While it’s no secret that Asian food rules much of New York City’s culinary landscape—thanks to chefs like Danny Bowien, Hooni Kim, David Chang and Leah Cohen—there’s still a bit of mystery surrounding increasingly popular Korean cuisine (even if kimchi seems to be everywhere).
Enter chef Deuki Hong, a classically trained chef at NYC’s K-town barbecue restaurant Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong who, with writer Matt Rodbard, spent two years eating in K-towns across the country (and Korea too) as the two researched their new book, Koreatown: A Cookbook. The book breaks down the Korean food scene and discusses Korea’s drinking culture and what makes NYC’s Koreatown so hot right now.
Hong and Rodbard talk about Korean Boilermakers (a.k.a. Soju Bombs), craft rice wine and why kimchi isn’t going anywhere.
Do you eat a lot of Korean food in your everyday (non-book-touring) life?
Hong: I eat a lot of Korean food just naturally because I’m tasting a lot of food at the restaurant. Matt has been trying to teach me about eating lighter.… I order a lot of fried chicken, the craveable Korean dishes. I go hard. If I’m craving something, I eat it.
What’s your biggest vice? Korean fried chicken?
Hong: Chicken McNuggets. The 20-piece for $4.99.
With barbecue sauce?
Hong: I do the triple dunk. Honey mustard, barbecue and my sriracha from home. It’s the perfect combination of sweet, smoky barbecue and that spice. They batch them out, so you gotta go at 3 in the morning when it’s really fresh. It’s super crispy, the way you should have it.
Yum. What is it about McNuggets that are so good?
Hong: It’s the right texture and crispiness—the combination. That’s my vice. I grew up eating Korean at home but American food with my friends.
What’s your go-to drink? Beer?
Hong: We drink a lot of Soju Bombs, especially on this book tour. I don’t love Korean beer, and I don’t really love soju, but it’s better together. It’s a seven-to-three ratio—three soju, seven beer. [See recipe below.]
So the only way you drink soju and beer is together?
Hong: Yes. I hate drinking it straight. We sell a lot of Jameson at our restaurant. The Koreans love Jameson for some reason. It’s a very safe drink.
Co-author Matt Rodbard
Given all the flavors, what’s a good boozy drink to pair with Korean food?
Hong: Koreans aren’t big cocktail people. I’d say a good beer. Korean food has the sweet, salty, savory [flavor], which is welcoming to a cold, crisp brew. Or sip a nice soju.
Rodbard:Hwayois a good soju brand, but I like a nice German riesling, too. I think the sugar really holds up to the sweet, spicy and funky kind of flavors. I’ve had a Chablis that pairs well with vegetable dishes, and I’ve had a chilled red—and I’m not a wine expert, someone chose it—but it went well especially with a short-rib course.
Hong: Korean flavor profiles aren’t so crazy. Yeah, we have this added layer of umami slash funk—what I call a deep flavor—all of which is receptive to beer. I don’t know if it’s bourbon food; its good wine and beer food. Most people order beer and soju or soju cocktails. Because it’s a meat-focused restaurant, a lot of people will order red wine. It’s a long meal, there’s a lot of spice, and there are a lot of things going on on the table and in your mouth, so you need to play it safe.
When it comes to Korean drinking culture, what do you think is the biggest misconception?
Rodbard: Makgeolli is probably the biggest thing that a lot of non-Koreans don’t know about. It’s a fermented rice wine, kind of like an unfiltered sake. They have makgeolli bars in Seoul in some of the hippest neighborhoods. Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case; makgeolli was considered country wine, something farmers drank. I think that’s something you’re going to see in L.A. sooner than later.
Hong: I think it’s that we [as Asians] can’t drink. I’ve seen some small, tiny Asian girls throw down two, three bottles of soju by themselves. They build a tolerance; they’re drinking two to three times a week minimum.
Rodbard: We were at a soju house in K-town in New York, and this girl fell off her stool like three times—it wasn’t even 10 p.m. In Korea, at every other table, someone’s falling off their stool because soju is cheaper than water in Korea. It’s $1 to $2 a bottle.
Do you think Korean food is going to be what Japanese and Chinese food is culturally in the culinary conversation?
Hong: For me, that’s my goal. As a Korean, if you’re meeting your friends and discussing where to eat dinner, I want Korean food to be in that conversation. I don’t think it is yet. That’s our goal. Japanese food 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, was just sushi. Now this ramen culture picked up. Thai had its moment. Chinese food, at a certain point, was just American Chinese food, and now we’re talking about regional Chinese food, like Sichuan. Maybe people know Korean barbecue, which is kind of knowing the sushi of Japan; maybe it will be a part of everyday conversation. Hopefully it gets there, hopefully it gets bigger. Japan is a great model to follow. What other Asian cuisine—where else can you be in the middle of nowhere and see sushi?
Rodbard: The moment is now, and Korean food is rising with all Asian cuisine. Ramen is taking over the world. Koreans have certainly been there with barbecue and fried chicken, and now people are thinking about Asian flavors at home. Sesame oil is in now in people’s kitchen cabinets.
Hong: It’s incredible. For me, it’s great. That’s why we did this; that’s why we traveled for two years, wrestling over the story we want to tell and how to tell it. It’s worth it: We’re slowly but surely making it part of the conversation. It’s not going to happen overnight; [the rise of] Japanese food didn’t happen overnight. We’ve been on this project for two years, and even before that, we were waiting for this [Asian food] trend to be a topic of conversation. But it’s not kale; it’s not like kale, where no one wants to talk about kale anymore.
Right. Korean food is not going anywhere.
Hong: Now we know it’s not going anywhere. It’s here to stay.
Seoul Train, aka The Soju Bomb on Steroids
image: Sam Horine
Recipe from Koreatown: A Cookbook
You could call this the Korean Boilermaker, a shot and a beer tag-teamed with one goal in mind: getting you from point A (clearheaded sobriety) to point B (singing a Foreigner song in front of 75 strangers) and as fast as humanly possible. Seoul Train is kind of a drinking game, except that everybody is a winner in the end and the only loser is the guy who knocks over the glasses early. So follow our instructions, and don’t be that guy.
1. On a flat surface that will be okay when deluged with Korea’s finest alcoholic beverages, line up several beer glasses in a row, leaving a half-inch space between each glass. Start with six glasses to get the hang of it. You can add more glasses as the night progresses.
2. Fill each glass about halfway with beer. Think two parts beer, one part soju. But it’s up to you.
3. Place a shot glass on the lip of each of the beer glasses, making sure they are spaced close enough so that they clink each other. (The ones in the photo above are spaced too far apart. But don’t worry, we moved them closer.) Carefully fill each shot glass with soju.
4. Select a brave participant.
5. Once selected, the brave participant should gently tap the first shot glass, causing a domino effect, with the soju shot landing in the beer with a minimal to typhoonlike splash. Pass the glasses around the table and drink, ideally, in one sip. Geonbae!