The promise of steamy dumplings always justifies leaving my apartment in cold January. On Saturday, January 30th, I headed over to Reclamation Bar in Williamsburg where Irene Yoo hosted her latest Yooeating?! meal: Korean Jjigae Soup Dumplings!
I arrived 30 minutes in and greeted a huge line – residents from eight blocks down the street to visitors from Harlem – waiting to order and get their dumplings on.
I spotted Irene in the kitchen, prepping and dishing soup dumplings (pork and soybean stew), rice, and assorted banchan (Korean side dishes) into plates.
Here’s the thing. Dumplings look simple (and adorable), but they are complicated to make: the dough, the fillings, the soup. The intricate folds, sides, toppings, time constraints.
When I asked Irene about dumplings, she admitted they aren’t the simplest dish to execute, especially in a pop-up setting. “But I told myself: I can do it, I can do it,” Irene said.
Irene’s interest in cooking was borne out of boredom and the need for distraction in college, but she quickly found herself conquering recipe after recipe. She wanted to eat good food that she made herself.
Growing up, Irene was blessed daily with home-cooked Korean meals. Building and testing new recipes to balance her heritage with different global cuisines is what drives her.
And Irene admits, “The planning also just comes from cravings.” From Havana Seoul to Korean Cheesesteaks to Saturday’s Jjigae Soup Dumplings, Irene certainly has her finger on the pulse on creativity and what tastes phenomenal.
“How can I expand my boundaries?” Irene now asks before planning each Yooeating meal. Read on for more from this culinary explorer in our interview.
GP: What was your inspiration to start Yooeating?!?
Irene: I was always inviting my friends over to eat food I was making, and I started having dinner parties to introduce them to Korean foods they might not have tried otherwise. Eventually, I wanted to branch out and reach a larger audience where I could create interesting and unique foods.
GP: Any cookbooks or chefs (in addition to your mother, of course!) that have inspired your own practice?
Irene: Asian chefs like David Chang and Danny Bowien have been inspirational in terms of breaking out of the mold of traditional Asian cooking. I also love Roy Choi’s “L.A. Son” and Edward Lee’s “Smoke and Pickles” — both are cookbooks that speak to my experiences growing up as a Korean-American.
GP: Which Yooeating?! meal has been your favorite so far and why?
Irene: The kimchi cheese pastels I made for my Korean Brazilian pop-up are my current favorite – they were inspired by a recent trip to Rio where I ate some form of the fried goodness that are pastels. Simple, cheesy, and delicious!
GP: What are some of your favorite restaurants in Greenpoint and Williamsburg?
Irene: I love Brooklyn Star, Xi’an Famous Foods, Traif, Nitehawk Cinema, and Lucky Luna!
GP: What are some culinary trends you forecast for Brooklyn in 2016?
Irene: I think new takes on Asian restaurants are really on the rise in this year. I’m seeing more riffs on Korean (Good Fork), Chinese (Dim Sum Bar), Malaysian (Pasar Malam), etc.
Also, offal and what used to be cheap, throwaway cuts of meat like oxtail are being used more in elevated takes on peasant comfort food.
Lastly, Spam!! I am sure Spam, which is probably still regarded as a major “ew” food, will make a resurgence in restaurants (I’m already seeing it at Manila Social Club, Onomea, and Roy Choi’s restaurants in LA). I use Spam in a lot of dishes I make.
GP: What were you most nervous about when starting Yooeating?!? What’s the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring pop-up chefs?
Irene: When starting Yooeating?!, I was most nervous about being able to finish everything and deliver dishes I was proud of in a short period of time. If I could, I would test and tweak dishes for months and practice executions and do trial runs. For aspiring pop-up chefs, I’d recommend relying on as many helping hands as you can! Early on I identified partners and friends to help me with cooking, serving, marketing, and most importantly keeping me sane and moving forward.
GP: What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Irene: Kimchi! Well-fermented kimchi is the backbone of Korean cuisine. Nobody else can do it quite like us and it’s the most singularly Korean thing out there. It kicks up any dish you use it in, and grilling, frying, or boiling it brings out additional complexities and umami. But also, Spam! Did I mention Spam?!
If you missed out on Saturday’s dumpling extravaganza, fear not. Irene has more scrumptious meals forthcoming for yoo, including Korean Chicken Waffles! Stay tuned via Yooeating?!