ASIANCE: How did you become interested in cooking and what brought you to the United States?
Hi Soo Shin: I married an American. I fell in love with him when I was a senior in college in Korea and after we got married, we moved to Seattle so he could complete his graduate studies in Asian politics. Later, he joined the University of Maryland as a teacher and I traveled with him through the university’s overseas program. We spent 25 years in Europe and Asia. Throughout that time, we hosted a number of parties for faculty members. So, I ended up cooking Korean food for them and everyone raved about the food and my cooking. They often asked for recipes but I didn’t have any written recipes and there was no Korean cookbook to recommend. I decided to write a book on authentic traditional Korean cuisine. In 1973, I began my research by taking a course at the Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. This course helped me to understand the art and culture of cooking.
Love and respect to our ancestors for the highly sophisticated culinary heritage they handed down by word of mouth.
ASIANCE: How did your family background influence you?
Hi Soo Shin: I was born to a huge traditional Korean family. I was one of 12 children and we had more than 20 people eating daily meals in the house! Our kitchen and dining room always felt like a small sized restaurant to me! I had to help my mother and grandma in the kitchen. I hated cooking then. I always tried to run away from the kitchen but my mom made sure I did my share of cooking. Later when I started to write my Korean cookbook, I tried to put together all the recipes that I had learned when I was a little girl.
ASIANCE: We have heard about your award-winning Korean novel which was made into a popular movie. How did you end up writing a cookbook after this huge success as a novelist?
Hi Soo Shin: My interest in novel writing has never wavered. When I realized Korean cuisine was not well known in the West, and that Korean cuisine was in danger of losing its culinary identity, I decided to postpone a planned historical novel and write a Korean cookbook instead. I recently finished a yet unpublished novel about the Korean immigrant experience in Seattle.
ASIANCE: Can you tell us a bit about your well acclaimed cookbook “Growing up in a Korean Kitchen”? What was the most difficult part for you while writing this cook book?
Hi Soo Shin: It is a work of love and respect to our ancestors for the highly sophisticated culinary heritage they handed down by word of mouth. I wrote about traditional Korean cuisine, the way it was when I was a girl in the 1930’s and 40’s–the food of my grandmother who was born in the 1880’s. The most difficult part of writing the book was that these traditional recipes didn’t have specific measurements – everything was a pinch of this, a bundle of that, etc. I had to experiment with each dish to figure out its precise amount. I ended up experimenting at least 5 times for each recipe- it was more of a “trial and error” method for me. It was a lot of work and it took me twenty years to finally be able to come out with the book. But, I did have a lot of fun experimenting which definitely kept me going!
ASIANCE: In “Growing up in a Korean Kitchen” you mentioned that the recipes are an influence of Korean royal cuisine. Can you expand on this a bit more?
Hi Soo Shin: As I say in my book, my family clan was a Yangban or what you would call an aristocratic family. Since Korean family law forbade marriage within the same clan, throughout Korean history, the royal and upper-class clans were in charge of the royal kitchen and its cuisine was mostly of their own creation. Yangban family recipes, especially in our province close to Seoul, naturally had a flair and refinement comparable to those of royal cuisine, but with more variety.
ASIANCE: How would you define Korean cuisine and what makes it different from other Asian cuisines?
Hi Soo Shin: When asked, what is unique about Korean food, I first point out that Korean dishes often combine fresh vegetables, meat, fish or seafood with naturally fermented ingredients, sauces, pastes and pickled ingredients. The intriguing and tasty flavor of Korean cuisine is the magical result of the intermingling of the two contrasting elements. There are four essential and unique fermented ingredients in Korean cuisine: kanjang (soy sauce), danjang (Korean fermented soybean paste), kochujang (Korean hot red pepper paste) and kimchi (pickled foods). They are the heart of the refined, yet stubborn character and temperament of Koreans and their cuisine, a part of their identity.
ASIANCE: What’s the difference between Korean food in the United States and Korean food in Korea? Have you noticed any change in Korean food in America?
Hi Soo Shin: Today the quality of ingredients available in America is rapidly improving. It is impossible, however, to expect the same quality of Korean ingredients here. The rich soil and climate in Korea is different. For example, Korean grown napa cabbage and radishes (mu) cannot be compared.
ASIANCE: What are some of the main ingredients used in Korean cooking?
Hi Soo Shin: Besides the sauces and pickled dishes mentioned above, Korean has three quintessential ingredients: green onions, garlic and hot peppers. Korean cuisine would be lost without them.
ASIANCE: Kimchi is a very well known Korean dish. What is the history of this very popular dish and what makes it so special?
Hi Soo Shin: The Korean kitchen used to make more than one hundred kinds of kimchi, using everything from cabbage to watermelon skin and even pumpkin blossoms in summer. Each family's kimchi had its own unique flavor, but the basic process is to salt the vegetable, firming it up by extracting its liquid, locking in the original flavor. A mixture of spices is then introduced and the vegetable is fermented, creating its distinctive character. The most important spices are fresh and powdered hot red peppers, which give the kimchi its biting zest and help seal in its freshness, and crushed garlic and green onions which enhance its flavor and help to sterilize it. Additional flavor-builders may include ginger, fruits, nuts, and seafood such as salted shrimp and anchovies, fresh oysters, pollack, yellow corvine, skate, live baby shrimp, or octopus and squid. You can have kimchi as an appetizer, a main course, a side dish for steak or as a complement with refreshments. It also has a remarkable nutritional value – it’s a great source of protein, vitamins A and B, and is low in calories.
ASIANCE: What is your all-time favorite dish?
Hi Soo Shin: I guess I don’t have a favorite dish. Whichever recipe I am developing, is my favorite. Any Korean soup takes my breath away.
ASIANCE: What's next for you?
Hi Soo Shin: I am completing a Kimchi Cookbook and, of course, I am very busy catering, consulting, giving lectures, demonstrations and developing recipes for such companies as H-Mart Corporation. And, of course, in my head, I continue working on my historical novel that I put on the back shelf.
** Can you recommend a must have kitchen utensil for aspiring Korean chefs?
A traditional carbon steel knife stone dishes for cooking bibimbap.
**What are your favorite Korean restaurants in the US?
Many of the Korean restaurants on 32nd street in New York City. Woo Lae Oak http://www.woolaeoak.com/ and Hee Been http://www.heebeen.com/ in the Washington area. I look forward to going to the Jin Ju Restaurant in Chicago.
**Which Korean grocery stores do you recommend in the US?
As I am a consultant and recipe developer for H-Mart, I am partial to them!
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