RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Korean food is built on bold flavors, spicy pickled vegetables, sweet, smoky meats and pungent, salty stews. That can be a little daunting for some American diners. The authors of a new book called Koreatown hope to change that. It's part cookbook and part travel guide, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you're curious about Korean food but you're maybe not quite sure what to order Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard have you covered. They spent two years eating in Koreatowns from Los Angeles to Atlanta to New York. Restaurants like Cho Dang Gol, a little place in Manhattan that specializes in soups and stews.
MATT RODBARD: I would like an order of galbijim.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Galbijim?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Spicy or?
RODBARD: Yes, please spicy.
ROSE: That's where we met for lunch. Rodbard is a food writer in Brooklyn. Hong is a young Korean-American chef who just opened his own restaurant in New York. We order galbijim, a short rib stew that's savory, sweet and spicy. Hong says this is Koreans cooking for Koreans.
DEUKI HONG: When we build restaurants it's for us. You know, it's like because we miss home flavors. We miss the motherland. It's not like, hey let's invite this critic in here or this media person. Not that we don't care about you guys or - it's just not our focus, you know? And yeah, we don't really care.
ROSE: That's great if you want Korean-Americans to eat at your restaurant. But it's not so good if you're trying to pull in large numbers of non-Korean diners too. Sometimes, Matt Rodbard says Korean restaurants put less effort into marketing than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts.
RODBARD: It's really a for us by us mentality at a lot of these restaurant. You walk in English is very limited, sometimes non-existent. The cuisine just has not caught up with Thai or Japanese or even regional Chinese.
ROSE: This is where Rodbard and Hong think their book can help. Along with recipes it features interviews, essays and original photos from Korean restaurants across the country. From the biggest Koreatown in Los Angeles, which is said by some to have better Korean food than Seoul, to America's fastest-growing K-town in Atlanta, to the most dense and competitive on 32nd Street in Manhattan.
HONG: You'll see a barbecue restaurant right next to a barbecue restaurant right across from a barbecue restaurant.
ROSE: Their cookbook covers Korean barbecue and other staples of the cuisine like kimchi and bibimbap. But Rodbard and Hong decided to focus more on soups and stews, what they call the heart of Korean cooking. Dishes like seoulleongtang, a beef bone broth that simmers for hours.
HONG: Super milky, creamy and you get some of that ox tail. And that's like what Koreans eat. It's not like a pretty, fancy or flashy dish that you, like, you know, introduced to your American friends.
ROSE: They tested recipes for seoulleongtang and dozens of other dishes at Hong's walk-up apartment in Manhattan.
HONG: Just cook it all in until it's like half - you don't want to cook it all the way.
ROSE: Hong demonstrates one of those recipes, a stew with brisket and clams. The key ingredient is doenjang, a fermented bean paste that's like a funkier cousin of Japanese miso. Exactly how much you add is a matter of personal taste. Matt Rodbard says there's a concept in Korean cooking called son mat, literally, taste by hand.
RODBARD: It's using your hands and using your taste to cook with. So it's difficult to someone who's put a number on a lot of his cooking.
ROSE: That made it hard when it was time to write down fixed amounts for the cookbook. In the end, Deuki Hong says they were steered by their taste buds.
HONG: We're always about what is it so special about this dish? It's that texture. It's that flavor. For a lot of those recipes, it started like this, like, kind of hey let's add this, let's add that. But we kept it super traditional.
ROSE: The result isn't a traditional cookbook exactly. But it might help you find your new favorite spot in Koreatown. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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