Comfort Food of the Chefs: Marja Vongerich
We asked food experts from various lands to tell their comfort food tales, then created lighter—but still deeply comforting—recipes inspired by their stories.
Dak bokkeum, spicy Korean chicken stew, is Korean-born Marja Vongerichten's favorite comfort food—a nice culinary coda to the story of an adopted girl who came to America from South Korea at age 3 and rediscovered her food roots when reunited with her mother at the age of 19. Vongerichten—now married to superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten—wove her tale into the PBS series Kimchi Chronicles and companion book of the same name.
Born outside of Seoul to a Korean single mother, Vongerichten never knew her father, an America soldier stationed in Korea who left her mother two months before she was born. She was put up for adoption and came to northern Virginia, where she grew up with her adoptive African-American family, out of touch with her Korean roots and Korean food. But she had dreamlike memories of her early childhood. One food memory persisted like a wisp of steam: the smell of jajangmyeon—noodles with black bean sauce.
When, at 19, she found and met her birth mother—who had moved to Brooklyn—the mother-daughter duo ate a meal her mother had spent the day preparing: bulgogi (grilled marinated beef), kimchi (the ubiquitous spicy fermented cabbage), and more.
Having deeply explored the food of her birth country, Vongerichten calls Korean food the "soul food of Asia." Much like American soul food, she says, the cuisine was born of struggle: cooks making do with waves of privation as Korea was invaded time and again. Cheap cuts of meat are coaxed to comfort perfection with rich ingredients. "And," she adds, "food had to be medicine, as well."
Dak bokkeum, adapted here, is often a one-pot dish of chicken, carrot, onion, and potato, all stewed in a spicy-sweet sauce. But you can adapt it to a mix of your favorite veggies. Our version features spinach and flavorful chicken thighs.