Food Writer Eric Kim Is Redefining What It Means to Be Korean American

The “New York Times” columnist is on a mission to create his own interpretation of Korean American cuisine—and to make it delicious while he’s at it.

Eric Kim Kimchi Fried Rice

Food writer Eric Kim is on a quest to demonstrate that there are many ways to be Korean American—through food.

Photo by Bobbi Lin for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Sue Li. Prop Stylist: Sophia Pappas.

→ Buy Now: $30, Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home

On any given day on Eric Kim’s Instagram account, his 150,000 faithful followers can watch the popular New York Times food writer and recipe developer at work: slicing, sautéing, and fermenting away on his stainless steel countertop in his Manhattan apartment’s kitchen. He meticulously—and artfully—documents all of his cooking processes for his viewers, like how to prepare white kimchi with kale and beets or re-create the perfect bowl of pasta al pomodoro that he had on a vacation in Lake Como. There is a common thread that unites his recipes: They’re delightfully unfussy.

“One time I got a message from someone saying, ‘I wish your recipes were harder,’” he quips in his Easy Cookies-and-Cream Pavlova video. “I was like, ‘things no one says.’”

When Kim calls on a Monday afternoon, he’s taking a break in between meetings at the New York Times where he creates recipes and writes a monthly column. Because of his role at the country’s preeminent daily newspaper, Kim is arguably one of the most visible Asian Americans working in food media. Kim has worked there full time for nearly a year now after writing his first piece for the paper in 2020. Before that, he served as a digital manager at the Food Network and a senior editor at Food 52; his work has also appeared in Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and the Washington Post. During his brief but busy year at the New York Times, he released a collection of Korean essential recipes (Kim says that if he “could have only 10 Korean dishes for the rest of my life, these would be the ones”) and his first book Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home.

Eric Kim

In March 2022, Kim released his first cookbook Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home.

Photo by Jenny Huang

Though he does publish recipes of American favorites like spinach lasagna casserole and chicken soup, he’s probably best known for his focus on Korean dishes, whether it be exploring the legacy of the Korean War and its effect on the county’s cuisine through budae jjigae (army stew) or demystifying the process of making kimchi. Through his work, Kim is creating an oeuvre that is distinctly his—and very Korean American. Kim was born and raised in Atlanta, which he feels gave him a unique perspective on what Korean American cuisine is.

“It’s its own special thing,” Kim says. “That’s sort of the thesis of my book, to prove that there are so many different ways to cook Korean food, and you can’t deny that any of those ways are historically accurate. There are certain foods and food traditions that happen out of [diasporic] experiences.”

Kim has his dream job now, he says, but it wasn’t exactly what he first set out to do—he actually spent years in academia studying to become a professor. After a failed dissertation defense at Columbia in 2015—English Literature, in case you were curious—he decided it was time to try something different. “I was so depressed because I’d wanted to be a professor since 10th grade,” Kim says. “But I dropped out and I started at the Food Network in 2015, where I had an entry-level job inputting data for recipes. I had no idea there was this whole world where people were writing award-winning food journalism.”

In 2018, Kim landed his first stint as a food writer at Food52, owning the column “Table for One,” which celebrated the joy of meals made for just one person, everything from Passover during lockdown to the finer points of dining solo. “I consider that column my practice food writing,” he says. “I think writing is always practice. I feel myself getting better with each piece and that’s really exciting.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to move back home to his parent’s Atlanta home to write his cookbook (which was released in March 2022). Being at home with his family while testing recipes helped him develop a deeper appreciation for his unique upbringing. “I realized how much I’d taken for granted what a Korean American place I’d lived in. Even though I did feel very much like an outsider—I was a gay Korean Catholic in the South—I recently learned when I was writing my Korean essentials package that Korean is actually the third most common language spoken in Georgia.”

In his book, readers can find homey Korean recipes like Doenjang Jjiggae with Silken Tofu and Raw Zucchini (Kim notes that his version of this classic Korean dish, made with fermented soybean paste, isn’t exactly traditional but is rich and filling), as well as “TV Dinner” recipes (quick dishes made for eating on a couch) like Maple-Candied Spam, which involves baking the beloved pork product with maple syrup until it’s crisp and caramelized.

Eric Kim Samgyeopsal

Kim grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, in a tight-knit Korean American community.

Photo by Bobbi Lin for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Sue Li. Prop Stylist: Sophia Pappas.

One of Kim’s personal favorites from his book is his Weeknight Curry Rice with Eggplant, Spinach, and Lotus Root, which he threw together on a whim in his NYC kitchen when he wanted something uncomplicated and quick to eat. He later cooked the dish for his family—it was a major hit, and they insisted he put it in his book, even though he wasn’t planning on it. “It’s just a really comforting and filling dish and it makes me think of my family,” he says.

After Korean American was released, Kim received criticism from Korean readers who commented that his recipes weren’t “authentic” enough. However, he’s quick to push back on the idea of an “authentic” Korean recipe for any dish. “There’s a huge responsibility with writing about Korean food for the New York Times,” he says. “But when you call something inauthentic, what you’re actually saying is that person’s existence is null and doesn’t matter. To me, the more Koreans write about Korean food, the more we can expand our definition of what the cuisine is.”

That’s what Kim hopes to accomplish with his recipes and writing—to introduce people to new perspectives in an ultimately delicious (and hopefully unintimidating) way. “I’ve always felt that writing had so much power beyond just being pretty,” Kim says. “It can be very political and it can change people’s minds. Then when there’s a recipe at the end of it—that’s how you can really invite someone into your experience.”

Mae Hamilton is an assistant editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
More From AFAR