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It’s still hard for me to believe that Korean food is the next hot cuisine. It’s like finding out that the singer you always loved, the one who never made it really big, is suddenly on America’s Top 40. As I wrote here in the Christian Science Monitor, I’m crazy about Korean food, but it’s the one cuisine that has been too esoteric for nearly all my friends and relatives to join in. They’ve dubbed it too spicy, too aggressive, too unusual.

Breaking through that logjam of fascination and fear is writer/artist Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, who’s coming to town this week on tour for her new book, Quick and Easy Korean Cooking.  The book, chosen for Gourmet’s cookbook club, lives up to its name, and could legitimately have tagged a “delicious” on the title too. But even Lee’s previous book,  the autobiographical Eating Korean, made it clear that it was possible to get authentic and thoroughly satisfying Korean food on the table without a tremendous investment of time.

On the phone before her Northwest trip, I asked Lee if she’s been getting bigger crowds for her book signings, now that Korean is considered hot instead of esoteric. She doesn’t know yet — she’s starting the tour here. But she is glad to hear people saying, finally, “Oh, Korean food. We all love it. It’s like it’s been around forever.”

Look for Lee at book signings and cooking demos around town (schedule below). Here are also some highlights from our conversation, and a recipe for her spicy buckwheat noodles, which are fast becoming a summertime staple in our home.

On whether she adjusts recipes for American palates: Never. “I just make it taste good for me.” If readers want to then adjust the recipes to their own tastes, “that’s the joy of cooking, I think.”

On why people find the idea of cooking Korean food intimidating: Lee thinks it’s partly that they’ve mainly seen it in restaurants, where they might be eating Korean barbecue on a built-in tabletop grill, the table is loaded with banchan, and “you feel like it’s going to take forever to make all these dishes.” Then, there are the stories of “the whole myth of kimchi and how you bury it in the snow for three months in the wintertime.” (Not necessary if you have modern refrigeration.) 

“I grew up eating and making Korean food. I thought, ‘Doesn’t everyone put dinner on the table in 20 minutes? Then I realized, no, they don’t.”

On her most recent non-cookbook project, the first Frommer’s guidebook to South Korea: “That was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was like writing an encyclopedia all by yourself.” As a Korean author, she said, she felt a particular obligation to “get it right,” to tell the story of the culture with an insider’s view. She had just seven months for the project, “driving around like a crazy person” through South Korea with the help of an aunt. She wishes there had been more room in the book for her maps, a more-than-usual necessity when writing about a country where little is numbered or labeled in a way that’s logical for Westerners.

On researching her cookbooks: The first book, a lot of it was from my own family (recipes), and I did some research for it…to make sure I got regional favorites in. For this book, it was adapting recipes, to make it quick and easy, to just be able to put them on the table after work. It really was paring it down and paring it down without losing the flavors. I did test all the recipes with a timer!” A few she initially thought about including didn’t make the cut after those recipe tests.  She realized, “This isn’t going to happen. This isn’t quick and easy to do.”

On her next project: Another book in the same line at Chronicle Books, “Quick & Easy Mexican.” Huh? “My parents had a Mexican grocery store when I was growing up.” Unlike Korean cooking, which she absorbed from childhood, “Mexican food was the first thing I learned how to cook consciously.”

On whether I should feel guilty for using a rice cooker: Absolutely not. Why should I, when most Asian families rely on them? “I still have my parents rice cooker from the ’70s. That was the first thing we bought when we moved to America. It has horrible, big, giant flowers on the side of it.”

Lee’s Seattle-area appearances include:

A book signing and food sampling at 6:30 p.m. Friday (July 10) at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

A talk and slide show at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (July 14) at The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

A cooking class at 6 p.m. Wednesday (July 15) at J. Matheson Kitchen & Gourmet in Everett (an earlier cooking class, on July 11, is sold out). Cost: $27.50, call the store at 425-258-4589 to register.


Spicy Buckwheat Noodles (bibim nengmyeon)

Makes 4 servings

2 pounds Korean buckwheat noodles (note: I’ve been making the recipe with 1 pound of noodles, which seems to provide plenty)

1 small pickling cucumber, grated

2 large eggs, hard-boiled, peeled, and halved

Vinegar Chile Sauce (below)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook the dried noodles for 3-5 minutes, or the frozen or refrigerated noodles for 2 minutes, taking care not to overcook them. Rinse under cold water and drain.

Divide the noodles equally among 4 bowls. Top each bowl with some cucumber and half of a hard-boiled egg. Serve with Vinegar Chile Sauce, letting each person add as much or as little of it as they would like and mixing as they eat.

Variations: If you want to add a bit of sliced beef on top of each bowl of noodles, feel free to do so. (Note: We tried it with Kye’s bulgoki, which turned it into a company dish.) To make it fancy, you can also top the dish with slices of Asian pear.


Vinegar Chile Sauce

Makes about 4 servings

4 tablespoons Korean chili paste (Note: Lee says that there is no real substitute for the paste, gochujang. The first time we made the recipe, though, we didn’t have any in the house, and I can testify that the same recipe tastes quite good substituting sambal oelek. I don’t imagine you would go too wrong with any spicy chile sauce.)

4 tablespoons white cider or rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. It will keep in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

– From “Quick & Easy Korean Cooking”

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