I have been having the best time cooking from My Rice Bowl by Rachel Yang and Jess Thomson. It might surprise you to hear that this isn’t strictly a Korean cookbook. A rice bowl, that’s bibimbap, right? But it’s right there in the introduction: “The food you’ll find in the recipes that follow isn’t Korean food. Korea is our starting point…” As I look through and cook from the book, these recipes are an expression of what it means to be a hyphenate American. The flavors you grew up and met through your travels meld with techniques and foods of the country you call home. Rooted in her Korean heritage, Yang’s brand of fusion is far more personal, more thoughtful than slapping cuisines together. The beauty of the book is, My Rice Bowl makes Korean flavors accessible, then turns them into something unique.
Although you might be tempted to dive right into the recipes, Yang shares her “coming to America” story and its evolution is fascinating. Through college, then culinary school, jobs at two of New York’s fine-dining restaurants, and meeting husband, Seif Chirchi, it’s a different immigrant food story than you typically hear. The restaurant business is unforgiving, and Yang does give a taste of the tough times. Ultimately, hard work, perseverance and creativity have paid off in a growing restaurant group with four restaurants in Seattle and Portland, a James Beard Award nomination, and now, a cookbook. Her path and success feels even more important right now.
My Rice Bowl gives extensive guidance on ingredients and the flavor staples in Yang’s kitchens. Gochujang (Korean chile paste) and gochugaru (Korean chile flakes) are bound to become regulars in your pantry. Most recipes will probably require a visit to your local Asian market, but I had no trouble finding ingredients locally at Uwajimaya. If you’ve have an H-Mart in your area, you’re more than covered. My local Fred Meyer also has a surprisingly good selection of Asian produce that goes beyond the standard nappa cabbage and bok choy.
Chapters are based on Korean food categories — banchan, kimchi, noodles, dumplings, barbecue, etc. — but it’s not traditional Korean food. The Chinese broccoli is a good example. There isn’t much that’s overtly Korean about it with walnut pesto and garlic confit. As Yang said on Seattle Kitchen this week (starts at 54:30), “It’s all about how I kind of take my traditional Korean palate and knowledge and then how I make it my own here in America…”
Let’s get to the cooking. I started with three recipes that appealed to me immediately. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I made the Grilled Chinese Broccoli with Walnut Pesto and Garlic Confit, the Korean Treasure Rice and Mrs. Yang’s Spicy Fried Chicken with Spicy Peanut Brittle. What I love about these recipes is that they’re not dumbed down for home cooking. I didn’t cut corners or skip steps. You want Spicy Fried Chicken that tastes as good as you can get at Revelry in Portland? You’re gonna need to make the caramel for the sauce and yeah, the peanut brittle, too. None of it is hard, it just takes a little bit more time.
You want to know about the chicken, right? It’s soaked in a buttermilk marinade and dredged in a mix of tapioca flour, cornstarch and potato flakes. The result is far lighter than your usual all-purpose flour dredge and it’s pretty dang tasty on its own, even before you get to the sauce. I was convinced the dredge amount was going to be overkill, but it ended up being just right for the 3 pounds of chicken. I ended up marinating about half of it for a couple of days past the recommended 6-8 hours and it was just fine. It’s best right after it’s cooked, but is still pretty damn tasty the next day. Is it worth the effort? Heck yeah.
Rachel Yang and Jess Thomson will demo and sign My Rice Bowl at Seattle’s Book Larder on Tuesday, October 3 at 6:30 p.m. For tickets, visit Author Talk: My Rice Bowl. They will also participate in a Town Hall Seattle talk, “Modernist Bread Meets Heritage Rice,” with Nathan Myrvold on October 26 at 6 p.m. Tickets and info.