12 Cookbooks: Cook Korean!

Post by Matt, Information Services staff

Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!

A shelf full of collected trade paperback comic books.

Aside from discovering new cookbooks, one of my favourite pastimes is reading comics. There’s something uniquely engaging about comics as a form of storytelling that I can’t help but enjoy. My own comics collection started with Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield books scrounged from yard sales as a child, but has since expanded to include a wide range of comics across genres and styles.

Though I enjoy superhero stories, my collection features far more science fiction and fantasy comics, along with a smattering of crime, horror and memoir. But this shelf is just a tiny glimpse of what’s available in the world of comics. We’re lucky at KPL to have an extensive comics collection that’s accessible to all, with a huge variety of classics, new releases and even Canadian talent from comics creators such as Mariko & Jillian Tamaki, Chester Brown, Ho Che Anderson, Jeff Lemire, Seth, Aminder Dhaliwal and Emily Carroll. If you’ve never encountered these names, I highly recommend exploring some of their work.

But I’m not here just to talk about comics all day, though I definitely could. I want to share my experiences with Robin Ha’s beautifully illustrated comic cookbook: Cook Korean!

cook korean cover
Cook Korean!
Robin Ha
Ten Speed Press
175 pages

Unlike most cookbooks, Cook Korean! is completely drawn like a comic and filled with step-by-step images of ingredients, food preparation and finished dishes that are brightly coloured and incredibly inviting. It also features short panelled interludes outlining the author’s relationship to food, childhood and their mother. I promise that’s not as painful as it sounds; it can actually be quite charming. Regardless, the recipes in the book promise to teach readers about a wide variety of common Korean dishes and meals that are flavourful and easy to make.

There are so many intriguing dishes in Cook Korean! that it was nearly impossible to narrow it down. I began by eliminating anything that featured meat as a defining ingredient, for the benefit of my vegetarian partner. As always, the meat-loving part of my stomach was saddened by this news, but I realized that perhaps it’s for the best if I try Korean barbecue (or other traditional meat dishes) from a local restaurant first. That left a slew of options for recipes like ‘Beansprout Salad’, ‘Spicy Bok Choy’ or ‘Kimchi-Fried Rice.’ Ultimately, I decided to take it easy this month and just make two dishes: ‘Spicy Cold Noodles (bibim guksu)’ for dinner and ‘Brown Sugar Pancakes (hotteok)’ for dessert. Can you blame me for wanting to spend my time outside instead of in a small, hot basement apartment kitchen? Ultimately, these recipes appealed to me because I enjoy the simplicity of both noodles and pancakes, at whatever temperature they’re served.

The noodles were my first planned meal, requiring a trip to an international grocery store for sōmen noodles, red chile paste and kimchi. Sōmen is a long, thin type of noodle made from wheat flour that resembles spaghetti or vermicelli, and red chile paste is exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of red chilis mashed into paste. Kimchi, perhaps Korea’s most well-known edible export, is a collection of spiced, fermented vegetables, similar to sauerkraut, that tastes hot and sour with a crunchy bite. Cook Korean! features several recipes for making your own kimchi, which is easy and rewarding, but I was feeling some strong “School’s Out” vibes the day I made my meal plan and decided to buy it from the store instead.

Alice Cooper whirls his cape and summons a ghost from below the ground.
Alice Cooper summoning the last shred of my willpower

The next day I chopped up a bit of romaine lettuce and cucumber, then blended together an apple, kimchi juice, red chile paste, rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil to make the accompanying sauce. It was bright red and alarmingly spicy. At that point, I began to question my decisions, but decided to forge ahead anyway. The book went on to explain that the last two steps in the recipe are to boil the noodles and assemble the bowl, so I decided to switch over to making my dessert, since it was only 10:30 am in the morning and COVID hasn’t messed up my meal scheduling quite that badly.

Making the pancakes or hotteok was a familiar process that involved creating a dough from all purpose and rice flour, yeast, sugar, salt and milk, letting it rise, then dividing and flattening it into small dumpling-sized rounds, before spooning a mixture of brown sugar, crushed peanuts, cinnamon and salt into the centre and encasing it within the dough. As I rolled, spooned and folded, preparing to fry these pancakes in a hot, well-oiled pan, I had a sobering moment of déjà vu. That’s when I realized: I love fried food. Like the third act twist in a bad thriller, I realized that I was the villain all along – from last month’s ‘Navajo Fry Bread,’ to the deep-fried ‘Onion Bhajia’ of Vegetarian India, to the very first recipe of 12 Cookbooks, the scallion pancake known as ‘The Double Awesome.’

Now that might sound like an obvious realization to have (and it is), but sometimes it’s hard to see a pattern when you’re in it. After six months of this challenge though, I was beginning to glimpse familiar trends and repetitions. And I don’t want to imply that fried food is inherently bad or that I shouldn’t be okay with enjoying it, I do enjoy it! I just realized that I’d been seeking out and selecting those foods in these cookbooks again and again, which began to spark worries that I was choosing less healthy or less challenging options for myself and less interesting options for my readers. That said, these meals are spread out over months, my reasons for choosing them have been different every time and, to be honest, it’s kind of hard to avoid fried food! They even named a whole type of pan after it. I think the point I’m trying to make is that, even in the midst of a structured process like 12 Cookbooks that inherently encourages exploration, food is comfort and we will always gravitate towards the things that make us feel comfortable. 

As I get older and my body has less and less tolerance for the greasy, the dense, and the overly processed, it becomes more and more important that I retrain my mind to find comfort in healthier meal options. The alternative is to feel unsatisfied when eating a salad and to feel guilty when eating a burger. That’s no fun. Ultimately, 12 Cookbooks has been about exploring some of those meal options, making an effort to taste new foods, learn new techniques and recipes, and gain experience as a regular home cook and meal planner. At this midway point in the process, I feel confident in saying that I’ve been successful at accomplishing these things – even if I make choices that are sometimes less than optimal.

Now, let’s step back from this embarrassing, long-winded display of self-reflection and FINISH THE BLASTED RECIPES!

After a minute in the pan on each side, the dough of the completed hotteok was hot and crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside and bursting with a gooey brown sugar filling that was crunchy, savoury and sweet all at once. They were also teetering on the edge of being too salty, so I recommend halving the amount of salt or switching to a larger grain of kosher or sea salt to compensate. Despite that, they were an excellent afternoon snack, best eaten immediately.

Then I returned to my dinner preparations by boiling the sōmen noodles for a few minutes, draining and rinsing the finished noodles in cold water, and assembling the ingredients in a bowl. From bottom to top, I stacked lettuce, noodles, red chili sauce, cucumber, kimchi and a garnish of toasted seaweed and sesame seeds. The end result was striking.

Two bowls of spicy cold noodles garnished with sesame seeds and seaweed.

It tasted cool, refreshing and painfully spicy! My fears had been realized; this was too hot for my poorly prepared taste-buds. But I hadn’t put in all that work to stop now! A glass of milk helped to lessen the agony and I carried on, starting to appreciate the crunchy texture of the cucumber and kimchi, the distinctive saltiness of the seaweed and the soft pull of the noodles. My partner, also milked up, enjoyed it even more. I’ve played the game of (spice) chicken before with 12 Cookbooks, starting with the Dan Dan Noodles of Double Awesome Chinese Food and most recently with the curries from Vegetarian India, but it was Cook Korean! that finally beat me. If, but more likely when, I return to this recipe, I’ll be adjusting the amount of chili paste accordingly.

As a whole, Cook Korean! is a fabulous entryway into the world of Korean cuisine, made all the more enjoyable by its colourful comic illustrations and simple recipes. Robin Ha has done an excellent job at breaking down a plethora of popular Korean dishes and lesser-known gems into easy step-by-step instructions with delicious results.

For more comic cookbooks and Korean food, check out these books from KPL’s collection today:

Be here next month when I crack open Laura Bashar’s The Camp & Cabin Cookbook to test my culinary skills in the great outdoors.

Have questions? Want more recommendations?  

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