There are just a few places to get Korean food in the city. Unlike other types of cuisine, it still flies under the radar. I met with Den Den Café Asiana’s Executive Chef Jang Bae to shed some light on Korean cuisine. We talked about must try dishes and staying true to his culinary roots.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I became a chef because learning a craft was very attractive to me. I had no experience cooking outside of my home, but figuring out how to use certain ingredients and how to make something new out of raw material felt like magic to me. I once watched a documentary on Chef Jiro Ono (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and he said something that affected me deeply. He said, “You have to be very cautious in picking a dream you want to pursue. Once you decide, you have to give everything of yourself to fulfill it.” That still inspires me to this day.
What’s one dish on the menu that encapsulates Korean cooking?
My favorite dish is the Bibimbap. It translates to “mixed rice bowl” in English. It’s our number one seller and it’s a very old recipe. Every single component of the dish is seasoned and cooked differently, so it takes a lot of work to make a single order. When you look at it, this dish seems very simple: a bowl of rice with meat or vegetable on top. In our restaurant, you can choose the protein you want to add on top. In Korea, it doesn’t come as a customizable dish, it just comes as it comes.
What makes Bibimbap so complex?
The Bibimbap is cooked (and served) in a granite stone bowl. It retains extremely hot temperatures and continues to cook while you’re eating it. At the end, there is a crispy layer on the bottom, but it never burns. A lot of customers ask, “Hot do you get this bowl so hot? Do you pre-heat it in the oven?” Believe it or not, we don’t have an oven. We cook everything here on the stovetop. That bowl is made from a unique Korean stone. When we buy it, we soak it in salt water for 24 hours, oil it with sesame oil then grill it. This keeps it intact after heating and cooling under extreme temperatures. That’s a Korean tradition.
Tell me about some other items on the menu.
There are many different styles of Korean cooking out there. For our menu, I handpick the dishes that I would like to eat, then place my own twist on them to make them approachable to local diners. The majority of our best-selling dishes are family-style dishes in Korea. However, we are starting to add Korean street food to the menu as well – it’s what Koreans eat on an everyday basis.
What are some other aspects of Korean cooking that differ from other styles?
Korean food is not well known. But I feel very proud of the techniques that people in Korea use. Fermentation, for example, is a staple of our food traditions. Our food is very tightly connected to the seasons as well. The dishes will change drastically from one season to the next. In that sense, it’s also connected to home cooking. Korean cooking is supposed to taste like mama’s food.
After a hard day of work, what do you crave?
A cold beer and Korean double-fried chicken. It’s a popular soul food dish in Asia right now. They actually call it “KFC” (Korean Fried Chicken) over there, but we’re not allowed to call it that in the States. We double fry it and utilize Korean street spices, like chili and soy paste, and a lot of garlic and honey. It has a tangy flavor to it. We’re actually opening a Korean fried chicken restaurant on Angell Street in Providence. It’ll be open by the end of this year.
Den Den Café Asiana
161 Benefit Street