A poster child for the immigrant kid cookbook
Reviewing Korean American by Eric Kim
Five years ago, food critic and T Magazine columnist Ligaya Mishan penned an epic essay, “Asian American Cuisine’s Rise, and Triumph” that outlined how, since the mid-aughts, a new generation of chefs have established their own vocabulary for Asian-influenced cuisine in the United States. Mishan defines Asian American cuisine as a project that strives for more than a faithful representation of the dishes of the motherland. Instead, these chefs weave their own biographies into their food, drawing not only from the cuisine their families might have brought with them but the many scrappy ingredient substitutions, cross-cultural flavor connections, and far-flung inspirations that make up an immigrant’s culinary life.
Mishan suggests it’s the unique Asian American experience of never quite being seen as American that leads to this cooking philosophy:
When you are raised in two cultures at once — when people see in you two heritages at odds, unresolved, in abeyance — you learn to shift at will between them. You may never feel like you quite belong in either, but neither are you fully constrained. The acute awareness of borders (culinary as well as cultural) that both enclose and exclude, allows, paradoxically, a claim to borderlessness, taking freely from both sides to forge something new. For Asian-American chefs, this seesaw between the obligations of inheritance and the thrill of go-it-aloneness, between respecting your ancestors and lighting out for the hills, manifests in dishes that arguably could come only from minds fluent in two ways of life.
These conflicting cultural pressures come to bear in full force in Korean American: Food that Tastes Like Home, the highly-anticipated new cookbook by New York Times food writer Eric Kim. Son of Korean immigrants who settled in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1980s, Kim builds on the legacy of his mom’s expert home cooking to find his personal articulation of Korean Americanness, “taking freely from both sides to forge something new” as Mishan describes. He explicitly rejects the expectation to present an “authentic,” or worse, “universal” depiction of Korean food. These are his family’s dishes, shaped by his family’s story. That specificity brings great rewards: meticulously tested classics and imaginative innovations that refract classic American dishes through a kaleidoscope of Korean heat, sweetness, and funk. Yet with a heavy emphasis on the role of Kim’s mother, depicting a relationship whose rough edges appear to have been sanded down a bit too far, the book also seems calibrated to certain tropes about Asian culture that make Kim’s persona that much easier for white audiences to swallow.
Eric Kim developed the recipes for Korean American side by side with his mom, Jean. As the COVID-19 pandemic descended over the U.S. in 2020, he went home to Georgia to quarantine with his parents and work directly with his mom to document her recipes for posterity. He trailed her in the kitchen, trying to nail down her sohn mat—a Korean term for an individual cook’s touch that produces the unique flavor of their food—so that others could reliably replicate her recipes. Meanwhile, he was also working out his own, developing recipes that would clearly articulate both his mom’s influence and his own nostalgic and easygoing cooking style.
The result is an incredible breadth and depth of recipes, from easy weeknight meals that deliver great flavor with just a few well-chosen ingredients, to the Feasts chapter that puts Kim’s extended family’s mixing and matching of Korean and American dishes for holiday menus on full display. Anyone can find something that matches their cooking skill here, and get a convincing push to try something new. I cooked nine recipes out of this book over the course of about a month and have plenty more on my list to try.
To put the book to the test, one night, my partner and I cooked up a steakhouse style menu of Kim’s recipes, with Pan-Seared Rib Eye with Gochujang Butter, Smashed Potatoes with Roasted Seaweed Sour Cream Dip, Garlicky Creamed Spinach Namul, Charred Cauliflower with Magic Gochugaru Dust, and Chicken Radishes, a sweet quick pickle to cut the richness of the meal. One of our guests told us it was the best meal she had had all year and went on to get her own copy of the book. The steak, basted with a decadent amount of butter mixed with Korean fermented chile paste gochujang, was absolutely a showstopper, and the sides were…is it too dramatic to say “a revelation?” The smashed potatoes were a particular favorite, with a two-step, mostly hands off preparation that delivered crispy outsides and fluffy insides; and the creamy, tangy, perfectly balanced roasted seaweed sour cream dip that goes with them is addictive. The whole meal was relatively simple to put together considering the number of dishes, and demonstrated the versatility of the Korean ingredients the book encourages you to add to your pantry staples.
Among the many dishes I zeroed in on, I also felt I had to try Jean’s Perfect Jar of Kimchi, since Kim explicitly states that “this is the most important recipe in the book.” It may shock you to learn that I had actually never had kimchi before (it takes a long time to unlearn being a picky eater) and enjoyed hyping myself up through the process of making it from scratch. I loved trekking to H Mart to select a majestic napa cabbage and daikon radish, hunt down maesil cheong (green plum syrup) and pick out a big container of gochugaru—definitely more chile flake than I’ve ever bought at once in my life. I diligently followed the marginal “Korean Mom Tip” of quartering the napa cabbage by tearing it apart from a scored bottom to reveal ruffles worthy of the red carpet; gave them a bath in brine; and set to work making a beautifully fragrant ten-ingredient kimchi sauce that my partner and I practically fought over getting to stuff into the cabbage. Two weeks later, with the scent of scallion and gochugaru having taken over our fridge, I got to try a flavorful yet mild, easy to love kimchi that I immediately wanted to cook with—and I’ll have plenty more for months to come.
If Jean’s Perfect Jar of Kimchi is “the key that unlocks all the other levels of Korean home cooking (or at least the ones in this book),” as Kim declares in the introduction to the recipe, his mother is even more central to the text itself. The book opens with his story of running away from home for a few days after his mother opens all of his college acceptance letters without him, and closes with the image of her waving goodbye as he leaves home to return to New York in 2021. It’s Jean’s sohn mat that Eric reveres enough to document; her palate that becomes his partner in recipe testing; her idiosyncratic preference for maesil cheong over other sweeteners is all the argument the reader should need to find a bottle.
When I started reading this book and clocked the major role of Kim’s mother, I immediately thought of Indian-ish, the 2019 cookbook by Priya Krishna, who is in Eric Kim’s cohort of young NYC food writers and also the child of immigrants. Those that know Krishna from her guest spots on Bon Appetit YouTube videos know that she is obsessed with her parents, and Indian-ish is so explicitly a record of her mother Ritu’s recipes that Ritu has a writing credit on the cover. I was also reminded of Crying in H Mart, Japanese Breakfast lead singer Michelle Zauner’s 2021 smash hit memoir of her Korean immigrant mother’s death from cancer where the Korean foods they shared together and apart carry a borderline unbearable emotional weight for the author. As Cathy Park Hong puts it in her essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, “does an Asian American narrative always have to return to the mother?”
I decided to speak with Megan Elias, the director of the Boston University Gastronomy Program and author of Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture, to get some more context on the kinds of trends and tropes that have shown up in Korean cookbooks published in the States over the years. I mentioned the heavy memoir content in Korean American as well as other Asian American cookbooks I had reviewed, but how intensely foregrounded the mother figure was in this one. Elias explained that there’s a recent trend of increased memoir content in cookbooks across the board, but it’s especially strategic for immigrant stories:
“Publishers think these stories sell, and they help to authenticate the cook. That’s another reason to talk so much about your Korean mom when you’re an American. If you just saw me as the guy on your block who you’ve known your whole life, the question becomes, ‘why is your cooking important?’ But if you’ve got this story about his mother, what she brings, what she leaves behind, all these things serve to make the non-white cook palatable in some ways.”
Eric Kim sets up this authority clearly in one of the book’s three(!) introductory essays, describing how he approached the recipe development process:
“I wanted to write down her recipes, but as I got deeper and deeper into the project, I came to the conclusion that my recipes are an evolution of her recipes, and the way I cook now is and will forever be influenced by the way she cooks.”
He clearly states that his project is a personal one, to map his family’s relationship to food and not to be some kind of authority on Korean American food at large:
“…as you use this book, know that when you see a “nontraditional” ingredient in a “traditional” recipe, it’s likely because my mother does it that way, not because every single Korean person in the United States does. Or maybe it’s the way I do it, or the way my Aunt Julia does it, or the way my Uncle Young did it.”
But by trying to avoid the trap of being the single spokesperson for a whole country’s cuisine, he seems to trip into another one, depicting his mother as an all-knowing, at times overbearing authority that he deeply wants to please. In the book’s second essay, “The Tiger and the Hand,” he literally compares her to a tiger, explaining that “getting a recipe out of my mother is like pulling teeth out of a tiger’s mouth.”
You might imagine this dynamic would be difficult to sustain, but the conflicts that might naturally arise aren’t addressed the way they are in texts like the Xi’An Famous Foods Cookbook or Crying in H Mart. After he goes to stay with a cousin for a few days because of the college acceptance letter incident and his mother responds by politely asking about his trip, he apologizes to her. Other times, the problem is magically resolved off-screen, as in an essay introducing the Korean Pear Galette where he describes his mom’s initial reluctance to refer to his boyfriends as more than his “friend,” and then she eventually comes around, but we don’t get to see how that happened or what it took to get there.
Sure, this is a cookbook, not a memoir, and maybe people aren’t looking for family fights on the page when they just want to cook dinner. But this is an extremely popular cookbook—it sold out its first printing in pre-orders and it’s currently a New York Times bestseller after being on shelves for not even a month. It will likely become a poster child for what a cookbook by first and second generation immigrants can be—for better and for worse.
I worry about what might happen when other second generation Americans are trying to shop their cookbook proposals and white publishers want to replicate Korean American’s success. As author and Korean American adoptee Matthew Salesses puts it in his essay "We Need More Diverse Diverse Books," “If they are honest with themselves, authors of color know what stories they’re supposed to tell, and know that attempts to move beyond those stories are not so often accepted.” Can we trust that publishers will understand that Korean American did numbers because Eric Kim has a track record of playful and delicious recipes, has a lovable on-screen personality, and is an extremely talented and evocative writer who could probably convince you to eat a shoe dusted with roasted seaweed? Or will they want to see the same type of shiny story about immigrant families told over and over again?
As mainstream food media continues to take baby steps away from white-dominated narratives, we still need more diverse diversity. Salesses pleads, “I don’t want to lose myself in order to identify, to see one possibility as the only possibility, to accept the terms of stereotype.” Second generation kids deserve the space to lay it all on the table—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s hope that Eric Kim’s family’s story can be what he wants it to be–just theirs—and that other experiences get to see the light of a book deal, too.
I’m coming to you a week late because my day job has been super busy and also because it took me an excruciatingly long time to put together the analysis I thought this book deserved. (Full disclosure, I requested a digital review copy of this book from the publisher in February, so I have literally been sitting on this for two months.) I wish I could have done a comprehensive survey of cookbooks written by second generation Americans to contextualize this appropriately but sometimes I have to accept that I’m writing a free newsletter and not a thesis.
Does this cookbook have a table of contents? Yes! And you can check out the full list of recipes here.