Chef Hooni Kim (of Danji) has just launched his second project, Hanjan, in the Flatiron District. It’s Kim’s take on a “joo mak,” a traditional Korean tavern, and the menu is meant to evoke the comfort food found at Korean street markets (think: barbecue skewers and scallion pancakes with local squid). But dining at Hanjan is thoroughly modern. For unlike many other Korean restaurants, Hanjan’s French- and Japanese-trained chef has chosen to forgo MSG.
Q. A lot of Korean food uses MSG, but at both Danji and Hanjan, you won’t find it anywhere on the menu. What made you choose to skip MSG in your cooking?
A. I had my training in French and Japanese cooking and didn’t know how to use MSG. I only know how to cook one way, which is the Daniel way and the Masa way. When I make a stock, I do it the French way, and when I make a dashi, I do it the Japanese way. I never really considered MSG a Korean ingredient, but later learned that Korean chefs use MSG like the French use salt.
Traditional Korean chefs think using a little MSG is absolutely necessary. I think this becomes moot if you have a chef who has pride in what they do, trained in a way where MSG is not the norm. But I’m sure if I learned how to cook in Korea, with chefs who use MSG, I’d probably be inclined to, as well. It’s a cultural thing. I’ve always believed it was like athletes using steroids: it’s cheating. You’re getting flavor without all the work.
There is still a disagreement about whether MSG is harmful or not, but after I turned 35, it really started to kick my ass, going to these Korean restaurants. I made a decision that MSG was harmful to myself. I take a lot of food from the restaurant home, and I wouldn’t feel right serving food that has MSG in it to my four-year-old son.
Q. How does leaving out MSG affect the taste of Korean food?
A. If you make really good food, MSG doesn’t really enhance it that much, but if you add it to a watery stock, it makes a difference. It’s a complete shortcut. We’re making food where, taste- and health-wise, MSG wouldn’t make it better. Making our short ribs is almost a three-day process: we sear, braise, and let it sit. I really don’t think MSG could improve the flavor.
Q. What are some tricks and tips you can share with readers, to create that toothsome, umami taste?
A. The one thing that can help bring out the flavors is a Japanese broth that’s called a dashi. It’s made up of kombu, dried anchovies, and dried shiitake mushrooms. It takes about four hours, or you can leave the ingredients overnight to soak in room temperature water. Then the next morning, do a very slow, light, boil for an hour and a half. Every ten minutes, you’ll taste the progression: the water becomes softer, and then you get the seaweed and sea flavor, and then it turns sweet. If you overcook it, it starts to turn bitter. Instead of a flavorful chicken stock, this neutral dashi brings out the flavor more. We use that instead of water in almost everything: stews, braises, et cetera.
Q. Where do you get some of your key ingredients?
A. We get four ingredients from farms in Korea, that you can’t get here: soy sauce, miso, red pepper flakes, and sesame oil. These ingredients differentiate us from any other Korean restaurant in this country. Korean soy sauce is different from Japanese soy sauce because it is gluten-free (and I have a gluten allergy). Korean miso, or soy bean paste, also has no wheat. Our Korean Miso Stew at Danji, for example, is gluten-free. They put artificial smoke in the sesame seed oil here and in Japan, which makes it smell deliciously smoky, but gives it a bitter flavor. Where I get it, they hand roast the sesame seeds, which takes a long time, but the smell of this oil is consistent with the taste. The red pepper flakes come from Korean peppers rather than Mexican peppers, and Korea is a very small land, so the terroir is affected by all the foods being grown there, giving the pepper more of a natural sweetness. One tastes a little drier, the other one still has life. I don’t have to use white sugar to sweeten or brighten something up.
We also use garlic from Gilroy, California. Ninety percent of garlic sold in this country now comes from China, and the initial flavor of Chinese garlic is aggressive, so it tastes really good, but the flavor disappears after a few hours. It wasn’t easy for me to find California garlic, but Baldor sells one of the brands we use, Christopher Ranch Garlic. Korean food is based on garlic, and for our braises, which we do a day ahead, we care if the flavor goes away in four hours. Imagine making kimchi with flavor that disappears like that!
Another special ingredient we source is what’s listed on our menu as “freshly killed chicken.” It comes from a gentleman named Carlo who buys his chickens from Pennsylvania. We used to use his chicken at Masa, which is when I first met him. The birds are really small, and he kills them every day. We get them around 1:30 or 2 p.m., and they’re still warm. The most distinct part of this chicken is how fresh it is. The texture is incredible. It’s not a gimmick; once you taste it, you know why we call it fresh killed. We use most of the parts in our yakitori grills, even the gizzard and the skin. We use the leftover bones to make ramen. We also use Niman Ranch pork, and put the bones in the ramen broth. Koreans are very sensitive to the gamey smell of pork, because pork in Korea doesn’t smell at all. Niman Ranch is the cleanest-smelling pork I’ve found.
Q. Would you ever go back to cooking French food?
A. French is a technique I learned, and am so thankful to Daniel for giving me that skill and applying it to Korean food. The most important thing is cooking who you are.
36 W. 26th St., New York, NY 10010
Image courtesy of Hooni Kim