Emily Kim, aka the YouTube Korean-cooking star Maangchi, has more than 619,000 YouTube subscribers, more than Martha Stewart, Alton Brown, Ree Drummond and Ina Garten combined.
During the years that she was addicted to online gaming, life for Emily Kim began when she got home from work at 6 p.m.
“I would shower quick and eat something, no matter what, so I could start playing my game,” said Kim, aka the YouTube Korean-cooking star Maangchi. “And I wouldn’t stop till 3 a.m.”
In 2003, divorced and with her two grown children out of the house, Kim ventured into the online role-playing battle game “City of Heroes” and couldn’t pull herself away.
Maangchi, pronounced MAHNG-chee and meaning “hammer” in Korean, was the name of her online avatar, who specialized in destruction, wielding a huge scimitar and wearing a tiny miniskirt.
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Finally, she said, in 2007, her children persuaded her to try a more nourishing form of Internet expression: cooking videos. “I had no idea if anyone would watch me,” she said, “but the Korean recipes I saw in English were full of mistakes, and I wanted to show the real way we do things.”
Now, Kim has more than 619,000 YouTube subscribers, more than Martha Stewart, Alton Brown, Ree Drummond and Ina Garten combined. (Since 2012, along with the channel’s other most popular producers, she has had a revenue-sharing partnership with YouTube that allows her to cook and shoot full time.)
At age 58, she has just published a cookbook, “Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), one of the few comprehensive books on Korean cooking written for Americans but without major adjustments to make the food more accessible.
From watching her videos, it is hard to envision Kim as a reclusive gamer. In extravagant eye makeup and bright pink lipstick, she cooks huge batches of crowd-pleasers like bibimbap, bulgogi and KFC, sweet-sticky-spicy Korean fried chicken.
In her kaleidoscopic wardrobe of tiaras, leatherette shorts and fascinators (and 4-inch platform shoes to lift her up to the camera), she demonstrates the endless variations of kimchee and schools her viewers in the proper pronunciation of dishes like soegogi-muguk (pronounced SAY-go-gee moo-GUHK), beef and radish soup. She writes the Korean characters on a whiteboard, wearing magenta gloves encrusted with fake bling.
Although she presents herself as girlish and lighthearted, Kim is first and foremost a teacher, and a strict one at that.
“I have to do everything correctly,” she said. “Otherwise I will hear about it from the Koreans.”
This is a phrase she often repeated to the editors of her cookbook when they quailed at including recipes for fermented sardines, jellyfish salad and kelp stock. This, Kim believes, is the problem with virtually every Korean restaurant in the United States: The food is sweeter, saltier, less spicy, less fishy and less rich with umami than it should be. “They have to follow the taste of Americans, and the Korean-Americans,” she said. “I have the taste from growing up in Korea.”
Kim was raised in Yeosu, a port city near the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, where her family was in the seafood business. Like uncountable generations of Korean women, she learned from her mother, aunts and grandmothers how to not only cook but also pickle, smoke, dry and ferment.
Kim first came to the United States in 1992 with her husband, an academic who emigrated to take a teaching job in Columbia, Mo., and she has since been at the center of every group of Korean expatriates she has been part of. In the Midwest, she led expeditions in search of Japanese or Chinese restaurants (at that time, she said, she did not know of any Korean restaurants in the entire region). Later, she worked as a counselor for (and cooked for) Korean-American families who had suffered through domestic abuse. To her, building a community online was a natural extension of her life.
Now, she lives and shoots her videos in a compact apartment perched above the frenzy of Times Square, where the view from her kitchen window includes a giant hand pointing down to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. She shares the apartment with David Seguin, a Web developer at The New York Times, whom she married in 2009. There, she practices the slow and ancient art of fermenting, making gochujang (chili paste) and doenjang (soybean paste), an umami-rich flavor element pervasive in Korean cooking, similar to Japanese miso. The recipe, which is in the book, calls for an electric blanket, more than a gallon of salt and hay; it takes almost a year to complete. (Most cooks simply buy the finished products, but the flavors of the homemade ones are extraordinary.)
Other arts that she practices more casually include cutting and arranging food appetizingly, and composing harmonious meals of stunning variety. Traditionally, even a basic family dinner consists of eight to 10 dishes: soup or stew, rice, kimchi, often a stir-fry of protein and vegetables and at least three banchan, savory side dishes like spicy cucumber salad or steamed eggplant. Festive meals can be as elaborate as the traditional platter of nine delicacies, a dish of tiny crepes and eight fillings that was once reserved for royalty, or as simple as a pile of fried chicken or a pan of bulgogi, marinated beef wrapped with greens, herbs and vegetables.
Bulgogi is part of the tradition often called Korean barbecue, grilled meat seasoned with sesame and scallion, and with ripe pears in the marinade to tenderize the meat and add a characteristic sweetness. It is one of the country’s most successful culinary exports and reflects Korea’s collaborative cooking tradition: In a cold country, gathering tightly around a pile of hot coals to eat is only logical.
“There is nothing Koreans love more than sitting around a table where every inch is covered with food,” Kim said. “And if there is a grill in the middle of it, that is even better.”
KOREAN GRILLED BEEF (BULGOGI)
Makes 4 servings
1 pound well-marbled, boneless sirloin, tenderloin or skirt steak
4 large garlic cloves
1 cup peeled, chopped ripe Asian or Bosc pear
¾ cup finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
1 scallion, chopped
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon light brown sugar or honey
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted
Whole, fluffy lettuce leaves for wrapping, such as green leaf, oak leaf or romaine; and whole perilla leaves (optional)
Any or all of the following: hot cooked short-grain rice; long green hot peppers, sliced crosswise into 1-inch chunks; small peeled garlic cloves; carrot and cucumber spears or sticks, 1 to 2 inches long; Korean Barbecue Sauce (Ssamjang, see recipe)
1. Wrap beef in plastic wrap or butcher paper and place in freezer for one to two hours to firm up.
2. Cut beef across the grain into thin slices. If cooking in a skillet, slices should be less than 1/8-inch thick; do not worry if they are a bit ragged. If cooking on the grill, uniform slices, 1/8-inch thick, are best.
3. In a food processor, combine garlic, pear, onion and ginger and process until very smooth and creamy, about one minute.
4. In a bowl or sealable plastic bag, combine steak, marinade, scallion, soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar and pepper and mix well. Cover or seal, then refrigerate at least 30 minutes or overnight.
5. When ready to cook and serve, prepare garnishes. Lettuce leaves should be mounded in a large basket or platter; small dishes can hold remaining garnishes. Keep vegetables cold.
6. If using a cast-iron grill pan or large skillet, heat over high heat. Add all the meat and its juices to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until most (but not all) of the liquid has evaporated and the meat begins to brown around the edges. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve immediately, directly from the skillet (this will keep the meat hot). If using a charcoal or gas grill, heat to high. Working in batches if necessary, place the sliced meat on the grill and cook, turning often, just until cooked through and browned, about two minutes. If desired, heat an empty cast-iron skillet and use as a serving dish; this will keep the meat hot. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
7. To eat, lay a lettuce leaf open on your palm. Add a perilla leaf (if using), a small lump of rice, one or two pieces of meat and any other garnishes on top, then dab with sauce. Wrap by lifting up the edges of the lettuce leaf, then twisting them together to make a tight bundle. Eat each bundle in one bite, according to Korean tradition.
— Adapted from “Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking” by Maangchi
SPICY-SWEET KOREAN BARBECUE SAUCE (SSAMJANG)
Makes 1/3 cup
¼ cup fermented soybean paste (doenjang)
1 to 2 teaspoons Korean red chili paste (gochujang)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 scallion, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted
In a bowl, combine all ingredients, adjusting the amount of chili paste to taste. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to one week.
— Adapted from “Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking” by Maangchi