Judy Joo's Seoul

The American-born chef grew up with the flavours of Korea emanating from her mother’s kitchen. Now, as she recreates them in her London Seoul Bird restaurants, she takes us on a tour of South Korea’s capital

Judy Joo's Seoul Photo

Summit, New Jersey in the Seventies is not the place you’d expect to find authentic Korean flavours. At least, unless you went to the Joo household. Judy Joo, the Seoul Bird chef was born and raised in the US, but her parents hail from Korea (her mother from Seoul, her father originally from the North), and when they left their homeland, the one thing they didn’t want to leave behind was the cuisine. ‘We grew up eating a lot of Korean food,’ says Judy. ‘My dad’s quite picky – he only wants to eat Korean food – so my mum had to make every thing from scratch. We’d have huge packages show up from Korea in the mail, full of dried seaweed, persimmons, dates and chillies of all kinds. Basically, all the raw ingredients my mum needed to cook with, because it wasn’t like now when you can buy anything.’

And it was a time where diversity wasn’t huge in Summit. ‘No, my sister and I were the only specks of colour in our entire school, she says. ‘It was all
very, very white but my dad’s graduating class from medical school in Korea all moved to the States. The immigration laws had been relaxed but the caveat was they had to go where they were told, so they all got placed in the middle of nowhere – flyover states like Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio – so every holiday was all was about driving for hours to meet up.’

Judy’s mum had arrived in the US on a scholarship, something that was rarely seen at the time. ‘You have to remember, Korea was incredibly poor after the Korean War; it had the same GDP as Ethiopia,’ says Judy. ‘It was a war-torn country, so my mum was just, “I’m getting out of here...”’

Breakfast was a uniquely Korean-American meal, however. ‘It was eggs and Spam, which was actually very Korean even though it’s an American product,’ says Judy. ‘During the war, Spam was a big thing in Korea and considered a luxury item – and it still is. I had Spam sandwiches for lunch and it was kind of gross because my mum wouldn’t even bother cooking it – she’d just put it between two slices of white bread. Although she did pan-fry it for breakfast. But Spam tastes really good with kimchi, so she made Spam and kimchi stir-fries. She’d experiment because all this pre-made food was a novelty for them. I remember this thing called beefaroni, which was like beef ragù with macaroni. It was awful, but I loved it. It was a mish-mash, but dinners were always Korean.’

Seoul and Korea were a big part of Judy’s childhood. ‘I’ve been going to Korea since I was a little kid,’ she says. ‘And back then Korea was very uncomfortable. All the toilets were still holes in the ground and it felt like it was always cold and uncomfortable, and it smelled... But then, as I got older, Korea started developing economically incredibly rapidly and by the time I was a teenager, it was so much fun, I loved it. I’d be spending summers there to study, stay with relatives and party.

‘And now it’s so much more modern than London in so many ways. It’s got these super-fast bullet trains, everything’s wired and it has the fastest internet in the world. So many things are much further ahead than the Western world technologically.’

Seoul is the heart of it all. ‘It’s a true 24-hour city, like New York or Tokyo,’ says Judy. ‘You can get up to all kinds of stuff any time of the day as everything’s open.

‘There are so many different cultural things, historical places, museums, buildings, temples
and palaces of great significance. You’ve always got this juxtaposition of amazingly cool new skyscrapers next to traditional wooden hanok houses.’

The same goes for the food scene. ‘You can have very modern European food and next to it the most traditional foods. Then, next door to that, there’s the wacky street food that’s completely modern.

Every single time I go, there’s a new trend in street food – you can’t keep up

‘You’ll see things you haven’t seen anywhere else, like a 2m long ice cream cone. It’s almost like things you’d see at a fun fair, but with their own twist. It’s gimmicky, but that’s part of the fun.

‘And then you’ll have things like the dalgona candy – which everyone saw on Squid Games – that’s been on the street for centuries – and things like hot dogs, corn dogs and canned meat that have remained since the war.

‘You’ve got kimbap (Korean sushi), kkwabaegi (doughnuts), noodles and all these traditional foods next to some wild modern snack,’ she says.

While Seoul is without doubt the best place to see the mix of old and new come together, Judy recommends going beyond the city. ‘Joella is known for its food and it’s one of my favourite places. It’s like going to the most southern part of Italy as everything is traditional, homemade and full of flavour – it’s the bread basket of Korea and the best food in the country,’ she says. ‘And you have to go to the bamboo forest, which is a gorgeous area and of course they cook lots of their dishes in bamboo.’

Other areas are must-visits for a variety of reasons. ‘Busan is one of the largest shipping ports in northeast Asia because of all the heavy industry coming out of Korea,’ she says. ‘They make these huge ships there that can refine the oil onboard. They’re larger than a skyscraper and to see one of them in dry dock is incredible. It just makes you wonder how they’re even going to get it to float.

‘You can get to all these places so easily because the trains are so fast,’ she explains. ‘I couldn’t believe how slow the trains were when I first got to London.’

No matter how fast they go, you still to get see the landscape, though. ‘Over 70 per cent of the country is mountainous, so you’ll see a varied topography of mountains, hills and valleys,’ she says. ‘That was why meat used to be so expensive. We didn’t have a tradition of meat in Korea because it was hard to rear cattle, but now we’re known for barbecue. In fact, you have to try the Hanwoo beef,’ she says. ‘It’s like the Kobe beef of Korea and they only really export it to a couple of countries, but I find it’s better than Wagyu.’

In more plentiful supply is the local seafood. ‘We harvest from the sea a lot,’ explains Judy, ‘and we actually consider ourselves an island because you can’t go north at all. Every time I go back there’s something different from the sea on my plate, and you just ask, “Is this some kind of amoeba – what is this?”

‘On land, we get so many mountain and root vegetables you don’t see anywhere else, and we use it all,’ says Judy. ‘Take the lotus plant: the roots, the leaves, the seeds, everything is utilised.’

Last, but not least, is the chicken. ‘Korea has more Korean fried chicken shops than all of the McDonald’s and Subways in the world combined!’ she says. ‘That’s a real statistic. People say the African Americans in the southern states are obsessed with fried chicken but I think it’s actually the Koreans who win that title now.

‘And the food really tells the history of a country and a culture. Like Spam, fried chicken is obviously an American thing that was brought over through the GIs. Then the Koreans tasted it, loved it, adopted it, changed it and evolved it so it became their own and uniquely Korean. Now it has boomeranged back to the Western world as their own product. ‘Korean fried chicken is different in the sense that it’s double fried,’ she explains. ‘The first fry kind of renders out any of the fat that’s on the meat, and the second fry is when you flash-fry it to make it extra crispy.’

When asked to sum up Seoul, Judy’s succinct with her response: ‘It is just so dynamic and vibrant and there’s something for everyone – and a lot of fried chicken.’

Judy's Hotspots

This has been one of my favourite places to stay in the city for years. Elegant and with an ideal location in Myeongdong, you are in the centre of all of the action. I always get a proper Korean scrub at the spa.

You’ll be amazed by the sheer size of this bustling hub and the breadth of variety on offer – fish of all kinds, octopus, squid, urchins, molluscs and curious zoophytes from the sea you’ve never seen before. Most of the fish is still alive in tanks – you can pluck out anything and take it to one of the many restaurants within the market, where they will prepare it. 674 Nodeul-ro, Dongjak-gu

You can’t go to Seoul without having some Korean barbecue, and this alley in the eastern city is the perfect place to eat with the locals. You can grill up pork ribs right at your table and wash it down with shots of soju. I love the ‘moat’-style griddle pans that collect some of the tasty pork fat and are then filled with a seasoned egg omelette to cook.

This pristine, three-Michelin- star dining experience in the Gangnam area is a series of private dining rooms, so even a table for two has an intimate setting. Chef Byoung Jin Kim’s menu is heavily seasonal, and you can enjoy perfumy pine mushrooms, buttery Hanwoo beef or silky pumpkin soups.

Words by Alex Mead

This interview was taken from the January/February 2022 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.

Judy Joo's Seoul Photo

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