Running and operating Korean deli Joodooboo has been “one of the most intense journeys of self-discovery, in this beautiful kind of way,” chef Steve Joo says.
The Oakland-based deli is known for its pillow-soft dooboo, or tofu, that Joo learned to make in Korea, but it’s the deli’s selection of banchan that sets it apart, highlighting the seasonal (“hyper-seasonal,” the Joodooboo site corrects) produce of Northern California. Arrowhead cabbage green kimchi and flowering gai lan served with soy, garlic, ginger, carrots, and a sunflower chile crunch in the spring; lemon cucumber namul with anchovy oil and basil and sunflower seeds from Second Generation Seeds in the summer.
It’s a style that deviates from more traditional versions of banchan, informed by a year spent learning cooking techniques in Korea and Joo’s experience in restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Terra in St. Helena. But he’s also looking to represent an aspect of Korean food that isn’t so well-known, a style that is more reminiscent of rural, countryside cooking: Simple preparations that are made using whatever’s coming from the fields, Joo says. “There’s something really beautiful and resonant about that, [along] with what we’ve called California cuisine — respecting ingredients but not necessarily trying to manipulate them into something that hits a particular recipe,” he says.
Even Joo had trouble explaining the approach to his parents when he first set about opening Joodooboo and putting into words what the dishes would taste like. “I would try to describe to my parents, ‘I’m making Korean American food,’ and they’re like, ‘What’s that?’” Joo says. “I would just say, ‘You know, Korean American, like me,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we don’t know what that is.’ That speaks to the second-generation experiences of so many other people, as well, where parents just don’t understand.”
Banchan is what writer Eric Kim of the New York Times called, “one of the great joys of Korean cuisine.” It is the umbrella term that covers (generally) vegetable-forward dishes that are roughly translated as “side dishes” — although Kim argues that “in the prismatic world of banchan, both rice and banchan are principal players, with neither relegated to supporting-role status.” They’re typically served with the main entrees, as a complement. Certain banchan have made their way into the American lexicon of food, such as kimchi, a term for salted and fermented vegetables (the Napa cabbage version of which has grown popular stateside but is just one type of kimchi among several others). But that’s just one option within the broad, dynamic category.
Joo isn’t the only chef to center banchan at his deli and give it a modern sentiment. Other chefs such as chef Jihee Kim at pop-up turned banchan shop Perilla, are in the words of LA Times critic Bill Addison making the case to “savor banchan as the meal itself.” Little Banchan Shop in New York, meanwhile, is a banchan-focused shop from Hooni Kim, “a pioneer in NYC’s modern Korean dining scene.” And Ohsun Banchan just recently joined the food scene in Seattle. In the hands of Joo and other Koreans and Korean American chefs, banchan has become a personal expression.
Joo approaches his banchan according to what’s seasonally available at local farms and also takes into consideration how people’s “appetites also change with the season,” he says. He rattles off a number of local purveyors that he works with: Fully Belly Farms, Star Route Farms, and Namu Farms, which focuses on growing Asian vegetables and herbs.
“The one thing that we make at the shop that I think embodies the overall ethos of, ‘What happens when a Korean grandma is in Northern California? What does she prepare?’” Joo says, as he points to the green tomato kimchi as an example. It’s made from Early Girls or green San Marzanos from Sunblaze Ranch. “As a dish, it is one of those things where it’s a representation of something that [Koreans are] very familiar with,” he says, “something that does evoke some nostalgia because it has certain flavors, but it also has this new spin on it.”
The shop has strengthened the connection between Joo and his grandmother. “I’ve gotten back in touch with memories of my grandma from when I was a kid,” Joo says, noting that working in the restaurant has helped him get more in touch with his nurturing and caring side, which he then infuses into the ethos and food at the shop. The result is a product that balances traditions and standards passed down by his grandmother with Joo’s sensibilities for balance and expressiveness. It’s banchan that doesn’t directly tie to a region of Korea, Joo says, but goes back to this “imagined spirit” of his grandmother that he “consults” when cooking. “I jokingly, but affectionately, always say, ‘I think my grandma wants it to taste like this, but let’s just have a pinch more salt here.’ So, a lot of my prep cooks will say, ‘What does your abuela think?’”
Joo recognizes that his banchan won’t hit with everyone the same way, and that there will be detractors — especially those who insist that banchan be made with traditional ingredients and recipes. “I think among the people that we disappoint, there would be the opinion that we make food for white people,” Joo says. “And, honestly, I do think about that question every now and then, like, ‘Is this what we’re doing?’ But then there is enough daily evidence from the shop, that that is not the case.”
Joo’s gotten praise as well for his banchan, the most gratifying being when customers say they’ve never had anything like it, but also that it feels familiar. When Joo’s parents finally visited the shop to try the food, Joo says he had a full circle moment. “My mom after having a meal, said that there was something about it, it reminded her of my grandma, which was very sweet and also very unexpected,” Joo says. “The throughline of embodying and wanting to express it through a way of Korean food, thinking of our bodies, the relationships that we have with where the ingredients are coming from, and all those things are at once very personal, but also it has allowed me to connect with my family’s story, background, and the larger culture in a way that was unexpected.”