Mercury News


Authentic Korean recipes require effort but pay off in flavorBy Lydia Itoi
Mercury News

Anyone who begins a cookbook with a recipe for a year’s supply of soy sauce is a home cook to be taken seriously.

Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, an award-winning novelist in her native Korea, does not expect many people will attempt home fermentation. However, almost as an anthropological exercise to preserve her remarkable personal heritage of a traditional Korea now almost extinct, she offers her family’s recipe, which is poetic, if vague:

Stir together 10 gallons of water and 3/4 bushel sea salt and let it settle for a few days. Place live hardwood charcoal in a large clay vat, pour in grain syrup, then add meju soybean paste, the strained brine, jujubes (small date-like fruits) and dried hot peppers. Test the saltiness by the bounce of an egg or a bean. Keep it outside for two months, covering it when it rains. Strain out the fermented bean paste (which becomes another important staple, toenjang), then reduce the liquid by boiling. Let it age to dark mellowness in a ceramic jar.

Fortunately, the vast majority of recipes in this meticulously written book can be made with significantly less time and trouble. Almost all take less than an hour to prepare, many as little as 20 minutes, including the best Korean barbecue I have ever experienced. And the recipes work beautifully with commercial soy sauce.

But even in the simplest dishes, the ingredients are handled with the utmost refinement, reflecting Hepinstall’s upbringing in an upper-class household and her respect for the culinary process. Busy home cooks lacking a staff might look for shortcuts, but the extra trouble does pay dividends. The many components for chapch’ae (sweet potato noodles with meat and mixed vegetables), for instance, are individually seasoned and cooked separately, then arranged on top of noodles with painterly attention to the play of colors before being tossed together at the last minute.

To ensure crystalline stock without off-flavors, meats are soaked in ice water for an hour before simmering. Her milky chicken stock is much quicker than its long-simmered Escoffier cousin, but using a whole chicken gives it unsurpassed body and flavor. With this rich stock in hand, sigumch’iguk (spinach and clam soup) was a snap to make. Sophistication does not get any simpler, especially since the soup can be made with the water from washing rice instead of chicken stock.

Fiery cabbage dish

The chapter on kimchi and changatchi (pickles) is particularly noteworthy. I chose the t’ong paech’u kimchi, the intricate pickled cabbage considered worthy of the author’s father, grandmother and “precious houseguests.” The halved cabbage heads are left intact and stuffed with a fiery paste of radishes, chiles, nuts and green onions. They are then left to ferment at room temperature for three days.

I was afraid to use the full cup of hot red pepper powder and the raw oysters called for, but in spite of my timidity, the results were far superior to any commercial brand I have tried. The recipe yielded about 6 quarts, three of which we consumed within three days. (A technical note: Be careful when opening a sealed jar of kimchi. The sudden release of gases pent up from the fermentation process can lead to a small chile-laced eruption, not at all pleasant in the eyes.)

My week of cooking Hepinstall’s memories culminated in sinsonlo (celestial hot pot), a dish for very precious houseguests that is really a leftover tour de force. Into it went the barbecued beef and chicken, pan-fried fish fillets and beef liver, bean curd chorim and meatballs I had prepared earlier.

Placed in alternating layers in a chafing dish with vegetables and submerged at the last moment in simmering beef stock, these various dishes came together into a complex and intriguing whole, covered with a floating tapestry of yellow and white egg ribbons shot through with bright threads of dried red pepper.

Experts in the aisles

If I encountered any problems, it was in the store, not the kitchen. I have studied a year’s worth of college-level Korean, enough to make out labels at least, but I was still bewildered by the staggering variety of unfamiliar ingredients in the Korean markets lining El Camino Real at Lawrence Expressway. Some of the products were not labeled at all. A few shoppers took pity on me as I wandered the aisles, clutching my cookbook. Several kind women helped me find what I was looking for, then tried to persuade me to ignore the printed recipe and make it their way instead, reciting their own recipes in great detail.

Hepinstall liberally seasons her cookbook with memories of growing up in her aristocratic grandmother’s household near Ch’onju in the 1940s. Family meals were a social study: Different meals, with different dinnerware and quality of food, were served to each segment of the family. Grandmother was served first in her quarters, then the father and his guests received individual meal trays in his freestanding house in the compound, then two-person trays were taken to the boys’ room, while the mother and girls served and ate together in the women’s quarters. Servants ate last and most humbly. Recipe notes describe which dishes were considered appropriate for which groups.

By revealing these personal stories and recipes, Hepinstall breaches family etiquette and risks the displeasure of her very particular ancestors. But given the few volumes of high-quality Korean cookbooks in English, I am grateful that she did.



By Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall

Ten Speed Press, 254 pp., $29.95

Lydia Itoi is a freelance writer in San Carlos. Contact her at