by Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner
For chef Shin Kim, food has always been about taking risks. After earning an MBA from the University of Chicago and carving out a career in finance, she left it all behind to pursue her passion for food.
She trained at the Institute of Culinary Education, then went on to work in some of New York’s finest kitchens, including Jean-Georges. But in her off hours, Shin found herself gravitating toward the Korean flavors of her youth and blogging about her DIY projects (like perfecting the art of baking in a rice cooker!).
In the span of a few years, Shin became her own boss by launching her company, Banchan Story. She teaches Korean cooking classes in New York City, consults for other food businesses, and just published her first cookbook, “Vegetarian Dishes from My Korean Home” (available on Amazon). Shin’s passion for cooking Korean recipes and teaching them to others is woven throughout the book, and her recipes are inspired by a lifelong appreciation of Korean cuisine, her culinary training, and hands-on research at the Chunjinam Buddhist hermitage in South Jeolla Province of South Korea, which is famed for its vegetarian cuisine.
We’ve been lucky enough to take a few of Shin’s classes, and we think her recipes are excellent. Her beautiful, well-organized new book packages her distinctive flavors in an well-edited format, and we especially love its focus on vegetarian dishes that manage to be incredibly satisfying and, at times, decadent. (See: Cauliflower popcorn in sweet gochujang glaze -- it’s twice-fried and addictive.) Shin has also taken the time to label her recipes clearly for those with dietary concerns, categorizing them as vegan, nut-free, gluten-free and spicy.
We wanted to share more of Shin’s story as a chef and hear her take on Korean home cooking in an interview -- so here goes!
Which three ingredients would you recommend to someone just getting started with cooking Korean food?
Gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), doenjang (Korean soybean paste) and toasted sesame oil. Although ganjang (soy sauce) is another important ingredient, a lot of people already have it around. Sesame oil is a very comforting, festive, aromatic ingredient, and it’s used liberally in Korean cooking.
Why did you decide to make your first cookbook focus on vegetarian dishes?
Korean food is on the rise in the States, but the spotlight has mostly shone on just a few dishes: Korean BBQ, kimchi and bibimbap. I wanted to introduce a different side of Korean cuisine with more of a focus on vegetable dishes that can be incredibly flavorful and stand on their own.
Vegetable dishes are an important part of Korean home cooking. I grew up eating them at home in Korea, and I still make them on a regular basis in New York. Once you know some key cooking techniques and the right ratios of popular Korean sauces, you can easily recreate the flavors with a handful of condiments and locally available vegetables. That’s what I wanted to share through my first cookbook!
In the book, you write about your stay at the Chunjinam hermitage, where you learned about temple food, the Korean Buddhist method of preparing vegan meals without garlic and onions. You also got to work with Jeong Kwan, the Buddhist nun who cooks for the temple, who was profiled by The New York Times last year. Can you tell us about one other style of Korean food that you really love?
Home-cooked meals! As with any culture, home cooking shows a different aspect of the culinary tradition. Each home uses different ingredients that produce different flavors, even under the umbrella of Korean food. There’s a whole spectrum of flavors, from the delicately subtle to the deeply complex. Ultimately, the focus is on the nourishment of family members and loved ones. It is the most local, down-to-earth aspect of a cuisine, and it comes with memories and emotions.
After working in places like Jean-Georges and Adour by Alain Ducasse, how did you decide to make Korean food your professional focus?
As much as I love eating and cooking all kinds of food, I had a hard time adopting butter and cream into my daily diet as a part of my culinary training and career. More and more, I was craving those piquant, fresh flavors and deep, rounded, hearty dishes that didn’t weigh me down after a meal. Then I realized that I was craving the Korean food that I’d been eating all my life!
Which Korean ingredients do you prefer to make at home?
I’ve been making kimchi at home for a few years now. I made a few missteps when I first started, but once I got the basics down, it became an easy process (as long as you’re willing to put in the time and work). I make the basic recipes on a regular basis: a regular kimchi with fish sauce and the vegan version in the cookbook. But I also experiment by incorporating other ingredients such as dried kelp, persimmon and sweet rice. It’s fun, meditative work!
How do you describe your flavors as a chef?
A few years ago, one of my students said that my dishes were “warm and comforting,” and I was really happy to hear that. I’d like people to feel happy and comforted as they eat my food, whatever it is that I make, and I’d be happy if people remembered that feeling afterward.
What are a few of your favorite recipes from your new book?
The dishes in the cookbook include everything from subtle flavors to spicy, hearty comfort, so you can pick and choose based on what you’re in the mood for. Here are some different options:
I always make ssamjang, soy paste dip, which is a combination of doenjang, gochujang and honey, perfect for dipping carrot sticks or celery. It showcases Korean flavors in a unique, umami-packed dip, and there is no cooking involved!
Japchae, glass noodles with vegetables, seems to be everyone’s favorite, so that’s a great place to start for a weeknight dinner (it’s a simple, one-pan version!) or for a crowd.
A big batch of stew is another easy solution for a crowd, especially in the wintertime. Doenjang jjigae (soybean stew) or kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) are the ultimate Korean comfort foods. Serve them with rice or make more broth and use them as a base for noodle soup!
For a comforting Korean meal at home, just make a few side dishes and rice. My favorite dish to this day is my mom’s steamed shishito peppers with sesame dressing. (Note: Check out the recipe and Shin’s video below!)
For a sweet note at the end, you can make sujeonggwa, a cinnamon-ginger tea that’s super easy and delicious!
Shin Kim's Steamed Shishito Peppers with Sesame Dressing
(Serves 4 as a side dish) - From "Vegetarian Dishes from My Korean Home"
For the spicy sesame dressing:
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
1 scallion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced or grated
1 pound shishito peppers
2 tablespoons sweet rice flour
Rice, for serving
- To make the sesame dressing: Mix the ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.
- Snap off the tops of the peppers and discard. Wash and drain the peppers. Poke each pepper with a fork or make a small slit with a knife so that the peppers cook quickly and the steam can be released.
- Toss the peppers in the sweet rice flour to coat with a thin layer.
- Set up a steamer insert in a big pot. Fill the pot with hot water, about 1 inch below the steamer insert so that the water does not touch the insert.
- Place the peppers in the steamer, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Steam until the coating on the peppers looks translucent with no white rice flour spots, about 10 minutes.
- Transfer the steamed peppers to a medium bowl with tongs. Drizzle the sesame dressing over the peppers and carefully mix in the seasoning with the tongs. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
- Serve warm or cold as a side dish with rice. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.