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New York Times cooking columnist Eric Kim shares three recipes from his new book – proving that there’s more to Korean American cuisine than just fried chicken.
We all have favourite family recipes. Some have been carefully passed down through generations while others are hurriedly told over the phone after a younger family member has fled the nest. It can often be impossible to make the dish quite like it is in your memory; sometimes changes can be made on purpose or out of necessity, but no matter how it evolves over the years, the heart of the dish always remains.
It’s this principle that lies at the centre of Korean American cuisine. It’s not Korean food made by Americans or Korean food that has been adapted to suit Western palates, but rather the cuisine that was created by Korean immigrants living in the United States. And here to give us an education on it is New York Times cooking columnist Eric Kim with his debut cookbook Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home. Born in Atlanta to Korean parents, the book is Kim’s homage to what it means to be Korean American – filled with recipes that explore how new culinary traditions can be forged to honour both your past and your present.
As Kim explains, there is no clear-cut definition for Korean American cuisine – it differs from location to location and family to family. When his parents moved to the US from South Korea in 1983, there were no Korean grocery stores – meaning his parents had to adapt their recipes and cooking techniques to suit what they had on hand, and this, in turn, led to new dishes that have since further evolved as they have been passed down to him.
Ingredients such as kimchi and gochujang may now be mainstays on both restaurant menus and in our kitchen cupboards, with more Korean dishes finally getting the air time they deserve. But, as Kim showcases, Korean American food goes far beyond the likes of Korean fried chicken. That’s why we’ve handpicked three recipes from the book that perfectly capture the melting pot that is Korean American cuisine.
We all love a baked potato, but Eric’s caramelised-kimchi baked potatoes offer something new. Not only does he swap the obligatory baked beans and cheddar (just us?) for kimchi and mozzarella, but he also adds the unusual twist of a pinch of sugar – both to caramelise the kimchi and to top the baked potato ahead of the other fillings. Something which he explains his mother Jean has always done – don’t knock it until you try it.
Next, is Eric’s recipe for salt-and-pepper pork chops with vinegared scallions (spring onions). Reminding him of the flavours of samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly), the simple dish lets the flavours of the pork shine with just a simple dressing of salt, pepper, brown sugar and sesame oil.
Lastly, in his recipe for crispy lemon-pepper bulgogi, Eric marries the ubiquitous bulgogi with flavours from his home town of Atlanta. Promising to set your taste bubs alight, a generous helping of citrus and pepper is paired with sliced jalapeños and tangy pickled shallots.
Caramelised-kimchi baked potatoes
Eric says: “If sugar on baked potatoes sounds weird to you, then it’s likely you haven’t tried it. It’s something Jean always did at buffets. She’d load her baked potato up with the usual: a little sour cream, some cheese, and chives (or whatever was available at the buffet), and then, her pièce de résistance, a little sugar from one of those packets sitting on the table meant for coffee. Because of her, my brother and I always sugar our baked potatoes slightly; it adds balance, especially here with caramelized kimchi and nutty sesame oil. My mother loves this baked potato and so do I, not least because it feels like a full meal. You could serve it alongside a side salad or just eat it as is. If you want to make a large party platter of bakedstuffed potatoes (à la the New York Times reporter Priya Krishna), then use smaller spuds.”
Makes 4 potatoes
- 4 large Korean yellow or Yukon Gold potatoes (about 900g)
- 4 slices thick-cut bacon (about 113g), chopped
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- ½ cup (about 75g) finely chopped napa cabbage kimchi, store-bought or homemade
- 1 cup (about 100g) shredded mozzarella cheese, for serving
- Sour cream, for serving
- Chopped chives, for serving
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Arrange the potatoes on a sheet pan and bake until fluffy and tender on the inside (when checked with a paring knife) and crispy on the outside, about 1 hour.
In a medium skillet, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until crispy, about four minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Set aside.
At this point you can drain some of the bacon fat if there’s a lot more than 1 tablespoon (but usually I just leave it). With the pan still over medium-high heat, add the sesame oil and carefully nestle in the kimchi (it may splatter). Season with a pinch of sugar. Stirring occasionally, cook until the kimchi is caramelised and fragrant, two to three minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.
When the potatoes are done, let them cool slightly before handling (or not, if you’re like Jean and somehow have heatproof hands). Cut a lengthwise slit down the center of each potato and gently press the two ends together with your fingers to widen the slit. Use a fork to fluff up the inside of each potato.
Now, load them up: First sprinkle some more sugar into each potato (just trust me!). Then top with the mozzarella (it should melt slightly from the heat of the potato), caramelised kimchi, sour cream, cooked bacon pieces, and chives.
Salt-and-pepper pork chops with vinegared scallions
Eric says: Every time we have pork for dinner, my mother always says, “I think my body likes it when I eat pork.” Her affinity for pork—especially the fatty cuts from the ribs, belly, and shoulder—underpins a general theory I have regarding her past life as a tiger (her Korean zodiac sign). But the thing is, my mother never cooked pork chops growing up, which I’ve always found interesting considering pork features in so much of her daily cooking, and indeed in Korean cuisine.
Years later, in high school, I found that pork chops could be total lifesavers when I needed a quick, lean protein for dinner, not to mention they happened to be surprisingly affordable, especially the thin ones. As I fried them for myself after school, Jean would come home from work and take bites out of any leftovers, which would be sitting on the kitchen counter covered in plastic wrap. Because of this, for Jean, pork chops have always seemed American. Which is funny because to me they taste Korean. When seasoned simply with salt and pepper, they remind me of samgyeopsal, or grilled pork belly, the kind you’d eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant, just from a different life and with less fat (not that there’s anything wrong with a little lard).
I love this preparation on thick, bone-in chops, too, as the simple palate lets you taste the pork as it is: rich, meaty, and just a touch gamey (but in the best way). It’ll make you go: Oh, that’s what pork tastes like. For an even cook, these pork chops get pan-fried for a couple minutes per side, then finished in the oven. A simple dipping sauce of sesame oil, salt, pepper, and brown sugar adds a third element, nuttiness, and echoes the samgyeopsal inspiration. The scallions here are a nod to pa muchim, that wonderful gochugaru-slicked scallion salad that often accompanies samgyeopsal to cut the richness of the meat with its sharp allium power.”
For the pork chops:
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp dark brown sugar
- 2 bone-in pork chops, 1 inch thick (about 280g each)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
For the vinegared scallions:
- 4 scallions, cut into 3-inch segments, then thinly sliced lengthwise into strips
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp gochugaru
- Pinch of dark brown sugar
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Dark brown sugar
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- Cooked white rice, for serving
Prepare the pork chops: In a small bowl, stir together the salt, pepper, and brown sugar. Sprinkle the rub generously on both sides of the pork chops and let them dry-brine at room temperature for 30 minutes or up to one hour (any longer and you’ll end up with deli meat).
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
When ready to cook, blot both sides of the pork chops with a paper towel (removing the moisture will help you get a nicely browned crust) and smear the oil on both sides of each pork chop with your hands.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat until very, very hot (you might see a wisp of smoke). Sear the pork chops until nicely browned, two minutes on the first side, then repeat on the second side, just one minute this time.
Transfer the pan to the oven and roast until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 62°C, eight to 10 minutes (with a thick pork chop, to get an accurate read, you’ll need to use tongs to hold the chop and then carefully insert the thermometer laterally from the side). Remove the pan from the oven and set the pork chops aside on two serving plates to rest while you prepare the scallion salad and dipping sauce.
Make the vinegared scallions: In a medium bowl, toss together the scallions, vinegar, gochugaru, and brown sugar. Season generously with salt and pepper and scatter messily over the pork chops.
To finish: Make the dipping sauce by adding a pinch each of salt, pepper, and brown sugar to two small dishes. Add one tablespoon sesame oil to each dish and stir until the sugar dissolves.
Serve each scallion-bedecked pork chop alongside a mound of white rice and the dipping sauce on the side. For the perfect bite, what I like to do is carve the meat with a fork and knife and drag each piece through the dipping sauce before eating with some of the scallions. Then, for relief, I chase that nutty, salty, sour, and sweet flavor bomb with a bite of white rice.
Crispy lemon-pepper bulgogi with quick-pickled shallots
Eric says: “What I have here is not the comforting, melt-in-your-mouth bulgogi—thinly sliced beef, marinated then grilled—that’s so ubiquitous in Korean restaurants and most home kitchens today. This is my own creation, adding to the pantheon of bulgogi recipes out there. As a nod to my hometown (lemon pepper has a deep and passionate fan base in Atlanta), the citrusy, aromatic spice rub in this version dusts thinly sliced rib eye, which gets seared and then marinated post-cook in a lemony shallot mixture. The thing with a beef cut this thin is you want to fry it on a very hot surface for as little time as possible (but while also gaining as much color in that short time). It’s a dance and one that is best done on a grill pan, but a very hot skillet would work, too. You want crisp edges, and if you’re lucky, for the fat to bubble up and crisp.
On the subject of black pepper: I’m convinced that we as home cooks don’t use as much of it as we could, and don’t truly know what it even tastes like. One proper lick and you can appreciate the peppercorn for what it really is: an aromatic berry. Couple that fruitiness with dehydrated lemon zest (it takes just 20 minutes in the oven), which, when rubbed into the coarse black pepper, releases its oils and latches onto the pepper, and vice versa, and they seem almost to transform one another. All that pepper will give you a tingling sensation, as well, and tastes fab with the sour-sweet quick-pickled shallots.”
- Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon
- 2 shallots, thinly sliced
- Kosher salt
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp demerara sugar
- ½ tspgarlic powder
- 1 pound (about 453g) thinly sliced rib eye
- Vegetable oil
- 1 jalapeño, thinly sliced into rings
- Fresh coriander leaves plus tender stems, lots of it
- Cooked white rice, for serving
Preheat the oven to 70°C.
Evenly spread out the lemon zest on a sheet pan and bake until completely dried out, 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the lemon juice and shallots in a small bowl, season with salt, toss, and set aside to quick-pickle.
Add the dried-out lemon zest and the black peppercorns to a spice grinder or mortar/pestle and grind until coarse. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in 1 teaspoon salt, the demerara sugar, and garlic powder.
Use a paper towel to pat the meat dry and lay it out on a cutting board or sheet pan in a single layer. Season both sides with the lemon pepper.
Heat a large grill pan or skillet until very, very hot (you may see a wisp of smoke rise from the surface) and add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom. Add the bulgogi to the pan in a single layer and cook until crispy and well browned, about 1 minute on the first side and literally a few seconds on the second. You may need to work in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Transfer to a plate and top with the pickled shallots, jalapeño, and coriander. Serve with white rice.
If you can’t find bulgogi style beef, then you can just do it yourself: Place a boneless rib eye in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up, then slice thinly with a very sharp knife.
Instead of pan-searing, you could actually drizzle some oil over the meat and broil it on the top rack until crispy and well browned, two to three minutes (just watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn). This will only work with broilers that run very hot—if you suspect yours doesn’t, then stick to the pan-searing method in the recipe.
Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home by Eric Kim (Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House, £25) is out now
Photography: copyright © 2022 Jenny Huang