Seung Hee Lee traces her love of cooking back to her paternal grandmother.
Her grandma would make her something to eat, and the little girl would taste it and tell her what it needed. By 6, she was inventing her own dishes and serving them to her family at their home in Cheongju, South Korea. The first one she remembers creating was kimchi and fried eggs.
Nearly three decades later, and thousands of miles from her homeland, Lee still cooks with her childhood memories. But her point of view has changed: Today, she works as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta while leading a kind of double life as a foodie trend-setter.
A passionate home cook who has developed a style that is Korean-based but accented with ingredients, techniques and ideas she has soaked up while living in the States, Lee, who is 34, holds stylish events (cooking classes, restaurant pop-ups) that showcase her passion for Korean-fusion cuisine and natural wine. At the same time, she is a cookbook author and social-media star who keeps her 34,000 Instagram followers constantly drooling over her food-porn posts.
“I publish a lot of journal articles,” says Lee, who holds a Ph.D. in human nutrition from Johns Hopkins University. “But only a handful in this world will read them. On a given day on social media, I interact with thousands of people. I find that very powerful.”
On a recent Saturday at her home on Atlanta's Westside, Lee is making recipes from her first cookbook, "Everyday Korean: Fresh, Modern Recipes for Home Cooks" (Countryman Press, $29.99), co-authored with Kim Sunee. Knowing that the outdoor grilling season is nigh — Memorial Day is May 28 — Lee has adapted a Korean-style barbecue for an American kitchen.
Several cuts of beef (flank steak, sirloin, cap of rib-eye) are marinating in her soy-based Korean BBQ Sauce, stirred together with ingredients that are easy to find at the grocery store. Romaine and perilla leaves have been washed and wrapped in paper towels to dry. The greens will be used to roll the grilled beef into wraps, which can be dressed up with Lee’s Kimchi Slaw and a pair of condiments: classic Ssamjang (“wrap sauce”) and Gochujang Sour Cream. The latter is nothing more than sour cream mixed with gochujang, the tangy, vinegar-spiked red condiment that Koreans use like ketchup.
Before Lee moved to the States in 2008 to enroll at Johns Hopkins, she studied traditional Korean cuisine at the Taste of Korea Research Institute. “My father really wanted me to be a doctor, and I couldn’t make my scores high enough to go to medical school,” Lee says. At the same time, her parents, who are both academics, weren’t keen on her becoming a chef. It was a status thing.
“Everyday Korean” is the culmination of her friendship with Sunee, a former Southern Living editor and food writer who was born in Korea but adopted by American parents as a toddler. When Sunee journeyed to South Korea to promote her memoir, “Trail of Crumbs,” in 2008, Lee worked as her translator, and they bonded over food.
Sunee was also on a quest to find her Korean birth parents. That never happened but, as they like to say, she found a Korean sister.
In 2015, around the time they began to think about a book, Lee started her Instagram account. “I would do recipe testing, take photos, put it up, and people were very responsive about all that.”
The idea behind the book is “to introduce Korean flavors to everyday home cooks in America,” Lee says. “Americans know a little about Korean food. They know what kimchi is, but if you grab someone in the middle of Mississippi and start talking Korean food, they won’t know where to start.”
But they are likely familiar with macaroni and cheese. Behold, her Kimchi Bacon Mac and Cheese. True to her fusion philosophy, Lee brings favors from other cultures into the mix. Thus her recipes for Mexican-Korean Chilaquiles and Roasted Peppper Queso Fundido with Gochujang Sour Cream.
On the day we visit, she stays fairly close to Korean tradition. Most Korean barbecue is grilled on countertop griddles, sometimes with charcoal, and eaten right away with chopsticks, often in restaurants. But Lee has grown fond of the American tradition of grilling outdoors with charcoal. As the scent of grilled meat starts to waft from her patio, neighbors perk up their noses and ask what’s cooking.
After the beef meat comes off the flame, she lets it rest, then slices it into strips and plates it. The romaine and perilla are arranged on platters. In true fusion style, Lee puts out corn tortillas, too, for making little tacos. The Ssamjang and Gochujang Sour Cream are poured into bowls. The Kimchi Slaw is piled in a bowl and sprinkled with pine nuts.
Normally, sesame seeds would be used to garnish the slaw. The luxurious, buttery pine nuts are a signal that guests are in the house. It’s a way of showing respect. And it sends a message that for all her travels and cooking experiments, after the social-media celebrity and the cookbook contract, after 10 years of living in the States, Seung Hee Lee is still her grandmother’s little girl.
Making Korean barbecue at home
With her cookbook, “Everyday Korean,” Seung Hee Lee seeks to make the flavors of her homeland accessible to American home cooks. These recipes bring the tastes of Korea to a backyard barbecue: grilled cuts of beef are paired with an easy Kimchi Slaw and a couple of spicy condiments and wrapped up in romaine or perilla leaves. Known for her fusion style, Lee sometimes uses corn tortillas for the wraps. Most of these ingredients can be found at the grocery store. Look for doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and gochugaru (Korean chili powder) at Buford Highway Farmer’s Market or H Mart.
Grilled Korean-style Beef Barbecue
Seung Hee Lee, the Atlanta-based author of “Everyday Korean,” adapted this recipe from the one in her book for Beef on a Stick. Instead of slicing the meat and threading it on skewers, she simply cooks the entire cut. Don’t feel limited to beef. You can use the marinade on chicken, pork chops, even firm tofu. If you do go with beef, try flank steak, rib eye, sirloin or, for a bit of true luxury, cap of rib eye.
You can’t have barbecue without slaw. This napa cabbage version doesn’t actually include kimchi, but the use of vinegar mimics the nature of fermentation. The slaw is spicy, tart, crunchy and the perfect side to pair with grilled meats. You can substitute mint or basil for the cilantro, or use a mix.
In Korean, “ssam” means “wrap” and “jang” means “sauce.” Easy to make yet complex in flavor, this “wrap sauce” tastes good on grilled meats and veggies. Leftovers may be used on just about anything: rice and noodle dishes, eggs, salads.
Gochujang Sour Cream
This easy, two-ingredient sauce uses sour cream to temper the heat of Korean gochujang, the Korean mother sauce of gochugaru (chili powder) fermented with malt flour, rice flour and rice syrup. As the “Everyday Korean” authors write: The sauce “is a gentle way to introduce gochujang into your repertoire, especially if you’re not familiar with it; sour cream mellows out the heat and adds a creamy balance.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com