"I would say definitely order some soups and stews," says Matt Rodbard, co-author of Koreatown with Deuki Hong. "It is essential to understanding Korean food."

They shared a recipe for Crock-Pot Kalbijjim (pictured above).

Melissa Clark: You guys did a lot of running around the country eating in different Koreatowns for this book. Matt, what was your favorite Koreatown that you experienced?

Matt Rodbard
Matt Rodbard

Matt Rodbard: You’re going to ask me to pick a favorite?

MC: What were some of your favorites?

MR: Thank you for stepping back. Los Angeles to me is the heart of Korean food and culture in America. As a journalist, I am blown away when I go there because I go to these restaurants that specialize in single-topic dishes.

There's a restaurant that does mandu, which are Korean dumplings. Walk down the street and there is a restaurant that does seolleongtang, which is bone broth. Walk down the street and there is a restaurant that does gamjatang. You have all these great restaurants doing these single dishes so phenomenally well. It’s almost like it’s an expert-level course in Korean food when you go to Los Angeles.

MC: Deuki, do you agree? Or do you have a different idea?

Deuki Hong
Deuki Hong

Deuki Hong: First off, I think Matt is officially banned from New York City’s Koreatown. Him being a New Yorker and saying that LA Koreatown is better is a little disturbing to me. I do agree with him on the fact that the food in LA is -- it’s unmatched. It really is the best. We even go as far as to say that it’s better than some food in Seoul.

But for me, being a New Yorker, there’s nothing that can match the energy, the culture and the people of just walking on 32nd Street, seeing all the signs in Korean and just really feeling that energy on a Friday or Saturday night. We’ve packed a lot of culture, energy and a lot of stories on that one block.

MC: What are some of the things that people should know to get the best out of going to a Korean restaurant, say for a novice or for someone who has eaten in a few but really doesn’t know a lot about Korean food?

MR: Mostly you should definitely talk to your server. We found time and again, Korean-American servers are going to tell you what the specialty is at that restaurant, steer you in the right direction. Not just barbecue and tacos -- the things that most people associate with Korean food -- and kimchee, of course.

I would say definitely order some soups and stews. It is essential to understanding Korean food. Order a doenjang or kimchee jjigae; maybe go with a lighter clam jogaetang. There are lots of different soups and stews that are lesser known, but they’re so delicious.

MC: I don’t think people associate Korean food with soups and stews. You guys write in the book that Koreans are the soup masters of Asia.

DH: Absolutely. We are known for a kind of Korean barbecue. People forget that we’re a peninsula; we eat a lot of seafood. We’re avid noodle lovers and avid soup lovers.

MR: You should definitely look beyond the grill. That’s the one thing we want people to take away from Koreatown.

MC: Are there any dishes that insiders order that you have to be in the know to get?

MR: It doesn’t roll off the tongue like bulgogi, but kalbijjim is a braised short rib dish. It’s not that fiery, funky, kimchee broth dish. It’s more mild. It’s sweet; it’s sweetened with orchard fruits, dates, soy, mirin and lots of garlic. It’s beautiful.

In our recipe, we actually do it in a Crock-Pot, which is very much Americana. The Crock-Pot was invented in Chicago in the '50s. We really wanted to merge both Korean food culture and American food culture with that dish. But you can get it in restaurants. It’s one of our favorites.

MC: Let’s talk a little bit about cooking Korean food at home. What are some of the master sauces and condiments that people should know about and have in their pantry?

DH: Korean food is actually very simple. It’s not as complex as many people think. Our basic flavor and our foundation of cooking are our mother sauces. They are called jangs in Korean, which are fermented paste, fermented sauces, soybean paste, chili paste, soy sauce. That really is the foundation of a lot of the dishes that we create.

I would say fermentation and that layer of umami that you get are only developed through months and months of fermenting and controlling that fermentation. A lot of people call it the Korean miso. But it’s actually very different than miso in that Japanese miso is inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae -- you’re forcing that process of fermentation. Koreans, we develop naturally, and that’s why it takes longer. It takes minimum months to make a proper batch of soybean paste.

MC: So it’s a wild fermentation, almost like a sourdough bread kind of thing? You’re just getting it from the atmosphere.

DH: Exactly.

MC: Those are the pantry staples that people might have to go to a specialty shop to buy, but there are also a lot of Korean pantry staples that you can buy in the supermarket. You use a lot of ginger and garlic.

MR: The jangs can be difficult to find. You have to find a Korean grocery or an Asian grocery. But really, when you look at the larder, it’s so common. You’re seeing garlic, ginger, scallions, sesame oil, mirin, soy sauce. You’re seeing things that you’re going to cook with if you’re cooking Chinese cuisine, you’re cooking Japanese.

Deuki’s skill is breaking down the cooking into simpler steps using this pared-down larder. Once the book had been out a few weeks, we saw photos on Instagram. People have been sharing recipes. It’s coming from all sorts of backgrounds. It’s really cool that people are actually cooking this food and not just reading the book.

MC: Deuki, why do you think Korean food right now is becoming very popular among non-Korean chefs? It’s almost like it’s becoming the next “it” cuisine.

DH: For me, even just on a culinary sense, traveling, talking to and meeting all these chefs, we realized this is the food that they’ve been eating for a long time. They have prior experiences and they love Koreatown. This is where they go eat after service. They’re incorporating it a lot, even into their own menus.

MR: It’s a chef’s nature to explore. Chefs want to explore the next cuisine. As Deuki was saying, these chefs -- we featured recipes from Sean Brock, Stuart Brioza, Eric Ripert -- they’re riffing on the flavors of Koreatown. They are taking them back to their kitchens. We’re seeing this new generation of Korean and non-Korean chefs who are cooking beyond the taco with kimchee on top. It’s not fusion cuisine, it’s really traditional flavors.

MC: Right, but they’re taking it into their non-Korean kitchens and doing their thing.

Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark is a food writer, author, and host of our new podcast Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written more than 30 cookbooks including Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, and In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.