An Autobiography in Flavors: My Korea by Hooni Kim and Smoke & Pickles by Edward Lee

hot peppers, watercolor on paper

My first memory of tasting Korean food involves a late-night meal at a restaurant on Telegraph Avenue. It was the summer before my freshman year at Berkeley, and I was in Berkeley for just two nights, attending orientation. There I was, in an unfamiliar place, with a table full of unfamiliar food, and three people I’d only met that day–another girl from my Orientation group, and two Berkeley engineering students who picked us up from our temporary dorm rooms in order to show us a different side of college life. It was probably a terrible idea to get into a stranger’s car, but somehow I did it, and survived. Strange how memory wipes out certain details, but retains others in crisp detail. I remember, for example, the strappy sundress I was wearing, the sticky wood veneer table, the Yakult-and-soju cocktails that the boys ordered (and which I rejected after just one sip because they tasted like liquid candy). More than anything else though, I remember the simmering pot of soft tofu that appeared on the table. Sundubu. I learned that the soft tofu stew was called sundubu jjigae, and it was best with homemade soft tofu. I don’t think I ever saw any of my dining companions again, but I kept my acquaintance with that sundubu stew. Later, in graduate school, it became my comfort food. There was a Korean restaurant walking distance from campus. On cold nights, I’d go there with friends, and order the soft tofu stew. Later, I learned to make a simplified version of sundubu jjigae myself, with store-bought kimchi and soft tofu, substituting good bacon for the customary pork belly. But that was really as far as I went, in terms of cooking Korean dishes at home. 

shiitake mushrooms, watercolor on paper

In those first strange months of the pandemic, I discovered Hooni Kim’s meal kits. Every so often, I would splurge on a meal kit from Hanjan. Kim’s cookbook, My Korea, came out right around the time everything shut down. It was probably terrible for him, but it was strangely fortuitous for me. I could eat Kim’s interpretations of classic dishes while reading My Korea

Recently, I picked up a copy of Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles, a very different (but equally personal) cookbook. Two Korean-American chefs, both with ties to New York–but their personalities and approaches couldn’t be more different. Where My Korea aimed to present the reader with Kim’s personal interpretation of canonical Korean dishes, Smoke and Pickles took readers on an autobiographical journey. The recipes in Smoke and Pickles, like the writing, are intensely personal and lyrical. 


Despite their differences, these two books are wonderful to read in tandem. Kim explains the principles of Korean home cooking with patience and clarity. With this foundation, Lee’s variations take on more meaning. Lee’s book takes on added depth when read together with Ronni Lundy’s Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. The dishes in Smoke and Pickles incorporate a world of references, but Lee is almost always most directly in dialogue with two particular American regional cuisines–that of the Appalachias, and of the Mid-South. Lundy’s book draws out the building blocks that are particular to Appalachian cooking, those flavors of sorghum, buttermilk, smoked pork. Sweet, salty, sharp, sour. 


I end up using the books differently. I read Smoke and Pickles for pleasure, but I use My Korea like a technical manual. I leaf through it frequently, though–sorry, Hooni!–I seldom follow a recipe all the way through. Rather, I combine elements from My Korea’s recipes with recipes I’ve developed over time, drawing on my own background, my experiences with Taiwanese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian cooking.) Now that the weather is turning, I am bookmarking recipes for cold banchan (from My Korea’s muchim section) and naengmyon (cold noodles).


There’s a familiarity to Kim’s approach and style that’s deeply comforting and familiar. It resonates, in part, because elements of his biography recall my own. Like Kim, I spent my childhood split between Asia and America. Though I grew up mostly in the U.S., our roots remained in Taiwan. For years, “back home” in Taiwan, my extended family called me “the American” (behind my back – and also to my face). I grew up between. No matter where I am, I feel a faint longing for the other.

Like Kim, I learned to taste from my grandmothers–especially my father’s mother, who was exacting about both ingredients and technique. Everything had a proper season, and a proper place. My grandfather was an agricultural specialist. The two of them knew their soils, their climates, farming and husbandry practices. Every type of produce–from rice to fruit to the humble cabbage–had its own terroir. 

I recognize something else in Kim–the classicism–the clarity of discipline and practice that comes with classical training, and the belief that technique and discipline will set you free. Freedom only comes after mastery. But that training confers something–a hard-won body of knowledge–that will forever run through you, a steel backbone, tensile and strong.


I saw myself in Smoke and Pickles, too. Just a different self. Smoke and Pickles spoke to me of a different home, of those years we spent in the Mid-South. Those flavors and ingredients were the flavors and ingredients of my early childhood. But they were also the flavors and ingredients of my Taiwanese and Hakka grandmothers, of my Zhejiang grandfather. Sweet, salty, sour, sharp. And at the edge, a curl of darkness, something like smoke. The flavors, the ingredients, the references–they were all mixed up, just like me. 

Lee’s strength lies in the unbounded nature of his creativity, the strangeness of his flavors, how they evoke nostalgia–only to take that sentiment in unexpected directions. He has a tendency towards maximalism, a way of layering flavors that don’t quite seem to harmonize: a molasses cookie spiked with tobacco, parsnip puree in a buttermilk biscuit, togarashi spices in a cheesecake.


In another life, I daydreamed about being a chef. We lived just up the hill from a handful of well-known restaurants, among them Chez Panisse, and I loved the performance and pageantry that went with fine dining. On a winter’s night, just as dusk was falling, the restaurants would light up. I fell in love with the scenography of it–the glow pooling on the sidewalk, the hands polishing silverware, the rotating cast that shuffled in each night. I was at an age where I did not, yet, understand the labor that went into that art. And hadn’t fully grasped, not yet, the meaning of “service.” What I saw was a nightly performance, a dance between players. It seemed a thing of fragile wonder.

As it turns out, I didn’t become a chef. And I was wrong about so many things. But I was right about one thing: those moments when it all comes together–the food, the setting, the people–are things of fragile wonder. They are the stuff of dreams and memories. Together, they form the substance of our lives. I may never “know” the authors of these two cookbooks, in the sense that we might never share a meal, or a drink, or sit on a bench together, but through their writing, I’ve come to know them–enter their homes, their lives, understood a little of their selves and their art. They’ve invited me to dance, and as I cook from their books, I take up that invitation. We dance, and they become familiar friends in my home, part of a long, improvised performance of meals and companionship that will continue, at least until the music stops. 

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