests. There was a war going on, but people were caring and the kitchen was always crowded with people.

Or else, it’s birthdays and death anniversaries, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year or Christmas Eve, where mother’s tireless cooking made our lives luxurious, celebratory, comfortable. And I remember often waking up with the sounds of pots and pans clanging and the chopping on the cutting board down in the kitchen, and on the weekend, the delicious aroma of mother’s pho soup or bun bo hue, a spicy pork knuckle soup in beef and lemongrass broth, would infuse the entire house.

The dishes could be elaborate. There’s the fish dip that is she made of sea bass and dills and celery and homemade aioli, to be eaten with shrimp crackers or fried bread. The steamed fish head and tail are retained, but its body is made entirely of fish dip mixed with aioli, its scales made of colorful carrots and beet. Then there’s that special gourd and mushroom soup, which is served in an actual gourd. There’s also the grilled crab cake that’s served in its shell.

Mother was tireless in her creation. Later on, her repertoire expanded to include Moroccan couscous, French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, and when she couldn’t find key ingredients, she found substitutes—turmeric for saffron, homemade sausage for Chorizo, and shitake for porcini.

In Dalat, Vietnam, that French-built hillside station full of Lycee and villas, where we lived for 5 years, she taught a free pastry class, showing our neighbors how to make pate chaud, choux a la creme, eclaire, buche de noel. My mother was mostly a self-taught chef, though due to father’s many foreign guests, she later took cooking classes with some of the best chefs in Saigon to expand her repertoire.

It is a sad thing therefore to see her so frail and forgetful and depressed, and no longer capable of cooking. She can barely make rice and heat soup.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said one day when I came to visit and wanted to cook for my parents. “Someone stole all my knives.”

I kept searching and finally found three knives hidden under the sofa’s cushions. It was depressing: Her fear of robbers and thieves is overwhelming her, to the point where she feels the need to defend herself with the knives she once used to create such fabulous, sumptuous meals.

Still, for the appetizer, I make the classic Vietnamese spring roll. I mix pork with fish sauce, black pepper, crabmeat, green onion, and vermicelli. I bring out rice papers and warm water. “Let me help,” she says. She gets up from the sofa where she often lies listless, watching Korean soap operas.

Though she could never cook an entire meal again, she is her old self as she works. The bony fingers are guided by muscle memories. And as she rolls her spring rolls—a scoop of mixed ground pork with crabmeat, a wet rice paper—she begins to remember. “Back when we were in Hue, I remember making dinner for 25 guests,” she says. “Mrs. Ngoc, she would send her daughters. My gosh, that woman had six of them. And they all worked so hard.” Mother starts laughing.

She remembers the women crowding her kitchen. How they gossiped as they worked. One young woman had a great voice and often sang. They shared recipes. She remembers a gentle world long gone.

I encourage her. I give her more rice papers. And we roll cha gio together. We make more than we could possibly eat. But it doesn’t matter. We roll back the clock. We talk about food, cooking.

We talk about the past.

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Andrew Lam (left) with his mother and family celebrating his mother’s 80th birthday last year in Fremont, CA. Photo courtesy of the author.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of the “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.” His latest book is “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014 and a finalist for the California Book Award and shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

This story is a part of Off the Menu: Asian America, a multimedia project between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), original stories and web content.

Main image: Lunch at Andrew Lam’s uncle’s villa in Saigon in 1972. Lam is in his mother’s arms. Photo courtesy of the author.

Audrey’s Days of Summer | Liang Ban Tofu with Video Tutorial

Photo courtesy of hungerhunger.blogspot.com.

Here’s another great summer dish from my Nai Nai’s kitchen. This dish is cool and refreshing, and is perfect for those hot days when you don’t want to warm up the house with cooking heat. “Liang” means cool and “ban” means toss, and that describes this dish perfectly because the preparation is all cutting and assembling—easy and simple. This recipe uses a couple ingredients only found in Chinese super markets. Zha cai are pickled vegetables that add a great crunch to the dish. Century eggs are preserved duck eggs that look really funky, but taste great. This dish is a wonderful combination of flavors and textures and is also extremely healthy. The tofu and duck eggs make this dish almost entirely protein and will keep you going during the summer. Enjoy!

 

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Audrey’s Days of Summer | Summer Cooking with Nai Nai

Since I can remember I’ve always been eating my Nai Nai’s (dad’s mom’s) cooking. She’s now over 95 years old and continues to be incredible, bustling around and constantly feeding me. I recently spent time at home and my most important mission during my visit was to spend time with her learning how to cook the dishes I had grown up loving. Like most chefs, my Nai Nai does not believe in exact measurements. “Just look at it,” she says “Taste it,”—and that’s how I learned to make the necessary adjustments. So, for those who prefer more precise measurements, here are two of my Nai Nai’s recipes quantified.

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