Korean and Southern food may not seem like a natural pair. But now it's one more example of traditions emulsifying in the great American melting pot. Korean-American chef Edward Lee makes that case with his new cookbook Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories From a New Southern Kitchen.
Fusion cooking comes naturally to Lee: He grew up in an immigrant neighborhood of Brooklyn surrounded by Jamaicans, Indians, Iranians and Jews.
"When they immigrated to America, my parents deliberately decided they weren't going to live in the big Korean enclaves," Lee tells Morning Edition host David Greene. "They wanted to spread out and be amongst other people. That education in cuisine, ranging from so many different immigrant groups probably left more of a lasting impression on me in cuisine than anything else.
"Their whole thing was 'You're an American. Be an American,' " Lee says.
But Korean food was a way Lee connected with his grandmother. She rarely spoke of Korea because she didn't have very happy memories, he says, but "food was the one thing that was kind of sacred and pure and hadn't been torn apart."
As a kid, Lee says he would hang out with her in the kitchen, and at first, she ignored him. "I would, little by little, start helping her with things," he says. "She got very annoyed by that at first. She's like, 'You're a man. You're not supposed to be here learning how to make kimchi — that's women's work.' "
Over the years, he says, they developed a strong bond that relied on few words.
Korean food was also how Lee established himself as a chef. In 1998 he opened a restaurant in Manhattan called Clay, which attracted a clientele that included plenty of celebrities. But the excitement wore off quickly.
"Everything seemed right on paper: Korean kid opens Korean restaurant," he says. "But it just didn't feel right to me, and I wasn't incredibly proud of the food. I felt like it was just an extension of what I thought people wanted me to cook."
He started to re-evaluate things and decided to travel around the country. The farthest his family had traveled in his childhood was New Jersey. "That was huge for us," he says. "Although I grew up in America and I was influenced by all of the things that other Americans are, I had no idea what America was. It was this vast unknown beyond New Jersey."
So in 2001 Lee went to places like Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., for the first time. And it was in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby that he fell in love with the South.
Within a year he had moved there to take over a restaurant called 610 Magnolia and the fusion instinct kicked in. He started mixing Korean spice with Southern comfort food.
"Southern food tends to be a little bit on the sweeter side. Asian food tends to be a little bit on the saltier, kind of umami side," Lee says. "When they work and you put them together, they are actually are a wonderful marriage."
Grits, for example, reminded Lee of congee, a rice porridge Koreans usually eat with soy sauce and seafood. So Lee came up with a recipe for lamb braised in soy sauce and served over grits, transforming the sweet taste of the corn into something new.
Or take fried chicken. Koreans actually have a long tradition of frying chicken, Lee says. They just have a slightly different method of preparing the chicken for frying. "The results are almost similar, but it's just different pathways to the same place," he says. "And I find that a lot in Asian cuisine and Southern cuisine."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Kentucky Derby is tomorrow and it is as much about pageantry and food as it is about the races. The Derby was a big reason why Chef Edward Lee fell in love with Kentucky. The "Top Chef" chef trained in kitchens all over France. He owned a restaurant in Manhattan that attracted plenty of celebrities.
But then at age 27, he started to take these road trips all across the country.
CHEF EDWARD LEE: Wound up, through a friend of a friend who said, hey, you've got to go to Derby. And I thought of course I do.
GREENE: Of course you do.
LEE: I have to wear seersucker and drink bourbon.
LEE: And wear a hat. It just felt like a great party and a great atmosphere.
GREENE: And 10 years later, Lee is still there. He owns a couple of restaurants in Louisville and is just out with a new cookbook called "Smoke and Pickles." Before all of that, as a Korean-American kid growing up in Brooklyn, Edward Lee learned to love a huge range of flavors and cultures and all the ways they could mix together.
LEE: My parents deliberately, when they immigrated to America, decided they weren't going to live in the big Korean enclaves, that they wanted to sort of spread out and be amongst other people.
GREENE: To expose you to other cultures and?
LEE: Yeah, and just to be American, which I thought that was pretty forward-thinking. I probably didn't realize it or appreciate it at the time but, I mean, I was surrounded by Jamaicans and Indian cuisine and Iranian cuisine and Jewish cuisine and...
GREENE: What a mix.
LEE: Yeah. And a lot of these people just became, you know, our default babysitters. You know, they would be neighbors and they would come by and drop off food and we'd hand out and I would go to their house. You know, it was just we experienced it really from a home kitchen, not from a restaurant side.
GREENE: Hmm. So many flavors. It sounds really cool.
LEE: Yeah. That was - for me, I grew up watching my grandmother cook and I would hang out with her in the kitchen and she knew I was watching her. And she would just continue. And she would ignore me for hours. And she would just tell me, like, get out of here, I'm busy. But she knew I was watching. And I would, little by little just start helping her with things.
And I knew it was very funny too because from a very patriarchal society that Korean culture is, it's the daughter that does that. My sister, god bless her, I love her, but, you know, she can't cook a thing of Ramen.
GREENE: She hears this and she won't be offended, right?
LEE: No, no. She knows that. She's happy to eat out at restaurants. And she was kind of wild child and I was the one - I was like I'm not going anywhere. I live here. I'm going to watch you cook and I'm going to steal your secrets. She put a lot of thought and effort and meaning into everything she did. And then there was a lot of it that she rejected some of the things of her past because to her it represented poverty.
You know, it's like to cook rice on the stovetop was something that poor people did. Because now, look at me, I've got an electric Japanese rice maker.
LEE: And with a touch of a button I can make rice in 20 minutes.
GREENE: She preferred sometimes to use the rice cooker because it was a statement about that I'm not in poverty. I can afford a rice cooker.
LEE: Exactly. Yeah.
GREENE: You grew up, you get this great career, and you open up a Korean barbecue restaurant in the middle of Manhattan. Why is that not where you decided to stay? Why did you not feel like, you know, I've made it, this is great?
LEE: You know, it wasn't - it was an OK restaurant. You know, I'm not going to lie.
GREENE: It was all right. It was OK.
LEE: Everything seemed right on paper. You know, Korean kid opens Korean restaurant.
LEE: But it just didn't feel right. And I wasn't incredibly proud of the food. I felt like it was just an extension of what I thought people wanted me to cook.
GREENE: And so that brings us to Kentucky. Tell me how you blend Southern comfort food and, you know, Korean food and Korean spices. What's the key?
LEE: To me it's just very instinctual. I didn't know much about Southern food when I first moved to Louisville, but obviously the more I lived here the more I traveled and the more I met farmers and the more I met these crazy people that grew these crazy things here. And, wow, this is amazing.
And I love that, you know, because Southern food tends to be a little bit on the sweeter side. Asian food tends to be a little bit on the saltier, kind of umami side. And when they work and you put them together, they are actually are a wonderful marriage.
GREENE: Kimchi, pickling cabbage? It's sort of...
LEE: This is fermented cabbage pickle.
GREENE: Where do we see kimchi meeting Southern food in your book?
LEE: Kimchi is really a verb. You kimchi things. You can kimchi cabbage.
LEE: You can make kimchi out of oysters, cucumbers, radishes.
GREENE: I can kimchi oysters?
LEE: You can kimchi oysters. But all you're doing is, you know, taking raw oysters, putting it into a brine, and then letting it ferment.
LEE: And you cure it. So, I mean, yeah, you can kimchi pretty much anything.
GREENE: I'm very curious, because you said you've traveled around the farms of Kentucky and you've seen some crazy things. What's the craziest?
LEE: I remember the first time that I heard the word sorghum.
LEE: So sorghum is very much like a cane sugar.
LEE: And it looks like bamboo and you chop it down. And then you boil it down to make something that resembles honey but is a lot darker, deeper, richer, has more flavor.
GREENE: Huh. And you use that in a lot of your cooking?
LEE: Pretty much the day I discovered sorghum I said we are never using honey again.
LEE: When I first got here 10 years ago there was still this fascination with European cuisine and, you know, you would go to a restaurant and we've have wildflower truffle honey from Alba. And, you know, it was all delicious. But I remember driving through a roadside stand and saw this old farmer in dungarees and she had this thing call sorghum in a jar.
And I remembered this sorghum. I said, isn't that, like, you know, feed for animals? And she said, well, that's sorghum crop. This is sorghum plant. And she explained the whole thing to me. And I remember thinking why are we buying honey from 1,000 miles and in another continent?
LEE: When you have this incredible indigenous product not 30 miles away from my restaurant and these incredible people who spent their life and their parents' lives and their grandparents' lives and their great-grandparents' lives growing this crop in a farm in Winchester, Kentucky. And I thought this is incredible. This is what agriculture is all about.
GREENE: Before we go, I can't leave you without mentioning the Kentucky Derby one more time. Because there are a lot of good Kentucky Derby drinks in this cookbook.
LEE: Yes, there are. We love the cocktails. I keep the cocktails very simple because for the very simple fact that a good bourbon is good on its own with maybe a cube of ice and a little bit of water.
LEE: But if you must, during the celebration season, everyone likes to have a little flourish on their cocktail. So we do have some fine cocktails like the jalapeno mint julep.
GREENE: Oh, wow.
LEE: Which is a drink that bites you back a little bit.
GREENE: Edward Lee, this has been so much fun. We really appreciate the time.
LEE: Thank you. I enjoyed being on.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Edward Lee's new cookbook is called "Smoke and Pickles" and if you want to make that jalapeno mint julep for the Derby tomorrow, you can find the recipe at our website npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.