By Esther Kim
K-pop is everywhere in Taiwan today, but good kimchi is hard to find. I miss kimchi, good kimchi. Where can one find good Korean food in Taipei?
Growing up in New York in the 1990s, I took our grocery stores, churches, and restaurants for granted. Since the 1960s, the Korean immigrant population of New York surged to 150,000, so I never lacked for our food. We frequented the “Kimchi Belt” of Queens’ Northern Boulevard, dubbed as such by the New York Times. I practically grew up inside the now-shuttered restaurant Kum Gang San as an infant with tables set with 10 panchan minimum. We ate what the late, great LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold would identify as “this completely, beautiful, unvarnished stuff from the 70s. Sometimes it blows people’s minds when they come from Korea.”
Coming from New York’s Koreatowns, Taipei’s limited access drove me bonkers. No matter that the peninsula was only a 2-hour flight from the island — Taiwan’s trade relations and unrecognized diplomatic status made the familiar flavors and brands of my childhood elusive. I got my international relations lessons from the grocery store. South Korea saw China as a more important trading partner: No Pulmuone, CJ, or Jongga. The “Gwangju Kimchi,” gochugaru (chili powder), and seaweed (laver) were all made in Taiwan. It all tasted and looked off to me. Over in the produce aisle, Chinese greens, and in the canned aisle, mostly EU or Japanese imports. My kimchi cravings went largely unsatisfied.
I thought back to my grandpa’s habit of finishing whole jars of olives in NYC in the 1970s as a substitute. In a fit of desperation and a bit of luck, I stumbled upon the English language cookbooks at the Taipei Public Library Main Branch.
Stories about food are deeply soothing. Even before I learned how to read, I loved listening to descriptions of the delicious rice cakes wrapped in folktales and briny abalone in lullabies. Eventually, I read a children’s book about living off the land: Who could forget Heidi and her warm goat’s milk in the Swiss Alps? Finally, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London introduced me to grimy restaurant kitchens … There was a moment in 2018 when I worked at Archestratus, an independent bookshop in Brooklyn centered around food.
So I was pleasantly surprised and edified by the library’s cookbook acquisitions. Its English cookbooks couldn’t have been more perfect, more global, more contemporary. The fourth floor of the library became my sanctuary of sorts and served as my lifeline to the rest of the world.
Past the grove of desks, tucked into ivory metal shelving, English language cookbooks sit alongside gardening books. I fell upon the Korean American cookbooks with delight and then fascination. Unbeknownst to me, they were from the early 2000s — before South Korea became hot, before beautiful, glossy cookbooks signaled prestige on coffee tables, before celebrity chef shows and cooking videos exploded on TikTok and YouTube. They were time capsules of sorts. One volume in particular, “Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen” by Hisoo Shin Hepinstall, became my lifeline to Korean American cooking, my home away from home.
A former novelist in South Korea, Hisoo Shin Hepinstall married an American academic and led a peripatetic life. She trained at Le Cordon Bleu. That French culinary training shines in the book built upon the rigorous, foundational Korean home kitchen training. She wears it all lightly when she explains pantry ingredients with casual intelligence. I got the sense that she stood next to me in the Korean grocery store, glancing over my shoulder and sharing life-long lessons.
I never knew the different Korean salts by name, only by feel. Knowing their name, “flower salt” for “refined salt,” added new poetry to the seasoning. I returned to the library and made it my ritual to read her book. On Saturday afternoons, students curled into question marks over their workbooks, and retiree couples napped next to each other with stacks of unopened hardcovers. I pulled out “Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen” and settled into my favorite pleather armchair in a corner and whiled away an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.
Shin Hepinstall’s cooking harkens to her childhood in the 1930s. The grand house layout. The different sets of tableware for the men, women, and servants were observed even in dining: porcelain dishes and used nickel spoons and chopsticks for the boys; earthenware dishes and wooden or brass spoons and chopsticks for the girls and servants. The feast days. The Shin clan was a distinguished family. Only a handful of black and white photographs of the dishes appear — it wasn’t yet glossy cookbook era — and this lack forced me to rely on my taste memories. What the cookbook lacked in photographs, it made up for in its staggering wealth of history, knowledge, experience, training, research and tips all documented with incredible precision, patience, care and thoughtfulness. She understood that this way of cooking and way of life was idiosyncratic, especially when each family kitchen recipe was unique, and her memories worth gold.
With her as a companion in Taiwan, I felt calmer in making kimchi for the first time living far from friends and family.
Esther Kim is a freelance writer based in Taiwan. She was senior manager at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City and Tilted Axis Press in London, and a publicist at Columbia University Press. She writes about culture and the Koreas.