Steve Kim has come full circle. Growing up in New Jersey in a family that emigrated from Korea when he was 7 years old, Kim helped his mother in the kitchen. But when he wanted to try his hand at cooking on his own, he didn't want to make Korean food. He wanted to learn how to cook the new foods he'd discovered in the United States.
When he was in the seventh grade, he sent away for Betty Crocker's Cookbook, which he'd seen advertised on the back of a pancake box. "I literally made everything in that book — I made homemade pizza crust, pineapple upside-down cake. And my mom let me do it."
His mother, however, cooked Korean food for dinner every night. Kim learned about cooking as he helped to prepare the family meals. "My other two brothers weren't interested. I'd help my mom make dumplings at the kitchen table — rolling dumpling after dumpling and realizing it only takes a second to eat them."
After he left home and cooked for himself — experimenting with a variety of cuisines — he began to miss his mother's food. It was time to rediscover the tastes and smells of his childhood. "She's an amazing cook," he says. "I'm always writing down her recipes as she cooks. They're not exact, but I'm getting them down."
Ten years ago he opened Kimbo's Noodle Bar near VCU but got out of the restaurant business after one year. "It's hard work. I'm actually such a better cook now than then — I have the time to pay attention to just the food."
Fortunately, his friends get the benefit of his Korean-kitchen upbringing. As a child, he says, "I assumed my friends wouldn't like Korean food — I didn't have them over [for dinner]."
That's all changed. Friends can't resist his seafood pajeon, pancakes stuffed with squid, shrimp and chunks of tilapia intertwined with strips of scallions and red bell peppers. Fried until crispy around the edges, the pancakes are quartered and drizzled with KimKim sauce, Kim's personal take on traditional ssamjang. Ssamjang is a concoction of Korean chili paste, garlic, sesame oil and honey, among other ingredients. Kim amps up his version with ingredients he refuses to reveal and uses it on everything. "It's even good with eggs," he says.
It's better with bulgogi and kalbi, garlicky marinated rib-eye steak and beef short ribs, respectively. Kim serves both with rice and banchan, which are little side dishes of vegetables and kimchee (a food integral to the Korean table — from the traditional version made with spicy, fermented napa cabbage to a quick-pickled version made with radishes or cucumbers). Each can be eaten separately, or they all can be wrapped together in butter-lettuce leaves.
"This is my favorite," says Sarah Kim, indicating the large bowl full of japchae. Although often served as a side dish, her husband's version is more than enough for a main course. After cooking and draining sweet-potato noodles, Kim stir-fries them with vegetables, pork and seafood. Soy sauce, sesame oil and earthy, dried mushrooms deepen the flavor, and a touch of sugar brightens the entire dish.
On a warm night with friends and cocktails full of rum and berries, the Korean way of eating — a little of this, a bit of that — leaves lots of time for conversation and lingering at the table. Spicy, sweet and savory intermingle to become new comfort food for some and an affirmation of the past for others.
Seafood Pajeon (pancakes) Serves 4
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
- 1 egg
- ¾ cup of chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons of brewed soy sauce*
- 2 teaspoons of rice vinegar
- 1 bunch of scallions, trimmed and cut into strips
- ½ small red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- ½ pound of medium shrimp, cleaned and halved lengthwise
- 1 small squid, cleaned and cut into small strips
- 1 tilapia filet, diced
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- Ginger-scallion sauce (Kim uses the recipe found in David Chang's book, Momofuku)
Combine flour, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in chicken broth until smooth; whisk in egg. Add scallions, bell pepper, shrimp, squid and tilapia. Mix gently. Cover. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Mix soy sauce and rice vinegar in a small bowl; set aside. Heat oil in a medium nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Ladle batter to cover the pan in a thin layer. Cook pancake until golden brown on the underside, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook for 3 to 4 minutes more. Add more oil as needed. Remove pancake and repeat. Cut pancakes into wedges and serve with ginger-scallion sauce.
BULGOGI & KALBI Serves 6
- ½ cup of brewed soy sauce*
- ¼ cup of brown sugar
- ¼ cup of sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons of mirin*
- 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 8 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 6 large scallions, chopped roughly
- 2 pounds of rib-eye steak, sliced against the grain into medium strips
- 2 pounds of beef short ribs, cut into 3-inch pieces
- Toasted sesame seeds
- Butter lettuce, washed and cut into small pieces
- Ginger-scallion sauce or, if you're lucky, KimKim sauce
- Steamed rice
- Assorted banchan (homemade or purchased) *
Combine soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, mirin and oil in a large bowl. Add garlic and scallions. Stir. Put rib-eye steak and short ribs into a large plastic freezer bag (or two). Pour marinade into bag and turn over several times to ensure all pieces are covered. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
Heat grill to medium-high heat. Drain excess marinade. Sear strips of steak quickly 2 to 3 minutes. Grill short ribs until medium, about 4 to 6 minutes (cooking times may vary). Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and chopped scallions. Serve with lettuce, sauce, steamed rice and assorted banchan.
Japchae (stir-fried glass noodles) Serves 8
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
- ½ ounce of dried black wood-ear mushrooms*
- 8 ounces of sweet-potato noodles*
- ½ pound of pork tenderloin, sliced into strips
- ½ pound of crab stick, sliced
- ½ pound of shrimp, peeled, tails left on
- 1 scallion, chopped
- 3 tablespoons of brewed soy sauce*
- 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- 6 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 small red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- ½ head of green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
- 1 small carrot, peeled and julienned
- Salt and black pepper
Put mushrooms in a medium-sized bowl of hot water; cover and soak until soft, about 1 hour. Drain and trim, discarding stems. Thinly slice mushrooms and set aside. Put noodles into a large pot of boiling water over high heat. Simmer for about 5 minutes or according to package instructions. Drain, rinse and set aside.
Mix together pork, scallions, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1½ teaspoons of sesame oil and sugar in a small bowl and set aside. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the onions, garlic, peppers, cabbage, mushrooms and carrots. Stir-fry until vegetables are wilted, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large bowl.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the wok; add meat, stir-frying until just cooked through (about 2 minutes) and add to bowl. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the wok; add shrimp and crabmeat, stir-frying until shrimp are cooked through (about 1 minute) and add to bowl. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to wok. Add noodles and stir-fry until translucent, about 3 minutes. Place in the bowl.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1½ teaspoons of sesame oil to the bowl, adding more to taste, if desired. Toss to mix well and serve warm.
*Ingredients can be purchased at Richmond Oriental Market (431 E. Belt Blvd., 231-7624)