As a Korean adoptee, cooking Korean food connects me with my heritage. Food is also a source of connection for Ae Jin Huys — adopted from South Korea at the age of six by a Belgian family — as documented in her cookbook Taste Korea: Korean recipes with local ingredients.

The subtitle of the book, which was originally published in Dutch, suggests its focus is adapting Korean food for Western audiences. Instead, Taste Korea is a meditation on traditional Korean food and methods.

As Huys told a daily Korean newspaper, food is what brought her back to Korea. In her 20s, a Korean friend living in Belgium made food for her.

“There, I recognized dishes from my childhood that I didn’t even know I knew about,” she told the JoonAng Daily. “It was an unannounced flashback and trigger to my childhood.”

She went on to make yearly visits to Korea, where she learned from Korean masters. “I have collected countless Korean recipes by tasting in numerous eateries, watching housewives at the stoves, [and] receiving teaching from many chefs,” she writes in Taste Korea’s preface.

Photos and testimonials from some of these masters are intermixed with the book’s recipes, some of them contributed by the masters themselves. We hear from Wook Wan Seunim, an expert on Korean temple food. Another master, Yun Wang Soon, shares how she inherited sonmat from her mother. Sonmat is translated as “hand taste” and is defined as the ability to flavor food “by feel,” not by using measurements.

Eating Korean food in the U.S., I’ve eaten a lot of Korean barbeque, bibimbap and sundubu. I’ve gotten good at making kimbap, my daughter’s favorite food. This book was just what I needed as a boost for my Korean cooking, going beyond these familiar dishes.

True to the subtitle, the book is organized by ingredients, offering recipes for a wide variety of vegetables and a few proteins. But the main focus of the book is Korean jangs, or fermented sauces, such as gochujang and doenjang. Their flavors define Korean cooking, Huys argues.

“If you have one or more jars of jang at home, you can open this book on any humdrum evening and cook Korean,” she writes.

In Taste Korea, Korean cooking is brought down to its essence, as embodied by its jangs. Many of the recipes include a jang as a marinade, broth or dipping sauce. Everything is simplified overall, with the directions summed up in a few sentences or a paragraph. The book made Korean cooking more accessible while deepening my understanding by introducing new dishes and concepts.

Recently, I made oi bibim guksu, which consists of cold wheat noodles, cucumber and a sauce made of gochujang, rice syrup and sesame oil — a cold Korean spaghetti. I looked up the same recipe on the website for Maangchi, a popular Korean cook. Her recipe had a lot more ingredients and would have made prep more involved.

I opted for Taste Korea’s recipe. I felt okay skipping the more complex recipe, because as the book told me, the jang is the essential flavor.

The book ends with recipes for different jangs, some of which require fermenting for six months or a year. Because of the complexity of the processes, the recipes didn’t seem directed toward the Western cook, someone new to Korean cooking or anybody learning how to “taste Korea.”

Instead, they are a tribute to the masters Huys has learned from and record their work for posterity. The recipes showcase just how complex, intricate and difficult it is to make these jangs and how much we should honor the skill and expertise behind it.

I sensed Huys’ deep admiration and affection for these mentors, who did much more than teach her their craft.

“I found [Korean cooking] to be a good way to connect back with my childhood and my roots because it was [through] my passion,” Huys told the JoonAng Daily.

By teaching me about Korean food, Huys is helping me do the same. 

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