Robin Ha's new 'comic book with recipes' will turn you into an awesome Korean cook

If you want to learn to cook Korean food and you're starting from scratch, the first thing to do is find a very large jar. The second is to procure a copy of Cook Korean!: A Comic Book with Recipes

The jar, which needs to be glass and very large – like 96 ounces large – is for making kimchi, which is not only delicious (and super-healthy) on its own, but also an ingredient in many Korean dishes. It's also a hugely important part of Korean culture, as this story about kimchi and South Korean "gastrodiplomacy" from NPR's the Kitchen Sisters explains.

The book, engagingly written and illustrated by Robin Ha, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in illustration, makes learning this cuisine – which might otherwise be daunting if you're a first-timer – approachable and fun. That's because she uses her talents as a comic book artist to explain and illustrate techniques and walk you through the recipes. You can find some of her work on her blog, Banchan in 2 Pages, named for the assorted and multitudinous side dishes (banchan) served with a Korean meal.

But don't worry: Even if you don't want to make your own kimchi (which you can always buy), you can still jump in and turn out some terrific Korean dishes with Ha, who was born in South Korea, as your guide. If you're anything like me, you'll be hooked after making just a couple recipes. After you cook three or four, you'll even start to feel like an honest-to-goodness Korean cook. 

Are you game? Besides the book (or this blog post, with its linked recipes), you'll also need access to a few key Korean ingredients and (if you want to make kimchi) food-prep gloves. If you're lucky enough to live near a well-stocked Asian supermarket, that's easy. Pantry items, such as gochujang (Korean chile paste) and gochugaru (Korean red chile flakes) and food-prep gloves can be bought online, but you'll probably have to find refrigerated items, like the saeujeot (tiny fermented salted shrimp) used to make kimchi, in an Asian market. Nearly every recipe I tested in the book called for either gochujang or gochugaru or both. Of course if you do have access to an Asian supermarket, you'll find everything you need there – I even found boxes of disposable vinyl gloves. 

Gochugaru – Korean red chile flakes – will quickly become your best friend. 

If you are up for making kimchi – which I found incredibly rewarding (I thought only God could make kimchi!) and not nearly as involved as I imagined, here's the way it starts: Gather the saeujeot, gochugaru, napa cabbage, daikon radish and fish sauce – along with a few other standard staples (and yes, that giant jar) – and you're ready to rock 'n' roll. 

Make it once, and you understand basic kimchi technique,  which is pretty cool, as there are a jillion types of kimchi.

This one, which Ha calls Easy Kimchi, is the most basic – starring napa cabbage. It starts with a quick saltwater brine of the cabbage. After a 45-minute soak, squeeze out the water, put the cabbage in a big bowl with carrots, daikon, ginger, garlic, scallions, gochugaru, saeujeot, sugar and fish sauce, then put on those gloves, use your hands to mix it all together really well, pack it in the jar and close the lid. Put the jar in a plastic bag ("in case the juice overflows during fermentation"; mine didn't) and leave it at room temperature for 24 hours. After that, it's ready to eat – but it gets better and better as it sits in the fridge, where you can leave it, says Ha, up to a month. 

Even that second day, though, it's pretty fabulous. And abundant: You'll need to make room in the fridge for that giant jarful. I gave one smaller jar of it to a kimchi-loving friend (she swooned!) and about a month after I made it, I've managed to polish it off, nearly single-handedly. Wylie and Thierry acted extremely impressed and ate it heartily for a couple of days, but left the rest to me. It's great on its own as a snack, or as a condiment with other Korean dishes. 

Not everything in the book is spicy, and not everything requires ingredients not often found in Western kitchens (though most do). I loved a super-easy recipe for bean sprout salad, a classic banchan you can make using stuff you can find at a reasonably well-stocked regular supermarket. 

For this you just boil bean sprouts, drain and squeeze out the water, then toss them with chopped scallion, minced garlic, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds. I garnished it with a little more sesame seed and scallion. So good!

Now I was really starting to have fun. And the timing couldn't have been better: Many of the recipes are for dishes served cold – so deliciously refreshing for a hot summer!

You may have heard that it gets pretty toasty here in Texas, and on one oven-like day when it was 105 degrees in the shade, I thought hoedupbap.  A salad and rice bowl topped with raw fish: That's the ticket. Ha calls it "one of the healthiest, tastiest and easiest dishes in Korean cuisine." OK, then! "Its tangy, spicy dressing," she writes, "is the key to tying all of the ingredients together."

Hoedupbag – raw fish piled on salad piled on rice – before you mix it all up with spicy sauce

Right she was, on all counts. The spicy dressing – made with Asian pear, garlic, lemon juice, gochujang (that Korean chile paste I told you about), soy sauce, rice vinegar and sugar – is similar to others in the book, all whirred together in a blender. Ha says the cooking time is 10 minutes, but that doesn't take into account that one of the ingredients is freshly cooked rice, which takes about 35, including rinsing time and letting it sit for 15 minutes. I incorporated her rice recipe into my adaptation of her hoedupbap recipe.

Once you have the dressing ready, the rice cooked, the sashimi-grade raw fish sliced and the salad ingredients prepped (Romaine lettuce, Kirby cucumber, carrot and scallions), you assemble the ingredients in each of two bowls (the recipe serves two). Rice goes on the bottom, then salad, then fish on top, garnished with tobiko (flying fish roe), crushed toasted nori (seaweed) and toasted sesame seeds. 

Add spicy sauce to taste, mix it all up and eat!

Each lucky Korean food lover adds sauce to taste, mixes it all up and enjoys. At least we did! For raw fish, I used sashimi-grade tuna I bought at our fabulous local Super H-Mart.

Next I attempted mulnaengmyun – cold buckwheat noodles. Why not? I was on a roll! 

This time, I hit some stumbling blocks. You start preparing the dish the day before you want to eat it, blanching thin-sliced brisket in salted water for about a minute.  Pull out and chill the beef, and also chill the broth. Next day, you make quick-pickled daikon and cucumber, and the pickle juice combines with the beef broth to make a pickly broth for the noodles. 

Now I had a problem: Ha said to combine 1 cup of the broth and 1 cup of the pickle juice in each of 4 bowls, but I only had 3 1/2 cups of pickle juice. So I had to tweak, using 2/3 cup of each. That was no problem; it was plenty of pickly broth. 

But once I made the spicy red chile bibim sauce, cooked the soba (buckwheat noodles), sliced the Asian pear, hard-boiled the eggs and assembled the whole thing, it just wasn't that great – especially for a two-day recipe. The biggest problem was the beef, which was tough. Oh, well.

For a final test, I thought I'd try something served hot – just in case summer eventually decides to end.

I love daikon, whether raw or cooked, and I love shiny fish, like saury (mackerel pike), so a an easy, home-style recipe that marries saury and braised daikon, plus garlic, onions, ginger and chile, sounded ideal. The dish, writes Ha, "is a good example of how Koreans use seafood in everyday meals: It's easy and inexpensive and the leftovers taste good."

Well, this one tasted so good there were no leftovers. That was a tiny issue in the recipe, actually: While I usually found the portion sizes in the book to be pretty enormous, this one, whose headnote says it serves 4 to 6, was just enough for three, as far as the fish went. (There was enough daikon for four.) 

Before I made it, I was most curious about the canned saury the recipe calls for. I'd eaten fresh grilled or smoked saury many times in Japanese restaurants, but I'd never eat (or seen!) it canned. Again, Super H-Mart to the rescue: I found at least three different brands there. How to choose?  I went for the coolest looking can. What was inside looked like oversized sardines. 

The recipe – another super-easy one – worked great. You put chunks of daikon and onion in the bottom of a pot, pour the can of saury over it (including its liquid), along with a spicy sauce you've just thrown together (gochugaru, soy sauce, sugar, garlic and ginger). Cook it 25 minutes, add scallions and cook another 3 minutes.

Ha doesn't say to serve it with rice, but that's what her comic shows, so I did. Pretty good! Wylie's friend Jack, who had rarely eaten fish in all his 19 years, tried a plate of it. I was worried that he'd be put of by the saury's assertive flavor, but he loved it. 

So, four out of five recipes tested worked great – that's a pretty impressive result. I'll certainly make the kimchi and the bean sprouts salad again, and there are a bunch more recipes I want to try. Kimchi fried rice, for instance. And rice cake soup (tteokguk), traditional for New Year's Day. I'll probably skip the Korean barbecue (I think that's probably best cooked over charcoal at a special table in a restaurant), but there's a spicy pork over rice (jeyuk dupbap) that looks good. And I'll definitely try the haemul pajean – seafood and green onion pancake, one of my favorite Korean dishes.

If I have one small caution, it would be this: While Cook Korean!'s comic-book style is a big draw, and the illustrations are terrific, the way the recipe winds around on each page can sometimes be a little disorienting.  Because of that I occasionally missed directions. For instance, the kimchi recipe calls for cutting the ginormous napa cabbage lengthwise into quarters, then cutting those quarters into bite-sized pieces. I somehow missed the part that said to make them bite-sized. The recipe worked fine anyway, though every time I eat some of the kimchi, I cut up some of it with kitchen scissors. My fault, for sure: I think I was thrown because when I went to the giant Super H-Mart in a Dallas suburb to shop for ingredients, I watched a lady making kimchi – and she was massaging the sauce into quartered heads of napa cabbage (you can see cooks doing that in the photo accompanying the NPR story, too). But it is easy to miss such details.

If you want to try one or two of my adapted versions of Ha's recipes before you spring for the book, you won't run into that problem. Sound good? I thought so! Now go cook . . . Korean!