Korean cookbooks reviewed and rated

Books reviewed:

Koreatown A Cookbook – Deuki Hong & Matt Robbard

K Food – Da Hae and Gareth West

Korean Food Made Simple – Judy Joo

Our Korean Kitchen Rejina Po and Jordan Bourke

Whilst Korean culture has become very popular internationally in the form of music and film – although mostly in Asian countries – its cuisine has come into focus too, so that there have been four Korean cook books published in the last year, all in their own way helping the amateur home cook (that’s you) learn to make dishes at home that you might normally order in restaurants.

Now, whilst most Korean dishes that you see in restaurants are either Jangs – hotspots cooked in a fish or meat broth, or barbecue, these books wisely look at foods which anyone can make, even if you don’t own your own table-top barbecue.

The first book I chose was Koreatown. The minute I opened this book, I fell in love with the recipes. I already knew that I loved Korean food, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to cook it. The book did two things very well: it showed me how to cook the food that I already knew I liked, and it taught me  to cook and to love food I had never tried. I already loved eating Ssamgyeopsal, (pork belly) but I had never tried Kongbijji Jjigae, a soup made from Ground soybean soup. Then when I made the followed the recipe, I knew how to make it straight away and I made it again and again. I believe most classic recipes should only have five or six ingredients, as this one does.

I  have worked my way through the first half of the book, cooking everything from Kimchi Jeon to Yukheojang, but I haven’t looked at anything from the second half. That’s because they are not strictly speaking Korean recipes, but Korean fusion, the likes of which don’t appeal to me as much as pure Korean recipes.

A good cookbook needs to have more going for it then good recipes, which this book understands very well. The ingredient list is carefully laid out in bold at the side of the page, and each recipe has a photo of the food as it will look like when you have finished it. I will say that the tone of this book is really funny too and the writers talk to the reader as though you are a close my friend.

Is it my favourite Korean cookbook? Probably. But I need to review the other books on the market, if only for completion’s sake.

Judy Joo is the only Korean chef to have published a Korean cookbook in the UK and it’s her  Korean Food Made Simple that I will turn to now. Judy Joo is often billed as a celebrity chef, which I’m not sure is actually true. Besides, she has in fact only opened one restaurant in London which, has had mixed reviews. The book claims to have ‘easy and delicious Korean recipes to prepare at home’ on the cover.

I’m not concerned about the ease of recipes. I just want to make something really delicous. Here is a sample recipe: Frisee, Persimmon, Pomegranate and feta salad. Aside from the fact that the recipes contains ingredients that are expensive and hard to find, it really doesn’t sound very Korean.You can’t flick through this book casually either. Each recipe has a big block of text, whereas Koreatown gives the reader simple numbered instructions which begin with a command (Soak/Mix/Stir) to get you cooking straight away.

Other recipes are not Korean at all, which just adds unnecessary pages. There’s a cheesecake, hanger steak and a recipe for granita. I couldn’t resist making the ‘Korean chocolate Brownies’ and they were great; Joo adds a sachet of Korean coffee powder to the mix. Sadly, I have a feeling that this is a book which will gather dust on my bookshelf very quickly.

Also recently published is K Food, Korean home cooking and street food.  From the title, to the design, everything just feels wrong about the book. The authors Da-Hae and Gareth West run Busan BBQ, a pop-up stall at Dalston Yard, so they know a bit about cooking, but are they qualified to write a cookbook? I know that Korea has many famous markets where you can buy hot food (Tteokbokkee, for example) but I don’t want to make it at home. Sample recipe: Gamja Hotdog; hardly what you’d want to rustle up at home. There’s also an attempt to put bulgogi in a burger which seems particularly egregious. As for the design, I can see what they were trying to do, but by using a fast-food style wrapper for the background, it draws attention away from the recipes.

Finally, Jordan Bourke and Rejjina Po. The book has won an Observer food monthly award for best cookbook. Now, I confess I didn’t want to read this book. My jealousy of the guy being married to a beautiful woman meant that I didn’t want to give it any more attention. the guy’s got enough success already. There are some photos of the two of them in their home, and others of street markets in Korea, close-up shots of persimmons, dried squid etc.

I found recipes here that weren’t in the other books. For example, 잣박선, a pine-nut bar that is very easy to make and delicious. Also, as though to prove that there is no such thing as an authentic recipe,  the ingredients in many Korean dishes are different. Take Kimchi Jiggae. Here, they add honey to the pot, and it adds a pleasant sweetness to the heat.

So which one should you buy? There’s really no need to buy all four. If you want the classic recipes explained in a very fun, light-hearted way, go for Koreatown. Our Korean Kitchen is a very pretty book but the pictures don’t always show Korean food as it really is. The standout recipe is from Koreatown, which is Kalbi Jiim. I made it and I made it again. And I’m still dreaming about eating it again.

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