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Robin Ha's New Cookbook Mixes Korean Cuisine With Comics


Robin Ha is not a chef. For most of her life she wasn't even a cook. She's an illustrator, comic books especially. So it makes sense that her first ever cookbook is also a comic book.

ROBIN HA: So we're making the sweet potato noodle, which we call japchae. It's a quintessential party food in Korea. So if you go to any wedding or big gathering, there's always japchae.

SHAPIRO: Robin Ha came to my house to cook lunch out of recipes from her book called "Cook Korean!" She slices beef and a rainbow cornucopia of vegetables.

HA: This is some nice steak (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Robin, how did you learn these recipes?

HA: My mom taught me a lot. I mean...

SHAPIRO: When you were, like, a little kid?

HA: No, no, no, no, she never taught me when I was little. I never cooked until I was, like, out of college basically.

SHAPIRO: You moved to the United States with your family when you were 14 years old, right?

HA: Yeah. So she cooked homemade meals every day, like, since I was little. You know, every morning, I'll get up, and there will be, like, a table full of food. And it seemed like something I could never do. I just thought that it's something that my mom can do. And I will just stick with drawing, you know?


SHAPIRO: When Robin grew up and moved out of the house, she craved her mom's Korean home cooking. She realized she needed to learn how to make some dishes, and she discovered it wasn't that hard.

HA: Korean food is very rustic. It's not fussy. You know, you don't measure things. You don't have to be exact with anything. You just put anything you like, and it tastes great.

SHAPIRO: Learning how to cook taught Robin something about herself and ultimately brought her closer to her mother. While the water comes to a boil for the sweet potato noodles, she throws together a quick marinade for the beef - garlic, onions, soy sauce, sugar and soju, Korean rice alcohol.

HA: Yeah, I'm just kind of mixing everything together with my hands. In Korea we do everything by hands. Like, we don't - this - we call son-mat. You know, like, son-mat means a taste of hand. So in Korean kitchen, everybody just used bare hands (laughter).

SHAPIRO: She tips the bowl of meat into a pan of sizzling oil.

That already smells really good.

HA: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: When you were drawing every step in every recipe, did you ever get sick of - oh, my God, I have to draw another bowl of rice?

HA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HA: All the time (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Really (laughter)?

HA: Yeah. After, like, six months, I was like, oh, my God. I can't draw another pan...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HA: ...To save my life (laughter).

SHAPIRO: The beef comes out of the pan, and she stir-fries each of the vegetables one at a time.

HA: All right.

SHAPIRO: Finally they all go into a bowl with the boiled sweet potato noodles.

HA: So you want to put a little bit more Sesame oil and sprinkle sesame seed right before serving. It's a Korean garnish. That's it.

SHAPIRO: That's beautiful. That's lunch.

Robin says this cookbook has an uncredited co-author, the single mom who woke up by 5 every morning to cook her daughter breakfast, lunch and dinner before heading off to a full day's work.

HA: I think she couldn't believe me when I first told her that I'm going to be making a cookbook. She's like, what?


HA: You are going to make a cookbook? But then I mean she helped me in every step of the way. She helped me with the recipes. She helped me with tasting, cooking, eating all the leftovers. So I mean it's more - it's not my book. It's more of her and my book, you know?

SHAPIRO: Typically in a book, at the end, there's acknowledgements, which is just a list of names of people that the author wants to thank. Your acknowledgement section is a little bit different.

HA: Yeah, it's just about my mom (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Tell me about it.

HA: So I've never cooked with her until I actually had to write this book. So, like, the whole year that I made this booklet, I cooked with her all the time. And we would just, like, head-butt every single step the way.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You have one illustration where your mother says, ginger shouldn't go in this dish, and it needs more soy sauce. And you're saying, I like ginger, so back off.

HA: (Laughter) Yeah, this happened, like, in every single day. Like, it was just crazy. So, like, my mom - like, most Korean mothers are very stoic, and they're very hard on their children.


HA: Like, they'll - they're, like, tough love, you know - like, you know (laughter)?

SHAPIRO: After this - ginger shouldn't go in this dish; I like ginger, so back off - the last panel of the acknowledgments has your mother at the stove saying, I put in some ginger this time. And you are saying, OK.

HA: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And the thought bubble says, I love you mom.

HA: Yep. That's the typical Korean mother and daughter. It's, like, we never say I love you. Like, Korean people are full of emotion of course. They're very emotional people. But we never really say I love you. So...

SHAPIRO: You just say, I put in some ginger this time.

HA: Yeah, exactly. Like, they love you that way - by giving you food that you like or helping you cook all the time, you know?

SHAPIRO: Robin Ha is the author and illustrator of the new book "Cook Korean!"

Should we eat?

HA: Yes.

SHAPIRO: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.