Why Eric Kim Can’t Talk About His New Cookbook Without Crying
Recipes like gochugaru shrimp and grits honor traditions from Korea and the American South.
Eric Kim can’t stop crying when talking about his cookbook, Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home. “I got a media training pamphlet that I forgot to look at, so in the first three interviews I’m just stumbling through,” he laughs. “I can’t help the crying—it just means so much to me, all of this, you know?” Even in our conversation, Kim’s voice occasionally wavers. His trusted companion, a scruffy dog named Quentin Compson, is by his side throughout—a quiet yet encouraging cheerleader who occasionally graces the pages of Kim’s book.
But Korean American prominently features another cheerleader. His debut cookbook, which comes out March 29, doubles as a memoir and touching tribute to his mom, Jean—who Kim lived with during a year of recipe testing at the beginning of the pandemic. The book includes snippets of his childhood growing up in Atlanta, cherished Thanksgiving traditions, the tension between parent and child, and what it means to be Korean, American, and a blend of the two.
Where Kim is sentimental and affected, Jean is pragmatic and unphased. The pair, however, are both fiery in the kitchen, with their own approaches to creating recipes. Kim is not new to food writing and recipe development. As a current New York Times cooking writer, with a collection of bylines that range from Bon Appetit to Saveur to Food52, Kim’s very livelihood depends on the words he pens and the thoughtfully developed recipes that follow. But Jean has been cooking Korean food all her life—and mothers know best.
“There was more of that tension in the beginning and it’s kind of a fun joke—the mom who has been cooking Korean food forever versus the ungrateful, spoiled son who also has a career in food,” Kim jokes. “It ended up being this incredible pairing and just a very clear example of Korean American. If people think about what Korean American means, I see a graphic where Korean is the Jean part and American is the Eric part.”
Jean didn’t just help with drafting the dozens of recipes that span across the 288 pages of Korean American. She also helped when it came time for Kim to sit down and write. “Part of my journey as a writer has been how to curb the very sentimental approach that I view the world, which is always crying while looking at it,” he explains. Jean’s perspective is steadying.
Although the cookbook is titled Korean American, Kim was adamant that the resulting recipes—and the stories woven throughout—embodied what he actually grew up eating in Atlanta. “Our partnership produced really interesting recipes that are rooted in experiences that are true to our lives as very specific, idiosyncratic Korean immigrants in Atlanta,” he says. “It matters where you come from—we are never just individuals divorced from our context.”
Yes, there’s an entire section devoted to kimchi—which Kim acknowledges is the most important recipe in the cookbook. There’s ganjang gejang (salty raw crabs marinated in soy sauce) and budae jjigae (a bubbling creation of the Korean war that is snuggly blanketed in a sheet of American cheese).
But there’s also cheeseburger kimbap, an invention of 13-year-old Kim, a section devoted to a sacred Korean bakery in Atlanta that specializes in plush loaves of milk bread (at one point during our interview, Kim gets up to place his own variation of milk bread in the oven), and gochugaru shrimp with roasted seaweed grits—a quintessential recipe that combines both Kim’s Korean and Southern identity. “I want people to know how unabated any of this is,” Kim says. “You can’t make up these combinations.”
Kim grew up with a peach tree in his front yard, something he quips sounds fake but is just another layer of his childhood spent in Georgia. Grits, of course, were a staple grain in his household. “I think I learned to make grits before rice,” he laughs. The shrimp and grits recipe felt like a natural progression. “It was one of the first recipes I developed for the book and gave me an anchor for what kinds of food would be in the book.”
The shrimp starts with a marinade similar to the beginnings of maeuntang, a vibrantly red Korean fish stew. The aroma of gochugaru is bloomed in melted butter, with a generous amount of chopped garlic and pungent dashes of fish sauce to tame the heat. The grits function as foil to the fiery shrimp. Kim was inspired by Korean juk, a rice porridge that he describes as “comfortingly bland.” The addition of crushed seaweed and sesame oil makes for a nuttier and brinier version of grits—the perfect pairing to the intensity of the shrimp. It’s a delicious labor of love held together by the intersecting pieces that make Kim who he is.
“Throughout this cookbook, I’m really proud of these moments—because it’s so arduous to go through every little influence,” he explains. “But I realized while writing the book, I discovered very Atlanta Korean things. No one else has it, and I felt that I had a lot of agency to write about it because they are my life.”
The subtitle of Korean American is “food that tastes like home.” This sentiment was Kim’s north star as he ideated, tested, and wrote the book—a feeling he chased that he wants to share with his readers. The final product is not intended to be a purely Korean cookbook, or even a Korean American cookbook for that matter.
“It is a story about a mother and a son and this notion of stability and instability in regards to place,” Kim says. “We have stories that are based in place, so home is the perfect word for that.”