Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking was published in May last year, and I’ve been putting off this review since I got hold of the book in June. It’s the first cookbook by Emily Kim a.k.a. Maangchi, star of a hugely successful YouTube channel that has gone from strength to strength in providing clear recipes on Korean cooking to her fans all over the world (of which I must admit to being one!). This book of over a hundred recipes puts her traditional style of cooking into a more traditional format, with a mix of those she’s featured already on her website and some that are exclusive to the book.
Despite her countless fans, the book assumes no prior knowledge of Korean cooking, with the first thirty or so pages acting as an introduction to the philosophy that underpins some of the dishes, the structure of a Korean meal — rice, soup, kimchi and other side dishes all served together — and an overview of the unfamiliar Korean ingredients in the book, many of which are totally unique to the cuisine. The book takes the structure of the Korean meal as a template, with rice, kimchi and soup recipes at the beginning of the book, and special occasion dishes at the end.
One of the best features of the book is the abundance of photos: almost every recipe comes with a picture to entice you to cook it, and it certainly helps that the vivid colours of Korean cooking are so photogenic. The dishes are for traditional, everyday meals — the sorts of things people continue to eat at home — so the simple styling, often with food still bubbling away, makes a lot of sense.
Much like her videos which I often refer to, Maangchi’s recipes are clear and easy to follow. They are broken down into numbered steps, and for many of the more complex recipes, particularly the complex fermented foods, there are pictures along the way too. I think this is a great help when dealing with a cuisine and processes that many people will be unfamiliar and tentative about.
And the results always taste great too. Normally when I use a cookbook, I’ll adjust recipes to my own taste, often avoiding copious amounts of garlic for example for the benefit of anyone I might talk to the next day; when trying to write an accurate review of a cookbook however, I can’t take that approach. It wouldn’t be fair to reduce the amount of something in a recipe, and then complain on the internet that I didn’t like the food, so for this I had to be brave and use the recommended amounts of garlic and chilli (often both raw!). Thankfully, the recipes have been thoroughly tested from years of Maangchi cooking them for her family and I would suggest that anyone who uses this book in the future trust her quantities whole-heartedly.
Many of the recipes in the book I’ve tried previously from Maangchi’s website (and you can see my versions of a couple here, here and here) so I knew they would work straight away while others were new to me and I’ve photographed them just for this review. From the top down, we have a soft tofu stew flavoured with hot-and-sour kimchi; japchae, glass noodles with stir-fried beef, mushrooms and other vegetables; oi muchim, a refreshing cucumber salad with a chilli and garlic dressing; and beansprouts, blanched and mixed with spring onions and raw garlic. All were delicious and highlighted the key ingredients of Korean cooking that appear throughout the book: garlic, soy sauce, chilli, sesame oil and the je ne sais quoi of fermentation
As a cookbook I really anticipated buying Real Korean Cooking did disappoint me in a number of ways. First of all, given its origins, I expected a little more integration between the cookbook and the YouTube channel: many of the recipes are classic dishes in Korean cookery and Maangchi has produced HD videos of their preparation, so I was disappointed that this was never mentioned alongside each one. My second gripe (and again, this one is pretty petty too) is the sole use of Imperial and US cup measurements throughout the book. While this is to be expected of a book produced in America, it does make things a little harder for me to visualise and work with as I’m so used to dealing in metric measurements and don’t own a sent of measuring cups.
Don’t let these minor issues put you off though. Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking is the best cookbook on traditional Korean cooking that I’ve come acros. The book presents traditional foods in a modern setting, without trying to force dishes to conform to the structure of a Western-style meal. This cookbook is a great introduction to a relatively unknown cuisine (albeit up-and-coming) and Maangchi’s style does a great job of demystifying the uniqueness of Korean food without being patronising. And for those who have knowledge of food from this part of the world, can take on the challenge of the more adventurous recipes like the year-long process of making doenjang from dried soy beans or brewing their own makgeolli rice beer.
For now, I’m just looking forward to Maangchi’s new recipes on her YouTube channel.