You’ve just sat down to a table set with an eye-catching array of banchan (side dishes). Someone points to one -- perhaps a grassy tangle of marinated greens, or a gleaming heap of mysterious, gelatinous seafood -- and asks, “What is this?”
“I don’t know,” you answer, “but it’s damn good.”
Of course, there’s a more accurate answer to that question. And that’s where Seoyoung Jung and Sonja Swanson, the two women behind the encyclopedic Korean food site Bburi Kitchen, come in.
Seeing a gap in Korean food knowledge, this chef/writer pair devoted themselves to researching traditional ingredients and cooking techniques and connecting to the farmers who supply pantries across Korea. In many ways, this work has connected Seoyoung and Sonja to their own Korean roots -- only fitting, since bburi, the name of their project, is the Korean word for “root.”
Since 2015, Bburi Kitchen has demystified Korea’s farm-to-table cooking traditions for the English-speaking world, sharing their recipes and research along the way. Read on to learn more about their mission -- and be sure to check out their recipe video for soy-marinated blue crab at the end!
What's the story behind you two starting Bburi Kitchen? How did you two meet and start working together?
Seoyoung: I worked in New York City in fine dining kitchens, and we’d get all kinds of ingredients from all around the world. However, we’d rarely get Korean products, and it made me sad, because there are so many incredible ingredients here in Korea. Plus, so many people I met thought that Korean food is only bibimbap and barbecue. I wanted to share the diversity of Korean cooking with English speakers.
Sonja: I really didn’t know a lot about Korean food -- when I moved to Korea six and a half years ago, I found myself going to the grocery store and beelining for the broccoli and bell peppers. But I got curious about all the unfamiliar ingredients so I started looking them up and trying to learn more. That’s how I met Seoyoung! I took a cooking class from her and we became friends. She knew I was a freelance writer so she called me up two years ago and asked if I wanted to write a book with her… and here we are.
Seoyoung: We thought it would take one year. Now we’re in our third year!
“Bburi” is the Korean word for root. Can you tell us why you chose that name for your project?
Seoyoung: Going back and understanding the roots of what we’re eating is a big part of our project. There are a lot of visitors to Korea and even young Korean people who are eating Korean food without knowing what they’re eating. And also the flavor profile of our cuisine has been changing so much. As food has gotten industrialized, it’s getting sweeter, and the kind of spiciness is changing too. Change isn’t a bad thing, but there are a lot of important elements of our cuisine that shouldn’t be lost. That’s where the Bburi project starts from -- remembering what’s being forgotten in our modern society.
What got you both so interested personally in Korean food?
Seoyoung: This is the food that made me who I am today!
Sonja: My mom is Korean, so this has also been an exploration of my heritage. I didn’t fully understand how much my mom gave up when she immigrated to the States until I realized how much her diet changed. I mean, growing up, we did eat Korean food, but it was just a fraction of what my mom grew up eating. There just weren’t as many Korean grocery stores where we lived in the U.S. 30 years ago as there are now (we never lived near a Koreatown, unfortunately). So for me, learning about Korean food has been reclaiming a lot of that heritage, and through the food, I’ve learned a lot about Korean culture as well.
What types of Korean cuisines or dishes do you focus on cooking? Do you experiment with older recipes?
Seoyoung: I mostly focus on everyday cooking because I love feeding people, but I also want to share the value of cooking your daily meals at home with local ingredients. There’s a lot of wisdom passed down from centuries of working with them, like how to preserve foods or make them more nutritious or edible. So many young people eat out three times a day or get their meals from convenience stores. I know this is happening because of our changing lifestyles, but I think you’re missing out if you do that all the time. Cooking for yourself can bring you so many more valuable things than you can imagine!
I also learned royal cuisine, which is more for special occasions, though I do take inspiration from it for regular meals as well. So for Bburi Kitchen, a lot of the recipes come from older traditions, and I’ll sometimes adjust the seasonings here and there. It’s pretty straightforward.
We’ve noticed that you put focus on some lesser-known ingredients in Korean cuisine, like blood cockles or sea asparagus. Can you pinpoint a favorite ingredient that you wish more people knew about?
Seoyoung: Well, it’s more of a category than a specific ingredient -- I’d definitely have to say namul (wild mountain green vegetables). These can be fresh or blanched or even dried and cooked again, like shiraegi, a dried radish green. Of course, meat-based Korean dishes are really popular these days, but these wild green vegetables are foundational to Korean cuisine and you have to know namul to understand it.
Sonja: For me, it’s the fresh seaweeds. In the States, I was familiar with dried seaweed, but here in Korea I got to try all kind of fresh sea greens like the wispy maesaengi and the crunchy, noodle-like ggoshiraegi. You can get fresh seaweed in the winter and early spring that can be eaten as banchan, put in soups, used as wraps, and more. I think more seaweeds are starting to be farmed in the States now, so I’m looking forward to that!
Seoyoung, you went to the Culinary Institute of America and frequently cook Western food as well as other Asian cuisines. Can you tell us a bit about your background, why you went to culinary school, and what that experience was like? Also, do you like to play with fusion?
Seoyoung: I’ve loved feeding people since I was 9 years old, but my culinary journey started when I spent a year as a volunteer for people with disabilities in England. In my free time, I started cooking for my friends and a year later, I decided to make a career change and cook professionally. Culinary school was heaven! It was also physically exhausting, but I felt like a fish in water. I was so happy there. As for fusion, I do love that approach (it’s fun!), but for now, we’re sticking to more of the basics and traditions for Bburi, since this project is all about roots.
Sonja, can you tell us about your experience of moving to Korea and making it your home? What were the best resources for you when you first started learning about Korean food?
Sonja: I actually had a weird sort of reverse culture shock when I first moved to Korea. Maybe it’s similar for other diaspora kids: We come here expecting some kind of mystical experience and instead there are Dunkin' Donuts and Paris Baguettes everywhere. But you get over it. You have to let Korea be itself and not demand that it be something for you. I think losing those expectations helped me learn more.
In terms of food specifically, it’s been fun calling my mom up and talking to my relatives and hearing their memories and advice about cooking. Traditional market vendors are usually happy to share tips when you buy something at their stalls. And of course, I’ve learned so much from Seoyoung—I wouldn’t have learned so much without her. She’s a great, patient teacher (and a shameless little plug: you can take her cooking classes in Seoul!).
What are your favorite Korean foods?
Seoyoung: I love fresh sea ingredients. I’m always happy to spend my money on fresh seafood! For example, I love haemuljjim, a sautéed seafood dish with bean sprouts and a spicy chilli sauce.
Sonja: It’s so hard to choose! Well, it’s cold out right now so I’m craving a really warm, comforting bowl of doenjang jjigae, a fermented bean paste stew, with extra squash and clams.
Say an enthusiastic eater is visiting Korea for the first time. What would you say are the must-do food experiences?
Seoyoung: Ok, if you’re feeling a little adventurous, I really recommend trying ganjang gejang, or soy sauce marinated blue crab. You marinate raw crabs that are full of creamy eggs in a soy sauce marinade, and it’s so rich and delicious. It also combines two of Korean cuisine’s strong points: fresh seafood and fermentation. Try it!
Sonja: I’m going to echo Seoyoung on the seafood and tell people to go to a fish market in a coastal town. Walk around and see what most people seem to be ordering that day -- chances are, that’s what’s in season, whether it’s octopus soup or grilled prawns or raw gizzard shad that you wrap in perilla leaves. And also just be aware that fresh seafood can be pricey and you’re not necessarily getting cheated. A lot of seafood in the U.S. is underpriced.
Ready to see Seoyoung and Sonja in action with some of Korea’s incredible fresh seafood? Check out their charming video on making ganjang gejang below. 잘 먹겠습니다!