When Comics and Cooking Meet: Robin Ha and Cook Korean!

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When Comics and Cooking Meet: Robin Ha and <i>Cook Korean!</i>

When illustrator Robin Ha moved from bustling Seoul, South Korea to Huntsville, Alabama at age 14, the relocation was like losing her senses.

“I was [practically] friendless,” said Ha, now 35 and living in Falls Church, Virginia. “My school didn’t have any English as Second Language classes because I was the only one who couldn’t speak English. I came from Seoul with millions of people and, to me, Huntsville was just fields. One of the hardest things was that in Seoul, I just could run down the street and buy manwha (comics). But it was impossible to find Korean comics there.” Forced to sink or swim with a new language, she picked up English in six months but spent much of her time doodling and slowly befriending the few schoolmates who were enthusiasts of Japanese manga comics in the mid-1990s.

Once isolated as a teen in Alabama, Ha began cooking for her friends as a young adult — many of them, like her, art-school alums and creatives who were strapped for time and cash. And now, more than 20 years after Ha's emigration and a career in textile and graphic design, the comic book has become her medium and a way to interpret Korean cooking to American audiences. 

For her new book Cook Korean! (Ten Speed Press, $19.99), Ha developed and and illustrated about 70 recipes from the Korean peninsula. They range from the iconic Napa cabbage or paechu kimchi to less familiar dishes: chayote pickles, porridges of pumpkin or sweet red beans, and a soybean-sprout soup that's a common morning meal. It's a longer and more fully realized vision of Ha's Banchan in 2 Plates tumblr, where she's illustrated favorite recipes from Korean chive salad to the Caribbean-inflected coconut-curry tilapia. 

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Ha’s comic is an accessible entry into Korean cuisine, which had until recently lagged in popularity behind restaurant Japanese and Chinese fare. But now, kimchi is heralded by food literati as a celebrated topping during the continuing burger boom. Lettuce wraps take a page from Korean ssam wraps — grilled meats often cradled in perilla leaves that, if we use winespeak, have notes of mint and anise. And chefs of Korean descent such as Momofuku's David Chang and Roy Choi have been bringing Korean-inspired spicy flavors to their restaurants and food trucks.

Cook Korean! — which is described as a comic book with recipes — is Ha’s effort to introduce her brand of Korean food as a contemporary convenience food. Of course, convenience is relative. The kimchi isn’t buried and fermented for months in earthenware containers, as of old, or bought in the store like many Koreans do. Ha makes many varieties of the legendary fermented fruit or vegetable dish at home in quickie versions that can be prepared and consumed in as little as a day.

“Korean cooking is really not fussy,” she said. “I can't think of a time I've used an oven. If you have a big pan, a cutting board and the ingredients, all you need is fire or a stove, and it doesn't take that much time. I think it's the perfect food for any modern-era citizen, whether you are Korean or not. People have this weird idea about Korean food, that it's very complex to make.”

That misconception may partly stem from the food’s distinct flavor profile. This fare is not for the milquetoast palate. Even with regional variety, it has a penchant for the peppery and the pungent; a fondness for offal; and its own seafood-and barbecue-rich take on surf and turf.

“It’s very bold. Koreans are good at preserving foods, we’re surrounded by sea and mountains, and we didn’t have enough meat or grain go around. So Korean people have found a way to use every part of the animal, the wheat growing on the side of the road, and things that other people won’t eat. And while people think our food is just about those meat dishes [in Korean barbecue], you can get a full-sized dinner of vegetable dishes in the array of banchan that defy the concept of the side dish as a mere accessory to the entrée.”

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Cook Korean! is both a document of Ha’s literal and symbolic travels. Notably, the book starts with Ha as a child too consumed in her drawing and imagination to pay attention to the day’s worth of meals her mother made each morning before work. Her mother was a collaborator in recipe development and Ha’s most rigorous taste tester for Cook Korean! But Ha’s cooking jones began in earnest when she traveled to Italy during her senior year of college at the Rhode Island School of Design. There, her homestay “mother” pulled her into the kitchen and taught her to how to make pasta and to grill meat — ironically, a skill that’s critical to Korean cuisine.

There’s part of the charm of Ha’s comic: While she demonstrates her knowledge of Korean foodways, the book makes clear that she too had to learn as she cooked dishes she had never made. One drawing details her repeated failures trying to make an acorn jelly salad, which turned inedible and rock-hard until she figured out the correct ratio of acorn flour to water. And the comic is for the home cook with little knowledge of Korean cuisine and perhaps little access to some ingredients. There are substitutions and maker-oriented tips such as making her quick kimchis in a glass jars, rather than plastic containers that would be stained by the red pepper.

Recipe development was a long and new process for Ha, who served as author, artist and food stylist. Working with her mother and a mentor, Ha watched them cook, stopped them before they added ingredients, and measured. After recording quantities and instructions, she made the dish herself and presented it for their approval — a sometimes contentious process.

“Cooking is very subjective, like all art. Sometimes, I’d say ‘This is too salty,’ sometimes we’d agree it was just right. Sometimes, we’d fight. One of us would back down and let the other win. In the end, it’s like any other mother-daughter relationship.”

Through multiple attempts to create a dish, she first made realistic watercolors of every step. But she realized that pencil sketches would be easier to edit. She scanned the drawings, placed them on a page, and added lettering through Photoshop.

Ha colored the comic’s introductory historical panels in sepia tones, but its narrative bursts into color when Ha describes her more contemporary struggles to find affordable, cheap and tasty food in pricey New York City.

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The comic then shifts to a fictional narrator, Denghki, a fresh-faced Korean woman who wears the hanbok, the traditional empire blouse and full skirt that’s often made in Day-Glo colors (and I should note not recommended for cooking). Denghki’s name came from a heroine in a comic book Ha read during her youth and refers to the special ribbon young, unmarried women sported to signal they were single. Denghki was, in Ha’s words, supposed to represent Korea and make U.S. readers feel like they were talking to “their younger sister from another country.”

With Ha and Denghki as co-guides through the book, readers get a tour through a Korean pantry. Ha recommends always having fish sauce; soy sauce and soybean paste; and toasted sesame oil (which yields a nutty flavor known as gosohanmat). But the hardest-working ingredients may be the red pepper flakes and the fermented red pepper-rice-soybean paste called gochuchang at the core of so many dishes.

But, artistically, Ha admits that having such a stable of small but versatile staples makes the cooking easier but the illustration harder.

“I used to pay so much attention to the detail in an illustration. But as a cartoonist, I became very economical in my drawing. You have to do that so people enjoy the book and to make the recipe clear. But it is a challenge: How many ways are there to draw a cabbage or a pan?”

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