It was LKL’s first transatlantic trip for about two years, and I was keen to see what had changed in Manhattan’s Koreatown. In addition, I was keen to meet up with Maangchi, one of the winners of the first prize in the KTO’s Blog Korea, Visit Korea competition. I had been aware of Maangchi’s work as a leading Korean food blogger for a while – from her early beginnings on YouTube around two and a half years ago to her status now where she has her own fan page on Facebook.
The blogging competition had a wide remit: travel, culture, food. The criteria were vague, but it was clear that consistent blogging on the chosen subject area plus good readership statistics were part of the mix. Maangchi covers an area that Korea’s First Lady has put centre stage (with the objective of Korean Food being a top 5 world cuisine within a decade); and if you Google “Korean Cooking”, Maangchi is the first hit. So I reckon she ticks the boxes and is a deserved winner. 
I had contacted Maangchi via Twitter, and had issued her with a challenge: prove to me that Manhattan can compete with London in terms of quality of Korean restaurants. It was a challenge she was happy to accept.
We meet in Koryo Books in 32nd Street – now a peculiarly depressing place: its retail space seems to have shrunk since my last visit, there is even less English language content, and their CDs as poorly laid out as ever. Their only competitor, AM Records, is now a tattoo parlour, and the sad demise of that friendly store has had zero impact on Koryo.
Maangchi offers the option of seollongtang or barbecue. As I’m accompanied by a work colleague I opt for the more conventional choice, and we walk down the street to Kumgangsan. Maangchi orders the bulgogi and dwenjang jjigae, with plenty of side dishes.
Maangchi, real name Kim Kwang-sook, is a Canadian citizen now living in Manhattan’s west side. When she’s not blogging and recording her famous cookery videos, she is a counsellor caring for women who are victims of abuse. Born in Jeolla province, she was a graduate student and trapped in Kwangju at the time of the uprising in 1980. Like many people, she stayed indoors to avoid horrors being played out in the streets. She left Korea in 2000 for Toronto.
From small beginnings, her online presence has been taking up an increasing amount of time. “You wouldn’t believe it: every video takes me at least eight hours to edit” she says. Actually, seeing the finished results, with captions and music, you can see that a lot of work has gone into the final product. She has a small group of cameramen who film her videos, all of them volunteers. But her videos are all unrehearsed, leading to a spontaneous, approachable style. Her latest, a samgyeopsal tutorial, even has a guest helper.
She has a massive mailbag, which takes time to read and respond to. It is said that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and perhaps cookery is something which has a unique power to conjure up memories of the good times. A big part of her readership is the immigrant population in the US. A particularly moving story involved a woman who had never been taught to cook by her now deceased mother, who was living with her father in America. She tried cooking some of the dishes from Maangchi’s videos. Her father, with tears in his eyes, was transported back to his earlier life in Korea: “that smell is exactly how your mother used to make it” he cried. Also avid followers are the Korean adoptee community in various countries. Having been uprooted from Korea before the time of their earliest memories, they are maybe trying to explore their roots and identity through the tastes and smells of Maangchi’s recipes.
I’m honoured to be able to meet up with her: she is always being pressed for radio or newspaper interviews, and she has started turning them down, having been messed around once too often. But a low-key dinner in K-town was something she was happy to commit to. I’m hoping that she’ll pay a visit to London soon so that I can introduce her to some of the good things here.
And the verdict on the restaurant? I can reconfirm that I have yet to discover a Korean restaurant in Manhattan which can rival London. Kumgangsan’s dwenjang jjigae tasted like the chef had mixed a tin of oxtail soup with a tin of French onion soup and chucked in some tofu garnish. He could do with some lessons from Maangchi, queen of the K-food bloggers.
- Maangchi’s account of the evening on her blog
- Maangchi’s fan page on Facebook
- Maangchi on Flickr | Twitter | YouTube
- Kumgansan restaurant
- LKL’s less focused remit and more restricted readership earned the site one of the second places in the competition. [back]