| Arts & Culture
Bad Kimchi Why You Should Be Watching Maangchi, the Korean Cooking YouTube Star
I used to imagine having a Korean mother, someone rich in stories and jokes about Korean food and culture. My Korean mom would, ideally, be Maangchi.
This is Bad Kimchi , a monthly column by Noah Cho about how food and cooking can inform our identities.
This is not the first piece ever been written about Maangnchi. Julia Moskin profiled her over at the New York Times , and in one of my favorite personal essays about cooking Korean food—by Japanese Breakfast frontperson and multiracial Korean Michelle Zauner—Maangchi was featured as someone who bridged a culinary gap for the author, helping her replicate dishes she craved. But this is my own ode to Maangchi, the Korean mother I never had and always secretly wanted.
My mom is a dynamite cook of Korean food , and did her best to impart the culture to me. I love her dearly. But I used to imagine having a Korean mother, too—in addition to, not instead of, my own mom—someone rich in stories and jokes about Korean culture, who would take me on tours of Korean grocery stores and explain what everything was.
My Korean mom would, ideally, be Maangchi. For those of you who don’t know, Maangchi is a relentlessly cheerful Korean cook. She has a cookbook , a YouTube channel , and a website . All of these elements combine, like ingredients in the finest jjigae, to create perhaps the best internet resource for those of us who enjoy cooking Korean food at home—or just want to know what exactly goes into the Korean food we eat.
One of the dishes I’ve always wanted to correctly produce when it comes to Korean food is bindaetteok, a savory mung bean pancake. It’s long been a favorite dish of mine. I associated bindaetteok with my halmoni’s cooking , and figured that taste was something I’d never quite have again. Still, for years, I tried to get it right and always failed—until Maangchi came to the rescue.
I defy anyone to watch Maangchi making bindatteok and not want to eat this dish. The way she describes it—the textural difference between the crisp, nigh-caramelized outside and the soft, creamy interior peppered with kimchi and pork—is a perfect example about why it appeals to me so much. Within the first minute of watching this video , I realized how badly I’d screwed up my previous attempts at bindatteok: I’d purchased the wrong type of mung bean! I’d also been using the wrong rice—not the sweet, glutinous rice, called chapssal in Korean, but just plain old rice. I’d been misled by all the other recipes and friends I’d consulted over the years.
From then on, I let Maangchi guide me through the recipe. While the final product was not quite on par with what my halmoni could have produced, it was still far better than any bindaetteok I’d recently had outside of Gwangjang Market in Korea. Any time I was frustrated in my attempts at cooking Korean food, I knew I could rely on my Korean mom, Maangchi, for recipe relief.
It’s hard not be taken in by Maangchi’s friendliness and charisma. The title card of her videos features her chopping and holding a fish while also winking at the camera, sporting one of her trademark hair accessories. Her smile seems to promise that you—yes, you— will not only be charmed, but will also be able to cook the food she is about to show you.
I always feel oddly encouraged by Maangchi, like she believes in me. She believes in you, too—her social media feeds and her website makes it clear she is someone who truly tries to connect with her fans. She almost always praises her viewers’ attempts to get her recipes right: “Looks delicious!” She seems to have a huge fan base, and as someone who grew up eating Korean food before it was en vogue, seeing a random white grandma from the Midwest perfectly replicate Maangchi’s presentation of kimchi jjigae can be a surreal experience—but a heartening one as well.
Another dish I sometimes have a hard time getting right is jjajangmyeon, one of the most famous Chinese-Korean fusion dishes. It’s a comfort food that I crave when I’m feeling depressed; given the state of the world, I’ve found myself eating a lot of jjajangmyeon lately.
Just as comforting as eating it, though, is watching Maangchi’s video about making it. One of the things I always got wrong about jjajangmyeon was something Maangchi was able to fix for me. After stir-frying pork and veggies like zucchini, onions, and daikon, her next step is to create a little pool in the middle of the fried veggies to pour some oil and fry the murky, sticky black bean paste that gives the dish both its color and its rich, fermented flavor. Only when Maangchi does it , cute, friendly text suddenly appears, telling you not to “make a pool” for the oil and bean paste, but to “Make a little stage for Miss Beanpaste!” (I never forgot to fry the black bean paste ever again.)
Near as I can tell, Maangchi’s most-watched video is her guide to making kimchi at home. In the past several years, kimchi has been everywhere, morphing from something white kids used to mock in Korean kids’ lunches into something that massively bearded hipsters attempt to sell to me at farmers’ markets in Oakland and Berkeley. I’ve seen kimchi in places I’d kind of expect, like Berkeley Bowl, but I’ve also found it in stores like Safeway and Whole Foods. Most of this kimchi, especially the kinds found at non-Asian grocery stores, is pretty bad—even most of the kimchi you find in Korean grocery stores is mass-produced these days, robbed of its soul and its origins as the product of women’s labor in the motherland.
I have no proof (other than the hours and hours of Maangchi media I’ve consumed) that Maangchi doesn’t use or eat store-bought kimchi. However, her video about making kimchi seems to point to the notion that kimchi is something you should experience making, and making the way that so many generations of women have made it before.
Near the end of the video , she finally tastes the kimchi that’s she’s been fermenting. The text flies in once again: “I’m so proud of you, my kimchi! U grew up nicely!” It’s the affirmation that we’d all like to hear, offered up to this ripe, effervescent jar of kimchi made with her own hands. You can’t help but be proud of the kimchi, too.
In her jjajangmyeon video, one thing you’ll notice is that Maangchi doesn’t necessarily give you hard and fast rules or clear instructions and cook times to follow. That’s true of a lot of Korean home cookery. These are dishes that were created through generations of trial and error.
To Maangchi, this is the soul of what makes Korean food so lovely. Do not worry about the time, her videos tell you. Enjoy the process, the journey, the moment.
As Maangchi is frying, you might find yourself wondering how long she’s been cooking. A text box might pop up: “How long?”—and as she continues to stir-fry, another piece of text flies in: “Follow your heart!” And then you will remember that she is right: cooking food you love must come from the heart.