The movers would bring our furniture, but we brought the kimchi. Our priorities were in order. We carried in at least thirty-five Tupperware containers of triple-Saran-wrapped soy-dried beef, radish water kimchi, spicy fish intestine, preserved eggs, cucumber kimchi, oyster cabbage kimchi, scallion sounds paste, dried squid, skate panchan, and pickled garlic to bless our brand-new home, our brand-new neighborhood.
Roy Choi is best known for his Kogi gourmet food truck in LA, and he’s now running several restaurants and even inspired a movie, Chef starring Jon Favreau (also the producer and director), which if you haven’t yet seen, I would highly recommend! Just don’t watch it hungry!!
[Photo: Merrick Morton/Open Road Films]
LA Son is Choi’s story. It takes us from the streets of Koreatown to Orange County to Seoul, Korea, even to New York City. Then back to SoCal and its casinos, where bowl after bowl of pho were consumed by the Vietnamese gamblers, and where he loses himself, and later, his money. Then to the Culinary Institute of America where he hones his skills. Choi takes up jobs around California, working for hotels and resorts and even a country club. His stint at Southeast Asian-inspired Rock Sugar brings his palate an even wider variety of tastes. The executive chef of Rock Sugar is from Singapore, which explains Choi’s recipes of satay and Hainan chicken (which one seldom sees in books that are not about Singapore cooking) – some of my absolute favourite things about Singapore. I grew up on these foods. Marinated chicken chunks skewered and grilled over a charcoal fire, dipped in peanut sauce. I love the chunkier peanut sauces with more chopped peanuts in them. It was intense. All those flavours from the meat and the char and the spices and the peanut. And in contrast the simpler tastes of the Hainanese chicken rice. Tender yet juicy chicken meat and that ridiculously mouthwatering rice flavored with chicken juices and pandan and garlic and ginger. Best eaten with a sauce you mix together yourself, with chili sauce, soy sauce (dark and light) and minced ginger. All eaten in the heat and humidity of a hawker centre, food in the middle of the circular table, six stools bolted to the (sometimes wet and slippery) floor. Washed down with giant glass mugs of sugarcane juice or some other kind of freshly squeezed juice (I am partial to carrot-apple) topped with plenty of ice although it will never be able to keep up with the heat and hopelessly melt away.
Oh the things I would order: rojak (a kind of salad of turnips, crispy bean curd, pineapple, beansprouts, cucumbers, with a spicy sweet-salty dressing); fried carrot cake (made with raddish cake similar to that you find at dim sum, but fried with eggs and spring onions and pickled raddish and soy sauce); roti prata; wanton mee.
I am getting carried away! It has been over a year since I was last in Singapore and I am longing for all that food and feasting.
But that is a sign of a good book, in my, er, books! To cause one to reflect and reminisce about ones favourite foods from back home. To have these flavours and tastes floating around as ideas for adapting your own recipes. To take note of all the recipes that sound both tantalising AND, more importantly, doable by home cooks.
His cooking reflects the diverse cuisines he tried as a kid growing up in Los Angeles. His parents, working hard, first at their own restaurant, then when that failed, running a jewellery business, left Roy to figure things out himself after school. There are recipes that are inspired by European cuisines, Latin American cuisines, Mediterranean foods, and of course Asian and American-style dishes.
Choi’s recipes include:
Carne Asada, but true to his own style, it includes mirin.
“Kung Pao Chicken, Papi Style” – he blends oyster sauce, sambal oelek (an Indonesian/Malaysian condiment), fish sauce, Tapatio, rice vinegar, kochujang, Sriracha, lemongrass and so many more things in his sauce that it would take me too long to type it out. Needless to say, I am curious!
The Perfect Instant Ramen – it has butter, cheese and sesame seeds.
Of course there is also the stuff that’s closest to his heart, like kimchi and dumplings and braised short rib stew
One of the best things about his recipes is that he likes to experiment, and it feels like he wants the reader to do the same.
In a few of his recipes, he adds tips like “anything you got, man” when it comes to the vegetables for fried rice. Or how it’s ok to “just buy macaroni salad and kimchi from the store, that’s fine”. And I love how he appreciates that zen moment you get when washing rice, as the rice grains swish and swirl gently in the pot, as you use your fingers to whisk them around. That is one of my favourite things about preparing meals.
There were so many dishes that I marked, that I really ought to get my own copy of this book! But the one I knew I had to try was the Korean short-rib stew. I’ve always loved galbi (here’s a recipe), that Korean barbecued version of ribs. A little salty, a little sweet. So good. But I’ve never tried it in a stew, and it sounded so good. His marinade was that essential Korean mix of sweet, tangy and salty – blitzing ginger, garlic, onions, soy sauce, mirin, apple juice and sugar (I didn’t have orange juice so just used apple juice). I didn’t have chestnuts, taro or butternut squash so I tried my own mix of Napa cabbage, daikon and leeks. I had wanted to add the kabocha squash but forgot all about it. I did a half portion of slightly under two pounds of ribs, and because we had a late afternoon doctor’s appointment, threw it all in the slow cooker, and it turned out perfect. I served it with short-grain rice the first day, then ate it with instant ramen the next day, the stew gravy poured over the noodles, seasoning packet discarded. Even my visiting father-in-law, who tends to never say anything about food, volunteered a “not bad”.
It’s not pretty, but it was pretty darn good!
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