Expert Interview Series: Tammy Quackenbush on Fusing Californian and Korean Cuisine

Korean cuisine

Tammy Quackenbush is the writer/blogger of Koreafornian Cooking and the San Francisco Bay Area editor for ZenKimchi Food Journal. Since 2009, she has uncovered the hidden gems of Korean food culture in the San Francisco Bay area for her own blog as well as Yonhap News, Plate Magazine, Serious Eats and MarxFoods. We recently asked her about the signature flavors in Korean and Californian cuisine and how they can be replicated at home. Here’s what she had to say:

Tell us about Koreafornian. When and why did you start your site?

I saw a funky video on YouTube for a kimchi pizza that was so comical and ludicrous, I knew I could it better. That video has since been taken down but that was the genesis of Koreafornian Cooking.

I started Koreafornian Cooking in 2007, making Korean and Korean fusion cooking videos on YouTube. I have a love for Korean food and culture since I lived there in the 1990s and always believed that Korean food could be and should be just as popular in the USA as Chinese or Mexican cuisine.

I didn’t start the blog until 2009 and I began my work with ZenKimchi shortly thereafter.

Describe Korean cuisine. What are the flavors and staple dishes?

Korean cuisine is the term we use to describe food culture of the Korean peninsula, but just as there are important differences between the cuisine of the NE USA vs. the South, there are regional differences in Korean cuisine as well, shaped by thousands of years of geo-politics.

Some of the dominant flavors in Korean cuisine include lots of bold flavors such as sesame oil, garlic, onion and ginger. In North Korea, mustard oil is the most common source of heat while in the South, chili peppers, called gochu in Korean, heat up their cuisine.

Korean cuisine is also heavy on seafood, soups, herbs and vegetables. Korean cuisine is not as carnivorous as the restaurants in Koreatown in LA or NYC.

The stereotypical Korean home cooked meal consists of grilled fish, a soup, four to six different small vegetable dishes called banchan, kimchi and a bowl of white rice. This would be true for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

What are your all-time favorite Korean dishes?

My favorite Korean meal is a dish called dakgalbi, which is closely connected to the Korean town of Chuncheon, where I lived in the 1990s. It’s made of diced chicken marinated in a spicy sauce with sliced cabbage, sweet potato and large rice noodles.

What do you think are the staples of Californian cooking?

California cuisine is all about fusion. The term “fusion cuisine” was invented in California and exported to the world. It gave people a trendy term to explain what people of divergent cultures have been doing for millennia. For example, the iconic bahn mi sandwich of Vietnam is actually a fusion of Vietnamese ingredients and flavors stuffed into a small loaf of French bread.

California is the breadbasket of the United States. We love our avocados, olive oil and wine. We think our Mexican food is the real Mexican food and California is also home to some of the best microbreweries in the world. We are also happy to export our obsession with kale to the entire English-speaking world.

Why do you think the two cuisines pair well together?

Koreafornian Cooking was a way of describing my style of cooking, which was about trying to meld Korean ingredients into American cuisine and also interspersing Western ingredients into Korean dishes to show that fusion can work both directions.

The main reason that Korean cuisine and California cuisine work well together is both cultures are obsessed with using the freshest, most local ingredients possible. Koreans have held close to the old food traditions such as fermentation, foraging and super local food sourcing that Californians are now picking up.

What advice can you offer tracking down the right ingredients for Korean/Californian cuisine?

Despite the Californian emphasis on locally sourced products, some Korean ingredients can still only be found in Korea and imported to North America. As recently as five years ago, I would refer people to Korean or Asian groceries stores to find Korean ingredients such as gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) and doenjang (Korean soybean paste, similar but bolder than miso) but now, many Korean ingredients, such as kimchi, gochujang and Korean BBQ marinades can easily be found in many large grocery store chains all over North America.

What’s one of your favorite, go-to Koreafornian dishes?

For modern families, time is money, even at dinner time. One of my favorite recipes is actually more Korean than it is Koreafornian: Kimchi tuna jjigae, which is a simple kimchi stew made with tuna. All you have to do is add some cooked rice , and a nice salad and you have a light evening meal.

What are your must-have kitchen tools?

One of the most important must-have kitchen tools for a Korean kitchen is a rice cooker, that can be set to handle white, brown and sushi rice. There are many Korean recipes for rice porridge and a good rice cooker should be a multitasker. One also needs a good knife set, a garlic press and a sturdy wok.

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