NOW, YOU CAN SLURP YOUR WAY TO SEOUL
Throughout NYC, Japanese ramen has been all the craze. From Harlem to Prospect Heights, shops that sell these slurp-worthy bowls can be found on every street corner. However, Korean ramen remains relatively untouched. Winning the Village Voice Reader’s Choice Best New Restaurant in 2014, mokbar has become New York’s go-to Korean noodle shop since opening in Chelsea Market a year ago. Chef Esther Choi is a young and talented chef who infuses authentic Korean ingredients and old family recipes – such as kimchijigae (kimchi stew), bibimbap (stone pot rice), and naengmyeon (cold noodles) – with an American twist, creating her own style of Korean “soul” food. In this episode of LUCKYINSIDER, we delve into the mind of a ramen superstar:
LUCKYRICE: You’ve spent a lot of time in Korea and grew up cooking Korean food with your grandmother – were there specific dishes from your childhood that inspired the menu for mokbar?
Esther Choi: Every dish on the menu at mokbar is somehow inspired by my childhood. Each is heavily influenced by my Korean upbringing and the staples I grew up eating. The greatest influence and the most difficult to recreate has to be my grandmother’s sonmat or “hand taste”, the innate flavor that comes from the love and passion she puts into her food.
LUCKYRICE: Many Korean dishes involve fermented ingredients, like kimchi or doenjang (soy bean paste), which many consider to be acquired tastes. Have you adapted traditional Korean flavors to fit American taste buds?
Esther: I was very skeptical when I first put doenjang on the menu, but I believed its umami flavor would, in the end, sell itself. For most people, once they get over the initial smell, they fall in love. Yes, I did have to tweak the recipe to make it a bit less stinky, but overall, the innate flavor of the paste very much remains present. Even though the flavors of each dish are traditional, I try to make them palatable to the customer who has never tried Korean food before. For me, as a business owner and as a chef, it’s important to know who I’m cooking for and I’ve learned a lot by simply listening to my customers and tweaking recipes so they appeal to a wider audience while maintaining Korean flavor profiles in a more subtle way.
LUCKYRICE: When most people think of Korean food, the first thing that comes to mind is Korean BBQ. Why did you decide to focus on ramen?
Esther: Ramen was sort of the last factor I thought of during the process of opening mokbar. My decision to serve ramen was a business tactic and figuring out what type of Korean food would fit best in the space. Korean BBQ, traditional Korean food, and street food all had to be crossed off. Luckily, I had worked inside Chelsea Market for over three years before opening mokbar so I had a very good sense of my customer base. I was also very lucky that ramen, a growing trend, was not yet readily available in the Chelsea area. I didn’t even know that much about ramen – all I knew at the time was that it would work here in the space. My business tactic was using ramen as a vehicle to introduce Korean food in a different way. I knew it would get a lot of attention and doing it inside Chelsea Market would make it a big hit.
LUCKYRICE: What differentiates Korean ramen from its Japanese counterpart?
Esther: This has been something that has always been somewhat confusing because ramen is not even necessarily Korean. The bowls we serve at mokbar, from the broth to the artisanal noodles, are created using traditional Japanese techniques. However, all of the flavorings used are Korean. The tare is not Japanese but kimchi purée. When people come to mokbar expecting Japanese ramen, they leave disappointed because it has Korean flavors. When people visit expecting the same Korean food they get in Korea Town, they leave disappointed because it isn’t traditional. You have to keep an open mind about what I’m trying to do, which is beyond creating ramen or just having a restaurant. It’s about spreading Korean culture and getting people to be familiar with our cuisine.
LUCKYRICE: Favorite late night snack?
Esther: That is such a difficult question! After a long day in the kitchen, all I want to eat is an apple or a piece of fruit. I don’t even want to look at cooked food. However, if I had to choose, it would have to be fried rice. I love making my “everything but the kitchen sink” fried rice where I literally use everything and anything that I have in the fridge, add in cold rice, and top it off with a fried egg and some ketchup. When I eat late night snacks, it has to be quick and easy. My other guilty pleasure has to be buffalo wings – I could eat them forever!