Gentle Reader! Do I have a special treat in store for you! It is my pleasure to introduce you to the utterly talented culinary enthusiast Caramelflahn (Helen!) who is my new Instagram friend and cooking inspiration and obsession. I found Helen after stumbling on the sensuously fluffy and gorgeous rainbow-colored Korean ricecake creation of hers you see above, called ‘mujigae ddeok.’ Needless to say I gaped and gasped and oooh’d an aaaah’d upon spotting this beauty. Once I resumed my powers of reason and speech, Helen and I conversed and bonded over our mutual frustration with the 1001 ways one can spell Persian or Korean nouns in English. Words like ‘mujigae’ which means rainbow in Korean.
I begged Helen for a guest post and she complied by writing not one but two truly stellar guest posts for Fig & Quince. One is savory, a classic Korean dish imbued with intriguing inspirations from the Persian cuisine; the other is sweet and seductive as a nightingale’s song in a Persian garden. I’m entirely flummoxed and spoiled for choice as to which guest recipe post to present to you first, but either way, that’s a dilemma for another day, since I have a foodgasmic wealth of material to present first that deserves your uninterrupted attention and requires a tissue or two to wipe off the drool as your mouth waters. You see, Helen prefers to remain alluringly mysterious and mostly anonymous, however, I managed to coax an interview as well as a priceless photo out of her, and today, I share this earnest, thoughtful and fun interview with Helen about food, cooking, eating. I also quizzed her about some of her impressive culinary creations, including her sky scraper 100 layer lasagne and an awesome half beer half chicken Korean dish, and I will torment you by posting photos of a few of her mouthwatering dishes as well.
But first, a fun self-captioned photo of our most honored culinary sensation captured doing what she does naturally, beautifully and with gusto and passion: enjoying food!
“My friend Matt and me at Eleven Madison Park losing our minds when we found out the amuse bouche was a bakery box of savory mini black-and-white cookies with black truffle and parmesan. We are obsessed with black-and-whites and truffles, and that amuse bouche was quintessential NYC perfection. Our reaction was completely unscripted. That’s just how we are around food all the time.”
So Helen, what got you into food?
I’ve always loved food, eating, and watching my mom cook dinner from scratch every night when I was a little kid. I grew up in rural Ohio where we were literally the only Asian family in the entire county, and the nearest Asian grocery store or Korean restaurant was over an hour away. I would get so excited when I got to go with my mom to the Korean grocery once a month or so and would be fascinated by all the different sights and smells I never saw at the American stores. I’d watch my mom carefully pick all the ingredients she couldn’t find in our hometown and see her get excited when rare treats like live blue crabs would be available. This awareness of how difficult and special it was for us to eat what we did, where we did, really developed my appreciation for food in general from an early age. We had to drive over an hour just to get tofu. Can you imagine?
I didn’t really start cooking until college, though, when I joined my dorm’s culinary team. It was essentially a cooking club, and we had access to a huge, gorgeous, professional-level kitchen and would create elaborate feasts for the entire dorm once a month or so. We made everything from scratch, from entire roast turkeys to sushi to puff pastry. It was then that I finally got to try out all the recipes and techniques I had watched wistfully on cooking shows as a child. From that point on, I was completely hooked.
Do you often return to Korea? Have you ever been for a visit?
I’ve been to Korea only once, and that was back when I was 6-years-old 🙁
It’s changed so much since I’ve been there, and I would absolutely love to go back, especially since I am obsessed with K-pop, K-dramas, Korean skincare and beauty products, Korean pop culture in general, and, of course, the food. (Editor’s note: Thanks to Hulu, I’m obsessed with Korean soap operas!)
I asked you to share photos of some of your favorite dishes with me and through our interview I’ll ask you about each. Let’s start with this jaw dropping lasagna, excuse me, I mean lasagne, sky scraper! Please tell me about the genesis and construction of this culinary architectural feat.
This was my (successful, I think!) attempt to re-create the legendary 100-layer lasagna at Del Posto, all based off of an Eater article and a lot of research. I had the 100-layer lasagna during a trip to NYC, and it was easily my favorite part of the tasting menu I enjoyed there. This is not your nonna’s Sunday lasagna. It really is 100 layers, give or take a few layers. The pasta layers are paper-thin and silken tender. The filling is pudding-like yet meaty. The tomato sauce is flavorful but not overwhelming. Together, they create the most delicious lasagna I’ve ever eaten. It is, in a word, remarkable. There’s no official recipe available, so I had to create one myself and cross my fingers that the 3 days it took me to make that lasagna wouldn’t be in vain.
It’s sliced cold and unbaked to keep it from falling apart since it’s so delicate. It’s then seared in a some clarified butter to give some nice crispy toasty edges and baked to heat it through. It’s served in a small puddle of tomato passato and finished with a bit of parmesan. It’s AWESOME.
Do you cook everyday?
Not during the summer because I despise being hot. I don’t like moving more than 10 feet away from the A/C during the summer let alone being stuck in a sweltering kitchen over a roaring stove. However, once fall hits, you’ll find me in the kitchen. That being said, I also love dining out and can give great restaurant recommendations of nearly every city I’ve ever visited.
Tell me about this dish. What is it called? What is its provenance?
It’s called bun thit nuong cha gio and it is a Vietnamese vermicelli noodle bowl with marinated grilled pork, homemade do chua (Vietnamese pickled carrot and daikon), mung bean sprouts, cucumber crispy fried red onion, crushed peanuts, fresh perilla leaves, mint, Asian basil, and homemade cha gio (fried spring rolls filled with pork, shrimp, wood ear mushrooms, carrot, and all sorts of other good stuff). Served with a side of nuoc cham sweet and tangy fish sauce. SO GOOD.
What is your tip to people who want to cook but find it intimidating? What is your favorite cookbook?
My tip is to just do it. Every expert in anything was a beginner at one point. Start with something simple that you’re excited to eat and that has a good, clear recipe. I’ll be honest, my all-time favorite cookbook is The Joy of Cooking. It’s a classic, and the recipes are clear and fantastic. I may or may not have made the baked artichoke dip to eat solely as my dinner before.
We met and bonded when you posted this fluffy ddeok of my dreams! The rainbow-colored Korean rice cake that you said must have the three pink yellow green colors. Tell me more about ddeok. For example, why does it have to have those three colors? Any significance?
Ddeok IS amazing! Ddeok is just the general term for any sort of Korean rice cake and has several forms and varieties and can be sweet or savory. As far as the pink, yellow, and green colors in mujigae ddeok (rainbow-colored ddeok), I actually am not sure why it always has those three colors. I’m sure there’s a nice story behind it, and I wish I knew what it was!
How do you deal with the hassle of multiple spellings when writing about Korean food?
I really hate multiple Romanized spellings of Korean words. It makes hashtagging a total pain. Ddeok is often also spelled as tteok or dduk, which is just one example of multiple Romanized spellings of a single word. The last one is the phonetic spelling, which is why it’s fairly common. Lots of letters in the Korean alphabet actually are more like hybrid sounds of English letters. Like the “d/t” sound of ㄷ or ㄸ. It’s somewhere in between the two, like a soft “t” or hard “d”. I think it’s closer to a “d” than a “t”, hence “ddeok”. But some people prefer the “tteok”, so I have to remember to include to hashtag #tteok, too, if I want that pic to be searchable. It’s annoying. Just agree on one Romanized spelling, please!
And what is this dish, pray tell?
Ddeokbokki! I included this just because it’s another form of ddeok/Korean rice cake. You don’t have to include it since it’s probably a little redundant. This is spicy stir-fried chewy rice cakes with fish cake and egg, and it’s a very popular street food in Korea.
You already answered this to me privately, but I’m going to ask you again: Why oh why oh why don’t you have a food blog?
I really am too lazy to maintain a food blog! I’d have like one post every two years or something. Instagramming it is so much quicker and easier. Maybe one day I’ll have one, but I don’t see it anytime in the near future.
I have to include a photo of your succulent looking apple pie.
Good ol’ fashion classic American apple pie, messy and bubbly and delicious. The crust is made with lard, so it’s extra flaky and rich and delicious.
And while I’m at it, I also have to include a gratuitious shot of your indecently lustful tower of chocolate chunk cookiest. I mean, Helen, have some consideration for your viewers! Please!
And what’s the story here? It looks mighty appetizing!
I bought a can of pumpkin purée on sale just because it was so cheap. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I figured something eventually would come to mind. I knew I didn’t want to make a pie out of it, though, because everyone makes pumpkin pie. A few days later, I had a craving for blondies, so I decided to make pumpkin blondies with lots of nice, warm, autumnal spices. The batter looked a little lonely, so I tossed in a couple fistfuls of mini chocolate chips I had on hand before I popped them in the oven. They were great! Rich and buttery and fudgy.
What has been your most enjoyable culinary inspiration or discovery?
I think I enjoy the inspiration of a culinary challenge the most, just to see if I can do it. For example, even though I’m not vegan, sometimes I’ll try to remake a dish to be vegan, just to find out if I can.
One of my favorite culinary discoveries is Blis maple syrup, which is pure maple syrup aged in bourbon barrels. I’ve been using it for years, but it’s still one of my favorite seasonal pantry staples. It’s a total splurge, but the warm, rich bourbon flavors make it totally worth it. I love drizzling it over sweet potatoes or just a bit on steel-cut oatmeal.
What is the biggest food / kitchen disaster you had?
Yikes. I’ve had a lot. Not the most disastrous , but definitely one of the most whimper-inducing was when I made chicken soup one time. I had simmered the whole chicken, carrots, onion, celery, etc for over 4 hours and was getting ready to strain out the solids. Since the solids simmer for hours and turn to mush once touched, I pour everything through a colander into a big bowl to catch the stock. Well, I forgot to put the bowl until the colander and dumped over 4 hours of working and waiting down the sink. I wanted to cry.
What is your favorite type of food?
OMG, this is an impossible question! I love just about everything! Overall cuisines, I’d have to say all Asian cuisines in general. I don’t think it’s because I’m biased. Asian food is legitimately amazing. Dumplings, noodles, soups, stews, rice, buns, bubble tea, shaved ice, curries, dosas, satays, sushi, everything. My favorite is the dirt cheap obnoxiously good eats you find in random unmarked holes-in-the-wall.
I also love Latin cuisines. Tostones, maduros, pupusas, arepas, yucca frita, empanadas, pollo guisado, beans cooked in lard, oh man, I love all of it.
Animal-style In ‘n Out cheeseburger. Lobster from Maine when you’re actually in Maine. Raw oysters with lots of mignonette. Potatoes cooked in duck fat. Duck breast. Roasted winter squashes. Pureed sunchokes and celery root. Also haute New American, I’ve got to admit.
What is the best thing you’ve ever made?
Ooh. Hmm. Maybe because it’s in my recent memory, but I’d have to say it’s my chimek (Korean double-fried chicken with beer. Chi = chicken, mek = mekju, the Korean word for beer). I didn’t make the beer, but that fried chicken practically brought tears to my eyes. I’m going to make a potentially inflammatory statement when I say that the South (Koreans) make the best fried chicken in the entire world. No offense to my friends from the South (United States) – that thick, craggy, crunchy heavy chicken is definitely delicious and has its time and place. But nothing beats the obscenely juicy, outrageously crunchy, Korean double-fried chicken with the super nubbly bubbly blistered eggshell-thin skin that shatters into golden fried shards of magic. And the sauces they’re usually coated in – traditionally a sesame garlic soy or a sweet spicy chili – taste like unicorn tears. When done well, the “naked” plain fried chicken is beyond phenomenal, too.
There aren’t any chimek places where I live, so my only option to have it is to make it myself. So I did. And it was sooo good and sooo crunchy. I said this in my Instagram post of the chimek I made, but it seriously sounded like I was crunching on gravel or the bones of small children when I bit into it. And the flesh was so hot and drippy juicy. Not that it would last this long, but if you left out for hours, it would still be super crackling crunchy, even when coated with the sauces that just shellac the skin in a meat candy glaze. It was seriously the best fried chicken I have ever eaten in my entire life. Restaurant of homemade, American or Korean or whatever other nationality. No joke.
So what have we got here then? The famous chimek you were talking about?
Yes, this is a ban ban chimek I made from scratch. One of the best things I’ve ever made and one of my favorite dishes I’ve made in recent memory. “Ban ban” means “half and half”, and “chimek” is short for Korean fried chicken and beer (chi- for chicken, -mek for mekju, the Korean word for beer). Half is a spicy sweet gochujang (sweet red pepper paste), and the other half is a sesame soy garlic. Well, roughly half. I left two drumsticks “naked” because this is really good fried chicken plain, too. Super crunchy, crispy, juicy, and delicious. Best. Fried. Chicken. EVER.
Always served with pickled Korean white radish (“chicken mu”), and always either wings or
What is your favorite ingredient or spice?
Favorite spice easily is cardamom. I am obsessed with cardamom. And since I can’t mention spices without herbs, my favorite herb is cilantro. No, mint. No, basil. No, sage. . . Okay, forget favorite herb.
Ingredient, I’d have to say would be white or black truffles. I will eat anything with truffles in it. Also floral flavors, like jasmine, rose, lavender, violet, etc. I will also eat anything that tastes like flowers.
Do you have a favorite book that’s about food? Not a cookbook … but fiction, essay bio or memoir?
Probably most people’s favorite, too, but I have to go with _Like Water for Chocolate_ by Laura Esquivel. I love how Tita’s strength and emotions were conveyed through her cooking, and I thought the folksy recipes and home remedies were really charming. The culinary team I was a part of in college actually recreated the quail in rose petal sauce that Tita made, and it turned out amazing.
Also, not a book, but an essay I love about food is the aptly named “Coffee” by Anne Fadiman, my favorite author. Actually, it’s part of a collection of familiar essays of various topics in the book _At Large and At Small_ by Fadiman. I love how she describes in detail how she first became accustomed to — then hooked on — coffee and her nightly ritual of making and drinking cup after cup in college with a friend. She then discusses the history of coffee consumption, why it’s so addictive, and even the recreational drugs of choice for various writers of the past. It’s awesome.
Please also tell me about this dish. Black food! Looks rather avant garde!
This is called jajangmyun. Stir-fried black bean sauce noodles with pork belly, potatoes, and zucchini. In America, it’s typically considered a Korean dish, but in Korea, it’s considered a Chinese dish. So, I guess it’s a Chinese-Korean dish?
What’s your go-to junk food?
Sweet: Chocolate! I love all chocolate (including white, which, yes, I know isn’t technically chocolate), but my favorite is milk chocolate. Super luxe, Hershey’s, it doesn’t matter. I adore it all. I need to have at least one piece every day. My purse always has some emergency chocolate in it in case I’m stuck somewhere away from my home stash and I might go to jail if I don’t get some chocolate in my system asap.
Also Hi-Chews, which are a fruity chewy Japanese candy that’s kind of like a plasticky version of Starbursts, but a million times better. I can easily plow through an entire pack in one sitting without realizing it. Best flavors are green apple, cherry, strawberry, and grape. And the grape is like a Concord grape! Not weird gross grape.
Savory: Cheetos. The original crunchy kind. I actually rarely eat Cheetos/chips in general, mainly because I know if I open a bag of Cheetos, the next thing I know, I’ll be waking up in a ditch somewhere with no memory of how I got there, surrounded by piles of empty Cheetos bag with my face and hands covered in neon orange fake cheese powder.
If you had to be a dish, what dish would you be and why?
Dumplings. I guess if I had to be specific, mandu, since I’m Korean-American. I’m small, but I pack a punch and am filled with all sorts of good things. You might not always be sure what’s going on in inside, but all you have to do is give a little poke, and I’ll let you know. . . That sounded kind of threatening. I didn’t mean it that way!
What is your motto when it comes to cooking?
The more warm and loving side of me: “Make it the best you can, have fun, and share it with those you love.”
The more honest and practical side of me: “Eating and cooking is an art, not just something you do. Do not invite people who do not appreciate food and cooking or have poor palates. It will ruin the meal for everyone.” I found that line in a book on entertaining I was browsing through in The Whitney in NYC. Even though it sounds kind of harsh, it really resonated with me. It’s. So. True. How many times have I had a meal ruined because someone else wanted to eat something more “safe” and bland? Or have been horrified by someone who insisted on putting ranch dressing on everything? Or spent hours of time and effort into preparing a meal only to have someone not even notice what went into the dishes?
What is your motto when it comes to eating?
See above. Also, “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.” I really hate it when people say something is gross when they’ve never even tasted it. I’m willing to try just about anything at least once. (Editor’s note: I shall see you in Tehran for a kaleh pacheh breakfast at dawn, Helene!)
What is your motto when it comes to life?
Nothing is worth it if you aren’t happy.
This concludes our interview. Thank you so much Helene joon for this most wonderful interview and for giving us a peek at your enticing, exciting, eclectic, adventurous, ambitious yet never stuffy love affair with cooking and food. A huge round of applause!
Now, in a day or so, I will post one of Helen’s delectable guest post recipes. Savory or sweet, it is a win win. Meanwhile, gentle reader, if you’ve been following along you can see that this girl loves to eat and she also knows how to cook and bake with the best of them, so, if you like food at all (which, uh, I assume you do if you’re reading here unless you’re just here for my sparkling wit and abundant charm which well I can’t say I blame you) I URGE you to follow Helen’s creative and joyfully appetizing Instagram account.
Till soon, my friends!