An acclaimed chef travels to Korea to discover his roots and the rich palette of a cuisine you might think you know.
In 2008, after working for 20 years at Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, chef Russell Moore, with his wife, Allison Hopelain, opened Camino in Oakland. Moore gained immediate acclaim for his personal take on California cuisine, his commitment to local ingredients, and, most of all, his use of fire—cooking in a nine-foot-wide wood-burning fireplace. Not evident on Camino’s menu was the fact that Moore, who grew up in Southern California, is half Korean. Indeed, even though he developed a curiosity about and a passion for Korean food, he had never been to his grandmother’s homeland—until AFAR sent him and Hopelain to Seoul, the capital city, and Gwangju, the southern culinary hub, to examine his cultural heritage through the lens of Korea’s markets, restaurants, and artisans.
“My mom was born in Hawaii in a Korean-speaking household. Her mother was a postcard bride, and my mom never wanted to play the traditional role of the Korean woman. She didn’t want to learn to cook—and she’s not a very good cook. Growing up we ate a mishmash of Hawaiian-style Asian food, which sounds terribly derogatory, but it really was like the sloppy version of teriyaki, the sloppy version of soba, an abbreviated version of Korean food. We did have kimchi, which my father, who was white, never ate. And my mom made horrible, horrible white people food.
At a certain point, I got really into Korean food, and I became much more versed in it than my mom. When I started making kimchi, mine was a thousand times better than hers, and she was happy about that. She always said, ‘I’m responsible for you becoming a cook because I cooked so badly that you had to learn.’
My Korean friends say, ‘In Korea when you want a certain dish, you go to the street that has it. If it’s bindaetteok pancakes, you go to this particular area, and the restaurants make only bindaetteok. If you want bossam, there’s an entire bossam alley.’
I wanted to see that and see what it’s really like in the homeland. How spicy is the food? Is the banchan very elaborate? Is it much better than what we have here?”
Wiggling Octopus? OK. Sea Squirts? Not So Much
“Our first meal in Seoul was in a bossam alley, where every shop serves the same thing. If one place is full, you just go to the next. The table was dirty and sticky, but those kinds of things don’t necessarily indicate whether the food is going to be good or not. The pork belly was delicious, the kimchi was great, and we drank a lot of soju.
The next day we ate in the Noryangjin fish market. You basically go through and pick out some fish and then take it to the back wall, where there are all these little restaurants. You hand them the fish, and they help you figure out what you want done to it and cook it up for you. Everyone is hounding you, come, bring your food over here.
We went with a woman who prepared the fish a couple of ways—including live, which I didn’t want to eat. Through some sort of broken communication, we could tell she was saying, do you want this one raw? We were trying to ask, well, what’s the best way to have this? I don’t have that bro thing where I want to eat live fish that’s still wiggling.
However, we bought some little octopus, sannakji, which were everywhere, and when they serve them to you, they’re still moving around. And what? I wasn’t going to eat them? On the plate, a tentacle would stretch out and shrink and then stretch out and shrink, and you’d just pick it up and eat it. You dip them in sesame oil so they don’t stick to your throat, because the little suction cups are still active. It was really tasty. We also had a sea squirt, which is like a sea cucumber, and that was gross. Later, I read chef Roy Choi’s thoughts on sea squirts and thought, OK, I shouldn’t have eaten that raw.
After two nights in Seoul, we took the train south to Gwangju. It felt like the country—they don’t get tourists from the United States. There were signs everywhere advertising a kimchi festival. When we found it, there were what seemed like thousands of booths, all serving kimchi. There were only about eight ingredients but prepared 800 different ways. It was intense. After a while, you were thinking, the clam kimchi over there was pretty good, but, I don’t know, the clam one here’s pretty good, too. The fun part was that there were all these grandmothers out there rubbing chilies on kimchi and wrapping it up and serving it. It did feel touristy, but for Korean tourists.”
“We had one fancy meal in Gwangju. We wanted to try hanjeongsik, a traditional, ceremonial kind of feast, so we went to Myeong Seon Heon. The woman who ran it was a well-known Korean chef, but I don’t think you get at the heart of a city by eating at the fanciest restaurants. Outside of Gwangju, in Damyang, there’s a bamboo forest and a bamboo museum. We had lunch at Deokinkwan Restaurant, famous for its bamboo dishes. There were a lot of vegetables, bamboo, rice cooked in a bamboo sauce with jujube, gingko nut, and pine nuts. The meal was clean and light. It felt like we were having Buddhist food, simple like a monk would eat—in a great way.
The one meaty thing we had there was tteokgalbi, which was revelatory. It was short ribs, opened up, the bone removed, and the meat chopped by hand. Then they stuck the bone back in, so it was like a little hamburger kebob. When you first see it, you think, is it really a short rib? But there’s the bone right there. I think Koreans really want to chew on the bone. Korean barbecue is not my favorite thing in the world, but that was delicious and different, and we had never seen it done that way.”
A Serious Pickle
“The best experience on the trip was an inadvertent visit to the sauce master in Changpyeong, Damyang. The man whose house we were staying in ended up being our guide because we had no other transportation. He was taking us to lunch, but on the way he took us by Kisoondo Traditional Foods, where this woman, Soon Do Ki, with her whole family helping her out, makes soy sauce, gochujang, and doenjang. She had chilies and soybeans fermenting together in big crocks outside. When we got there, she was washing barley for a barley honey. She was horrified that we saw her like that and went inside and put on her “real” clothes. She served us different kimchis she had made, and we had a tasting of new soy sauce, year-old soy sauce, and then really, really old soy sauce. It was so different from Japanese or Chinese soy sauce. The gochujang was aged and had this earthy, funky depth—I brought some back for the Camino kitchen, and we use it at staff meals. She also served us a pickle, just in soy sauce. It had been buried outside for over a year. She went out and got a piece of it and cut it very small. Her son was looking at us like, don’t fuck around, you’re about to receive something good. It was incredible, with subtle, deep flavor. It blew us all away.”
“We had heard that Jeonju, about 50 miles north of Gwangju, was the birthplace of bibimbap. During the trip, we’d been having a hard time communicating with cab-drivers. Travel is so easy now—you can look on your computers and smartphones, and in many parts of the world everyone speaks English—but it’s not like that in Korea, which is awesome. We got into a cab with a driver who spoke no English, but when we said ‘Jeonju,’ he immediately looked up and said ‘Bibimbap?’ After he dropped us off in town, deciding which place to have bibimbap was a challenge. The one we randomly chose had this Soviet Union–era look to it. It felt desolate and quiet and made us think, is this really the right restaurant? But we sat down, and they kicked into gear and put plate after plate of stuff in front of us.
There were some mountain vegetables I didn’t recognize: rooty-, weedy-tasting things. They could have been foraged or cultivated. The herbs were especially good—that’s something I’m going to experiment with more in our restaurant. Even the bean sprouts had flavor. And the gochujang was good. I don’t eat much bibimbap at home. It’s just not very exciting. I think maybe it’s because of the imported gochujang, which can be sweet and cloying. This was a completely satisfying meal, by far the best bibimbap we’ve ever had. We left thinking, OK, that was the right choice.”
“Back in Seoul, we went looking for bindaetteok in the giant Gwangjang market in Seoul. Every street has a specialty—hardware, clothing, whatever. We went around this corner, and all of sudden, it was like a city block of pancakes. There were these big carousel-like machines grinding the mung beans, making it kind of dusty and smoky. People were bustling around grabbing seats in front of these little pancake places. It was chaos. We found a place that had a big line leading to it, and we thought, this is the one. We had a round of pancakes and drank makgeolli. That’s what everyone else was doing. Makgeolli and pancakes: it was weird meal. It’s hard to describe what was great about the pancakes. They weren’t spongy or heavy. Some had scallions in them, some didn’t. The funny part is, we were just about done with our pancakes and we thought, wow, that was really a great find! Then we got up to walk away and we saw a bigger line. We were a little bit tipsy and said, let’s do it again! And we did.”
Photos by Andrew Rowat
This appeared in the May 2015 issue.