Host of US TV cooking show touts local cuisine as Asia’s soul food
Her husband may be a world-renowned chef, but when it comes to Korean cooking, Marja Vongerichten is the boss.
The former model and actress, who calls Korean food the soul food of Asia, took her love for Korean cuisine out of her New York home to public television with the successful series “Kimchi Chronicles.”
“The show started an ongoing conversation, a dialogue and a movement about Korean food, reaching all kinds of people and all kinds of life,” Vongerichten said in an interview with The Korea Times.
The recently-concluded 13-part PBS series took viewers on a journey into Korean food and culture guided by Korean-born Vongerichten and her husband and celebrity chef Jean-Georges.
From Jeju Island’s serene green tea gardens to the bustling seaport in Sokcho, the show helped Americans experience the taste and color of Korea right at home.
“Korean food is so healthy and delicious,” says Vongerichten, “but the main reason why it didn’t go super main stream in the U.S. is because the country itself isn’t known.”
More effort should be made to explain Korean food, she says, stressing, “You can’t throw it into people’s faces and expect them to eat it. You need to have a dialogue.”
And that’s exactly what the show brought.
The Vongericthens explored the history and background of authentic Korean dishes and later demonstrated how to cook in their kitchen back in New York, offering up more light and modern variations.
“Dak bokkeum tang (spicy chicken stew) is my favorite,” says Vongerichten, who cooks the dish once a week per her husband’s request. “The spicier the better.”
And she has a secret ingredient to make the dish even better.
“I use ‘bokbunja’ (Korean black raspberries) in the sauce and a whole cup of garlic,” says the foodie, adding that “jorim” and “jjigae” — both types of stews — are her go-tos for dinner parties.
Vongerichten is credited with helping to put Korean cuisine on the culinary map, but her discovery and love for Korean food didn’t bloom till she was in her late teens.
Born to a Korean mother and an African-American GI, Vongerichten was adopted by an American couple when she was three. At age 19, she reunited with her biological mother, who turned out to be living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
That was when she really started digging in to learn more about Korean food.
The show invited viewers into Vongerichten’s personal life as it unfolded the story of her reconnecting with her Korean roots.
“It was just an amazing experience,” says Vongerichten, who filmed in Korea for a month and a half. “It took a lot of work and tears into making the program to give Korea justice,”
The series is over but she is left with many afterthoughts.
“I’m fighting for Korea. I think our culture is amazing and the cuisine is so smart. It’s our job to explain as much about ourselves as we can,” she says, adding that Korean food shouldn’t be too “fusionized” on its way overseas. “Why change something that’s already good?”
But keeping things original doesn’t mean Vongerichten doesn’t like to do a little experimenting of her own at home.
She recently made a successful sample of kimchi made out of rutabaga.
“What else can I kimchify? I’m trying carrots next,” says Vongerichten. <Korea Time/Jane Han>
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