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Marja Vongerichten shares soul food of Asia in "Kimchi Chronicles"

July 9, 2011 |  7:00 am

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“I’m not a foodie,” Marja Vongerichten declares.

The host of the new PBS television series “Kimchi Chronicles” lounges on the couch at Tom N Toms, a small coffeeshop in Koreatown, tearing into a warm pepperoni pretzel and grimacing in pain at the thought of dinners that can drag on for five hours.

And yet as the wife of three-star Michelin chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, she’s had to sit in on plenty. But haute cuisine is just not her style, Marja said, no matter how extravagant and luxurious the courses are.

She’d much rather double-dip into a steaming communal pot of cheonggukjang (a hearty, stinky Korean stew made from fermented soybean paste) or spoon the messy red juices of galchi jorim (simmered beltfish in broth) into a full bowl of steamed rice. Her style of food, Marja said, is food with soul—more specifically, home-style Korean food.

“I call Korean food the soul food of Asia,” Marja said, not only because Korean food consists of simple yet bold and comforting dishes like one-pot stews and pickled vegetables, but because it draws upon her innate familiarity with her roots and soul.

Marja was a 1970s G.I. baby—born to a black American G.I. and a Korean mother. At the time, Amerasians like Marja were discriminated against, so when Marja was 3, her mother gave her up for adoption.

“I had memories [of my mother] but it was only of her physical presence,” said Marja. “I could only picture her from waist down at the height perspective of a 3-year-old.”

Marja grew up in McLean in northern Virginia as a typical American kid eating at Wendy's and Arby's, without much interaction with Korean culture or cuisine. Once Marja went off to college, however, she decided that it was time to find her birth mother. With support from her adoptive parents, she called the Korean embassy.

Three months later, she got a call providing the contact information for her biological mother. It turned out Marja’s mother had moved to America six years after Marja was adopted. She was married to another U.S. soldier and was living in Brooklyn.

The next series of events was a whirl of agitation and elation. After three hours of debating, Marja finally worked up the nerve to call and introduce herself. Her mother picked up the phone, said hello, then passed out.

Marja now meets her mother every Monday for noraebang (Korean karaoke) night. But she still remembers with great emotion the first time she visited her mother's Brooklyn home when she was 19. Her mother, like all Korean mothers, fussed about to feed Marja a proper home-cooked meal: traditional Korean dishes like bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) and chonggak kimchi (young radish kimchi) with steel chopsticks.

Despite not having eaten Korean food for almost two decades, Marja instinctively recalled every taste.

“I remembered all those flavors from when I was a child,” Marja said.

Now, Marja has come full circle with her new TV series that premiered Thursday, and her subsequent cookbook "The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen" will release Aug. 2.

She has embraced the Korean “han”--that inexplicable national emotion of intense anguish and hope, which Marja says hits her each time she’s back in Korea, driving past the idyllic mountains and breathing in the unique Korean air.

“I think it’s just in our blood, we’ve been through so much as a culture so we all understand this pain and the struggle,” Marja said. "I definitely feel connected to it."

It was almost fate that Marja "fell into" the “Kimchi Chronicles” project, brainchild of producer Eric Rhee, who also produced the 2008 PBS series “Spain…on the Road Again” featuring Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. Rhee said he was originally planning to find a chef to host the program. After he was introduced to Marja by her husband while dining at Jean Georges in Manhattan, he changed his mind. Rhee contacted Marja the next day, asking her, a non-culinary-trained home cook, to be the host of “Kimchi Chronicles.”

Unlike Rhee’s former production on Spain, “Kimchi Chronicles” has a more personal story because Marja isn't just teaching about Korean food, she is sharing the tastes and love of her mother country. Rhee describes it as a “documentary/travelogue/cooking show all in one” or a “docu-drama with a personal twist.”

Instead of dividing Korea up into regions, each episode is categorized and named according to a specific food, such as “The Beef Chronicles,” “The Noodle and Dumpling Chronicles,” and “The Street Food Chronicles." Each segment introduces the viewer to farms, home kitchens, restaurants, markets, temples and even theme parks that best represent a specific dish and culture.

For example, Marja and the crew visited Andong for their jjimdak (braised chicken dish); Hoengseong for the high-quality beef; and Jeju-do for its sea urchin, abalone and green tea. Rhee formed the extensive list of over 40 places to visit by seeking local recommendations, from popular food bloggers like Jennifer Flinn of “FatMan Seoul” and Daniel Gray of “Seoul Eats,” to local taxi drivers who are always ready to share their favorite soondubu place or the chewiest naengmyeon.

But Marja doesn’t just sit idly by and look pretty. She actually gets her hands dirty in the kitchen to recreate the traditional Korean dishes at home using common kitchen utensils, with Chef Jean-Georges by her side as the pan-flipping sous-chef and charming culinary encyclopedia.

The first episode has her family friends, actor Hugh Jackman ("X-Men") and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness, conversing over an extensive spread of Korean ban-chan (side dishes) decked out on Marja's kitchen island table. Despite the high-profile celebrity guests, the atmosphere is warm and low-key as Marja teases Jackman for being a spice-baby, while Furness exclaims, "It's like fish jerky!" upon trying myulchi bokkeum (stir-fried anchovies).

The show will also feature stories of local ordinary people with extraordinary stories, from chefs to halmonis (grandmothers) who escaped North Korea, and even an appearance by Marja's mother as they picnic and sing traditional songs by the beach.

Rhee (who is Korean American) said he wanted to reveal the cuisine and culture of Korea, a nation so distinct yet sandwiched between its superpower neighbors China and Japan.

"People haven’t been educated about Korean food," Rhee said."The purpose of the show is to educate people and de-mystify Korean food. We’re trying to give a good easy glimpse of all types of Korean food so people can see that there’s more to Korean food than BBQ and bibimbap. There’s something for everyone in Korean food."

Both Marja's husband and her 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, need no convincing; they have long been converted to the pungent and spicy cuisine.

In the Vongerichten household, Marja dons the chef's apron. She has raised Chloe on a Korean diet; mac and cheese comes with a side of kimchi. She has gotten Chef Jean-Georges hooked on her dak-bokkeum-tang (spicy chicken stew). In fact, he's asked her for the recipe so a reinvented and fancified version may appear on the menu in one of his restaurants (joining his other Korean-fusion creations like Mercer Kitchen's hotdog with kimchi relish and Perry St's steak with gochujang butter).

In a way, "Kimchi Chronicles" is just a 24-frame version of what Marja has always had inside her: a pride and reverence for her heritage and her "han."

“I hate to say that I’m half and half, because I’m 100 percent Korean and 100 percent African American. I’m both now, equally," Marja said. "After these series, I feel more connected than ever to my culture."


ALSO:

Recipe: Cucumber Kimchi (Oi Sobaegi Kimchi)

Restaurants: Jean Georges Steakhouse

Food and drinks the Korean way

--Sophia Lee

Photo credit: Frappe Inc.

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