Marja Vongeritchen is a restaurateur, entrepreneur, cookbook author, TV star and all out Korean Foodie. As the host of The Kimchi Chronicles she delved into the history and culture of Korean food while sharing her own personal journey of connection with her family and heritage. She loves the big flavors of garlic and kimchi and she is on a mission to educate people all over the world about Korean food. She owns a Korean restaurant in Shanghai with her husband, Jean-Georges and is launching her own line of Korean food products, Marja’s Naturals. We got a chance to catch up with Marja and chat with her about Korean food and cooking.
What aspects of Korean Food make it different from other cuisines?
'The first thing that comes to mind is the fermentation process. Koreans use fermentation in the staples of the cuisine…soy sauce, doenjang and of course the kimchi. A lot of cultures have the fermentation process the Korean Food has a plethora, due to being an Asian country that has a distinct four seasons. Koreans are quite ingenious about how they preserve food and flavors throughout the seasons.'
What role does dining etiquette play in making Korean Food different?
'Well definitely when you look at a Korean table and you see all those dishes, it’s an invitation to sit down and share with your neighbors. I love the cultural aspect of taking a little bit of food and being able to stretch it out for large group of people. Eating around a Korean table is a way to check in with each other as a family during the day, meal time in Korea is the big event of the day. It’s a big part of Korean culture, when you meet a Korean more than likely, especially if they know you, they’ll ask if you’ve eaten. That’s how Koreans show their love, by feeding people, and eating together as a family it’s a bonding time as you share the same food.'
Korean Food is one of the biggest trends in food right now, what role did Kimchi Chronicles play in promoting Korean Food?
'Kimchi Chronicles was revolutionary as one of the few shows to really do the food as well as cultural aspects. We dived into the questions of what is Korea? Where is Korea? I’ve been asked the question more than once, where you from? I’m half American and have a face that can be from a lot of different places, I think my story drew people in. For me it was quite an eye opener, even though I’ve known my birth mother for just about 20 years, and have been to Korea many times before the show happened, due to the language barrier a lot of details were messed. I could never get the right description of what was going on, when we were shooting the show, having all the experts on set explaining everything step by step, it was informative not only for me, but for the viewers. '
How do you see Korean foods affecting modern fusion trends?
'Korean Food has already started infusing modern trends, you see kimchi and everything. Modern chefs like David Chang and Hooni Kim from Han Jin here in New York had been able to transform just one ingredient in to many different types of taste levels in different dishes. In terms of moving forward with modern food, people are just starting to learn about the health benefits of Korean Food. That in and of itself is cause for discovery of learning how to incorporate different foods in a more modern approachable way. I’m always pleased to see kimchi at the supermarket, it’s in just about every supermarket anymore. When I’m in different parts of the country I see different Korean Foods and bulgogi sauce, it’s definitely becoming a flavor profile that people are getting familiar with.'
What are some of your favorite ingredients and how do you incorporate them into your cooking for people who haven’t eaten Korean food or who have a mild palate?
'I’m a staunch traditionalist when I make Korean Food. I don’t do much of the fusion, I leave that to my husband. One ingredient I really love is Korean red pepper flakes. You can go atomic or you can make things milder, it has a nice heat that’s different from crushed red pepper or Tabasco sauce which both create a different flavor profile. Garlic is my friend I find a lot of Korean Restaurants in America tend to skimp on garlic, I think because they’re afraid of offending people with that flavor profile. But I’m just always just always gung-ho, whoever I serve Korean Food to, they get the full shebang which I love and it’s so good for you. Gochujang is the one ingredient you are seeing everywhere, people are willing to embrace and incorporate it, it’s going be like the next siracha. Chefs are learning how to layer Korean flavors. Gochujang is such an amazing seasoning you can transform it in so many different ways I love that I use it for everything from dressings to barbecue in the summer. I have a special Umma Paste that I make, that works with different things in Korean Food, it’s my go to all purpose seasoning.'
How can Chefs and home cooks incorporate Korean flavors and techniques easily into their foods?
'For people who really want to get into Korean Food, you’re going have to do a little bit of work. You’ll have to go to a Korean supermarket and get the five basics: sesame oil, Korean soy sauce, kochi chang and red pepper flakes. Basically from there you can shop at your local grocery and then you can really get into Korean food. It can be overwhelming, so I think if you really want to do Korean Food, you have to educate yourself just a little bit. Definitely take the time to get the five basics, and a lot of Korean markets of online delivery so it makes it very easy.'
What is it about Korean Food that makes it so interesting and fun to eat?
'If you go to a Korean restaurant and sit down as a group at a table, all the panchan really give so many flavor profiles all over the table. Korean barbecue is really quite popular in Korea as well as in other countries, it’s probably the most popular form of Korean Food in the United States. I’ve noticed that people really enjoy the communal style of eating, as well as being able to be really be interactive with your food. I found it most tables there’s typically a designated chef so to speak, taking the time to flip the meat and put different flavors together, people really get a kick out of that. I think it’s just the best way to eat.'
What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve eaten?
'I don’t know about a meal if, but the most adventurous thing I’ve eaten was the silkworm larva, which I used to love as a baby. When I went back to Korea on one of my first initial visits I remembered the smell of it, on that trip I didn’t have the nerve to try it. When I went back for the show, my producer made me eat it. It’s more of a mental thing, it’s not that the taste is adventurous, it’s just knowing what it is, the mental picture of it. They tried to get me to eat live octopus, but I couldn’t do it.'
What’s your favorite recipe?
'Spicy chicken stew, and my husband loves it too. I love that it’s a hearty one pot dish, I put everything in a large pot to say and cook it low and slow. It’s one of those dishes that encompasses the flavors of Korean Food so much, it also is very nourishing and hearty. It’s a simple recipe with a few ingredients, it doesn’t take much effort but there’s a great were reward at the end.'
When you need help in the kitchen who do you ask for advice?
'I have different mentors for different times. With Korean cuisine if I’m really stumped on something or trying to come up with a new recipe I’ll get in touch with my Korean aunts, all my aunts had restaurants in Korea at one time or another, my family’s quite talented in the culinary arts. If it’s something more technique wise, I’ll ask my husband for tips on things. If I need help with equipment, I’ll ask my cousin Jumin Bae who works at Perry Street, and he’s got a lot of knowledge about the equipment and knife sharpening, he’s the guy explains to me how things work. But there are a lot of people with expertise that I keep in touch with.'
What’s your favorite Korean food blog?
'Before we filmed the show I was following Daniel Gray of seouleats.com, at that time it was just the blog but now he’s a really grown the site and offers food tours. Dan has a story similar to mine where he was born in Korea and adopted and went back to find his birth family. I got meet him and work with him on our travels. Also Joe McPhersen of zenkimchi.com, they do a lot of restaurant reviews, and on our travels I also had the opportunity to meet and work with him.'
What inspires you?
'Definitely seasonality, whatever is fresh and in season. At the Korean market the fall inspires me, because that’s when you get the best of harvest. It always inspires me to see the daikon and the huge big heads of Napa cabbage because I know it’s kimchi making time.'
What is in your food that makes it unique and interesting?
'Over the years in my Korean cooking I have learned how to layer flavors. Just learning how to use a big piece of kelp or some dashi to get something started is a skill. I’ve used the ingredients maybe people normally wouldn’t use at home, I make my own maesil, (Korean green plum extract), my aunt taught me how to make it. It’s really wonderful for adding flavor without adding too much sugar and I use it all over the place.'
What new projects are you working on?
'I’m starting my own line of Korean Food Products, Marja’s Naturals. We’ll be selling the products internationally. We plan to start with about five different products, kimchi of course, some dressings and my om paste. On the labeling we’ll have a code that will go to instructional videos and recipes. Especially with the kimchi it’s important, because people buy kimchi but they don’t know how to store it. Then once it reaches a certain mature oftentimes people think that it’s going bad and they don’t know that that’s the perfect time to use it in a soup or a pancake. So there are things about Korean food that need to be explained and talked about. Korean food especially for Americans is about educating them about the food explaining the fermentation process. Fermentation can be a turnoff for some people but once you get into the story behind it, then it’s easier to get people to try it. I’m hoping to have my products ready for sale in 2016 am looking forward to training the factory on my recipes this fall and I am really excited about it. I’m proud to say that my recipe for kimchi uses a technique from the region where my family is from, Jeolla-do in Korea. I’ve always wanted to achieve that taste and flavor profile, so I’m very excited to include that.'
'I opened a Korean restaurant in Shanghai last year with my husband at Three on the Bund. The building has six different restaurants concepts and beautiful views. My husband also has two other restaurants in the same building; Mercato, which is Italian and Jean-Georges which is like the restaurant here in New York. It’s a great collaboration and very exciting. We named our restaurant Chi-Q, which is a play on kimchi and Korean barbecue. We have one of the best bartenders in Shanghai, who crafts amazing and really innovative Korean cocktails. The menu of the restaurants is fusion and very much like our marriage it’s a mixture of both of us. We import all of our meat from Australia, and have a local Korean organic farmer in Shanghai for all of our produce. I get to visit three or four times a year to do menu changes. I’m usually there for a week and we do cooking classes and media events. We won three awards last year and we were voted Best New Restaurant, Best Korean and Best Asian.'
We're excited to follow Marja as she begins her new product launch in 2016, her passion and personality bring food to life.
'I marvel at the journey of it all; from when I started my obsession with Korean Food to the Point I’m at now. It’s just incredible.'
A version of this article by Amanda Ashley at TastyKFood. Photo by Marja Vongeritchen. Benjamin Lee.