What this food writer wants people to know about Korean cuisine
Food writer Su Scott says her world started to “collapse” after giving birth to her first child.
“It sounds dramatic, but when my daughter was born, it was like wow, I have this child, there is a responsibility to keep this newborn alive,” she remembers, with the added pressure of being “the sole bearer of the culture as an immigrant mum”.
Scott moved from Seoul to London when she was 19, and her half-Korean daughter, Kiki, is now eight.
Now 42, Scott has spent most of her adult life in the UK, and she remembers: “As an immigrant living in the UK, trying to embrace the culture and immerse myself into it, I lost the sense of who I am. Having my daughter made me question my identity.
“Cooking Korean food felt like the most immediate, tangible thing I could reach out to, to make some sense of who I was.”
Not that it was necessarily this easy. “The whole process went on for a long time, it crept up slowly but surely,” she says.
“It didn't take me long to realise that my world was collapsing in front of me. I didn't know how to put it together. I knew I'd have to dig deep.”
Scott calls it a “hard” and “lonely” experience, but says it was “very rewarding, because you come out the other side knowing exactly who you are”.
She used food as a way to reconnect with her homeland, but suggests its importance isn't uniquely Korean.
“It's not just my culture – I think food is such an integral part of human living. What we often forget is how the small things from our ordinary days can make up such a powerful part of who we are,” she says.
When embarking on this journey, there were two dishes from her childhood Scott wanted to try.
“The thing I really wanted to recreate and eat was bone broth,” she says, lighting up at the memory.
“When I think about my childhood, there's this powerful moment of smell,” says Scott. “There's this one specific memory of my father sourcing the good meat bones, and my mother preparing the broth for days on end.
“The whole house would smell of bones. It's not a nasty smell, but it's not overly pleasant either. It's the dish I absolutely hated as a child, but it's also the one I felt so loved with.”
Scott was initially too scared to make it herself – in case it tainted her memories – but now she says “it has got another story to it”, and she makes it every winter for her daughter. And no, it doesn't taste like her mother's – but she says that's “a good thing in a way”.
The other dish that “really connected me to the Korean food of my childhood was kimchi stew”, Scott says. She started cobbling together the ingredients for this dish without really thinking about what she was doing, and felt a “moment of euphoria” when it all came together.
“This is the taste of home,” she says. “Making this dish taught me so much about how I could reconnect to my culture, my heritage and myself.
“I needed to find the person I was when I was in Korea, in order to make sense of who I am now, as a mother.”
Korean food has more visibility on the world stage than ever before, with Scott saying: “It's so exciting, isn't it? I never, ever imagined that I would see a jar of kimchi in a normal supermarket. It's amazing.
“I think Korean food has still got a long way to go in the UK, though. The range is very limited.”
That's why Scott wants to highlight everyday Korean dishes in her debut cookbook, Rice Table.
“When you talk about Korean food with other people, they talk about bulgogi and bibimbap. Of course, these are wonderful dishes that champion Korean cuisine, but they are only a fraction of what we offer,” she says.
“I wanted to champion the daily home cooking of Korean culture. I wanted to champion all the mothers and their labours – that's not necessarily always celebrated.”
A big part of this – and what makes up the first chapter in the book – is banchan culture.
“It's the small-plate dishes,” Scott explains. “When you Google ‘banchan', a lot of websites will tell you it's a side dish” – something that “really bugged” her.
Banchan dishes in the book include tofu with buttered kimchi, stir-fried fishcakes with green peppers, soy sauce-glazed aubergines, and spring onion pancakes.
“Individually they are delicious, they each have a place in their own right. It's a bit sad to call them side dishes, isn't it?”
Rice Table by Su Scott is published by Quadrille on March 30, priced £27. Photography by Toby Scott.