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When Eric Kim develops recipes, he thinks about which ones would make a great single. “I used to be a musician and I used to want to be the next Michelle Branch,” he says. Kim moved to New York when he was 18 to become a pop star, and while that career didn’t quite work out — he’s now a cooking writer for the New York Times — he still found a way to channel those pop music instincts into his debut cookbook, Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home. “Black sesame cake, that’s a great one. Gochugaru shrimp and grits, also great. These potatoes? I just really thought these potatoes would win,” he says, almost as if he’s a judge on American Idol. “I know deep down and my testers know that this is one of our favorite dishes.”
Along with being a sleeper hit in his cookbook, Kim’s recipe for smashed potatoes and roasted-seaweed sour cream dip was a favorite in his household during the coronavirus pandemic. Like many people, Kim moved back home in the pandemic’s early days, living with his mother, Jean. She taught him to cook Korean food, something he had eaten a lot of at home but didn’t have a ton of experience cooking himself. “I wrote two pieces where I sort of reported my mother’s recipes,” Kim says. “It was a kimchi fried rice and then it was a dak-bokkeum-tang — it’s a chicken and potato stew. Both stories kind of navigate the writing down of your mother’s recipes. I think those two pieces were a nice litmus test, knowing that there’s something rich here.”
That year at home — when his family gathered to watch the Harry Potter films and snack on smashed potatoes and sour cream dip — motivated Kim’s decision to write Korean American. “I think what’s really lovely about the book is it’s not just that I’m writing down her recipes, I’m also developing my own based off the inspiration of our memories,” he says. “I think one way that is helpful to look at this is the Korean part is my mom and the American part is me, but in the end, the Korean American part is both of us.”
While sour cream dip might feel decidedly American, Kim forgoes the usual packet of dried dip mix and instead includes gim seaweed, rice vinegar, and sesame oil to make a mashup of the two cultures. “You end up with this very surprising flavorful dip that tastes very Korean to me,” he says. “Anything with sesame oil tastes really Korean to me.” There is even a Korean word to describe the transcendent flavor of sesame oil: gosohae. “I love this word that is so specifically tied to sesame. I just think it’s really beautiful and it shows how important that pantry ingredient is in Korean cuisine,” Kim says.