“You've got to get to Korea,” Matt Rodbard urges me as we sit over a plate of ganjang-gejang at Soban. Deuki Hong, who sits across the table from us, nods his head in agreement as he slurps from his bowl. Rodbard continues excitedly, “it's just such an unspoiled food culture.”
Hong and Rodbard met me for dinner in Koreatown on the heels of the release of their book. Koreatown: A Cookbook is the result of years of research and travel on the part of its co-authors, and the thing that strikes me the most, as we eat from a pot of bubbling kalbi jjim and suck the meat from the joints of raw marinated crabs, is how much enthusiasm the two still have for their subject matter after years of full-time immersion.
During our meal, the two talk excitedly about the process of making doenjang (fermented bean paste), which Soban makes in-house, and Rodbard shows me photos on his phone from his most recent trip to Korea, where he learned about the process first-hand. They rhapsodize about meals they had during their research trips, and about recipes they developed from those trips and that ended up in the book.
The result is a beautiful, personal book, full of recipes but also passion, from the authors and many others. The recipes are broken up with interviews and profiles of chefs, market owners and enthusiasts, everyone from David Chang to a friend of Rodbard's talking about raising a 2-year-old to love Korean food. What comes across, apart from the urge to start cooking, is the immense love this cuisine conjures from all kinds of eaters.
Given L.A.'s massive Korean population and resultant Koreatown, which dwarfs all others in the United States, Hong and Rodbard spent a lot of time here doing research for the book, despite being based in New York (Hong is the chef at the NYC outpost of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong; Rodbard is a longtime New York food writer). We talk about how, unlike in many other parts of the country, L.A.'s Koreatown is so tied to Korea that there's an exchange of culture, with L.A. influencing Korea and vice versa. Rodbard makes the point that beef in the United States is much higher quality than in Korea, and that because of that and Korean-American use of beef as a major ingredient, L.A. and America in some ways “creates its own Korean food culture.”
I ask how they tackled L.A.'s Koreatown, seeing as it's such a huge and densely packed neighborhood. They cite friends who gave pointers, but also say that Jonathan Gold's massive “60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know” package, which he wrote just before departing L.A. Weekly, was hugely helpful.
In many ways, Koreatown does the same for me that Gold's Korean-dishes guide did when it came out: It gets me excited about diving into Korean food culture in a deeper way than I had before. But this time, instead of wanting to go out and eat at restaurants, I want to roll up my sleeves and get cooking.