by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee
Emily Kwangsook Kim—better known as Maangchi—-gets approached all the time by strangers as she’s out and about. She may not recognize the friendly, excited faces that greet her, but to them, she might as well be their aunt, sister or close friend who’s been inside their kitchens for years, whipping up tasty Korean dishes and snacks.
Maangchi, as Kim prefers to be called, has become an online video sensation across the globe for her upbeat, easy-to-follow videos on how to prepare Korean food. She has a website featuring hundreds of recipes and a section where she posts stories of her travels and encounters with fans; a YouTube channel that’s garnered more than 580,000 page views; and a dynamic social media presence, including 11,600 Twitter followers.
In addition, on May 19, Maangchi comes out with her first major cookbook, Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) featuring her most popular recipes, from Korean soups and stews to kimchi to side dishes to noodles and party food.
How did someone with no professional culinary or video training become one of Korean cuisine’s most prolific and visible ambassadors to legions of home chefs? In today’s democratized Internet age, charisma, a well-developed skill and savvy for the online user experience can go a long way toward making the person-next-door into the next YouTube star.
Not only is Maangchi blessed with all of the above, she never even set out to become as well-known as she is today. Cooking was always a passion; making cooking videos, merely a hobby. It also hasn’t hurt that Korean food has undergone an explosion in popularity in recent years as hallyu, or the Korean wave, has become a tidal force.
Maangchi’s first video, uploaded in April 2007—and accompanied by the Morrissey song “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself?”—was about how to make spicy seafood stir-fry, ojingeo-bokkeum. “When I made this video on YouTube, I was very nervous.
I didn’t know how long I would have this hobby,” says Maangchi in a phone interview with KoreAm, from her home in Manhattan. “Once I uploaded my first video, I was very surprised. [Viewers] asked me to make my next recipe. ‘Interaction is really going well,’ I thought. ‘This is so fun.’ I thought I’m going to keep this as a hobby forever.”
Her site grew so popular, Maangchi was able to quit her day job as a family counselor at a nonprofit to focus on her website, maangchi.com, full-time. In 2011, her website was named among the “most useful” by the Korea Herald, alongside Visit Korea, SeoulStyle, ZenKimchi and Soompi.
Her recipe for Korean fried chicken, yangnyeom-tongdak, recently surpassed her kimchi recipe as most popular on her website, hitting 2 million page views. (Save that one for your next spring potluck.)
Maangchi uploads a new cooking video every 10 days, using a digital Canon EOS 5D and editing footage on Adobe Premiere, which she taught herself how to use. Longtime fans who have been visiting her site since the early years may notice the considerably improved production values to her videos, as well as her upgraded kitchen with modern, stainless steel appliances.
With her charming enthusiasm, slightly high-pitched accented English, eclectic outfits and unique hairstyles (she’s been known to sport colorful wigs), Maangchi makes learning how to cook Korean food seem fun, easy and engaging. Her welcoming persona has expanded her network of online followers to points as far-flung as Moscow, Russia; Leipzig, Germany; and Pearland, Texas.
Her clear instructions and collection of recipes elicit such feedback as, “I FINALLY found what I’ve been looking for: authentic Korean cooking as made by a Korean, for a Korean. This is my sister from another mother. Or, this is my mother from another sister,” as posted on updownacross, a blog run by New Yorker Joann Kim.
Maangchi also receives touching letters from fans, such as the woman who came across Maangchi’s site after her mother passed away, without having had the chance to learn how to cook Korean food from her. “‘One day I was cooking some of your recipes in the kitchen and my father came out from his room and said, ‘Oh, this smell reminds me of your mom! I feel your mom comes alive now!’” the fan wrote to Maangchi.
Maangchi, who is in her 50s, was born in Imsil in North Joella province and raised in the South Joella city of Yeosu, where her father ran a fish auction business. She was drawn to food from a young age. As a kid, she writes in the introduction to her cookbook, she would try dishes made by her mom, grandmother and aunts and “quietly determine who made the best version of each dish.”
That discerning palate took on a commanding influence in the schoolroom—Maangchi would organize group lunches in which each friend was responsible for a particular dish. Her Korean culinary knowledge is honed from family and friends, years of practice and sharing recipes with fellow Korean expats in Columbus, Missouri, where she lived when her ex-husband was getting his Ph.D.
“Since I was young, I have been cooking from memory, and sometimes, I’m learning from some other people,” Maangchi says. “Each recipe has my own story. Like for tangsuyuk, I learned how to make the crispy crunch batter from my close friend. All recipes over the years, I learned from my grandmother, all different people.” (The trick to the crispy batter, she explains in her book, is to mix potato starch with water in a bowl, allow the starch to settle to the bottom, then drain the water and mix the remaining starch with an egg white to create a coating. “As with crispy fried chicken, double-frying is essential,” Maangchi writes.)
Maangchi moved to Toronto from Korea after she and her first husband divorced, once their two children were all grown up. She worked various jobs, including as a cashier, movie extra, translator and interpreter. It was in Toronto where she recreated herself as “Maangchi,” or “hammer,” slayer of villains in the popular South Korean online video game “City of Heroes.”
The online moniker stuck—even after her addiction to the video game subsided after three-and-a-half years. By then, Maangchi had turned to a new hobby, making cooking videos and uploading them to a fast-growing video sharing service called YouTube.
Maangchi, whose tough name belies a sweet demeanor, credits her accessibility on camera to her years spent as an educator. She attended teachers’ college in Seoul and earned a certificate in social studies and a master’s in education.
In 2011, Maangchi was selected by YouTube as one of 25 up-and-coming video creators to receive a $35,000 grant through the company’s NextUp program. She used the money to travel and meet her fans all over the world in what she coined the “Gapshida! Journey” (Let’s Go!). She visited nine countries and 11 cities, sampling home-cooked foods in such places as Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.
“If I’m selected,” she recalled thinking, “I’d like to meet my readers all around the world. I want to meet them. We’ll make videos together. Sometimes I want to encourage my readers to make their own food and make them just like [I make mine].
“I had a chance to taste the food that my readers made, home-cooked food,” Maangchi adds.
Her zest for food—not only Korean, but of other cultures—is reflected in the panoply of global food friends that frequent her online forums and leave superlative comments. She re-posts their food photos based on her recipes and attends Meetup events organized in her honor. She also frequently posts about Korean food customs and personal recollections from her days growing up in Korea. She already has three self-published cookbooks through Amazon (downloaded more than 6 million times through her website).
Maangchi says visitors are drawn to her site for all sorts of reasons. There are the non-Koreans who have tried a Korean restaurant for the first time; the second-generation Korean Americans who want to replicate their mother’s cooking at home; and the Korean adoptees from all over the world. Not least of all, there are the Korean drama enthusiasts.
“Some people come [to my site] from Korean dramas—they love Korean dramas,” Maangchi says with a laugh, pointing out how they’ll seek out her recipe for jjajangmyun (noodles in black bean sauce) because their favorite stars have eaten it on screen.
As for her fans, Maangchi adds, “These people consider me as their sister or mom or relative. I feel really close [to them]. I never feel lonely.”
All photos courtesy of Maangchi
This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).