You can’t talk about Lee without mentioning her pop star status in Seoul, long before Korean boy bands like BTS became a phenomenon there. Lee had four number one albums in Korea prior to retiring from music to attend culinary school. She’s still widely recognized by fans in South Korea, and makes appearances whenever she returns.
But her medium changed, and cooking is now how Lee expresses her creativity, when she’s not lending time to causes concerning Atlanta restaurants or rallying behind organizations in support of the Asian-American community here.
Eater followed Lee on a recent shopping trip to Buford Highway Farmers Market to discuss how she creates the Southern-Korean side dishes served on the menu at Heirloom Market BBQ.
Owned by Harold Shinn, Buford Highway Farmers Market encompasses over 100,000 square feet selling a variety of fresh produce, meat, and seafood and offering aisles filled with food products and ingredients from around the world. For avid home cooks and Atlanta chefs like Lee, shopping at Buford Highway Farmers Market is hard to beat for the value and breadth of ingredient selection found there.
Although Lee loves meat-centered restaurants, the chef admits she often finds sides served with those meals heavy rather than light and refreshing, as with side dishes (or banchan) complementing heartier meals in Korea.
“When you go to a Korean restaurant or a home and cook meat, we always serve with radish banchan because the radish is digestive,” explains Lee. “It helps break down the protein and the fat. Korean restaurants always have some daikon [radish] or ‘moo’ or ‘mu’, as we call it. When we cook meat stews or beef broth, we always add moo.”
Lee draws inspiration from traditional Korean dining and flavors for her Southern-Korean side dishes at Heirloom Market BBQ. Sides are meant to provide balance and play up the Korean-inspired meats on the menu. For example, the flavor of Southern-style collards brings back memories of her grandmother’s cooking.
Growing up during the 1970s in Korea, Lee’s family was “very poor.” She recalls how her grandmother dehydrated vegetables, especially radish green tips, to make food last longer. Throughout the winter, her grandmother rehydrated the greens, making a soup with fermented soybean paste. The flavors in the soup, Lee says, are reminiscent of Southern-style collard greens — a Southern vegetable dish she loves.
These childhood food memories and the blending of two culinary influences is how Lee approaches developing recipes for sides to pair with the barbecue served at the restaurant. However, she believes those flavors and dishes have to make sense for the menu because “fusion can sometimes be confusing.”
Many of the side dishes at Heirloom Market are adapted from Korean banchan for the Southern palate, from incorporating particular cooking methods to using seasonal ingredients grown in the South. Heirloom Market, for instance, serves kimchi slaw rather than coleslaw as a barbecue side. In the summertime, the restaurant offers green tomato kimchi on the menu.
Lee says some Heirloom Market customers enjoy her sides so much, they often purchase dishes by the quart to pair with home-cooked meals.
“I’m not an arrogant person, but when people understand [my food] naturally and find it good, that makes me really happy as a cook.”
This includes Lee’s pickled cucumber-radish salad and sweet and spicy crispy tofu — two of Heirloom Market BBQ’s most popular sides. The dishes are relatively easy to prepare, the chef says, with minimal measuring, and are refreshing choices for those seeking to lighten the heft on their barbecue plate during hot Georgia summers.
Below, Lee briefly explains how she makes her pickled cucumber-radish salad and crispy tofu for Heirloom Market BBQ, as told to Jennifer Zyman.
Pickled cucumber-radish salad
Julienne a pound of Kirby cucumbers thin, like a pickle slice. The cucumber is salted to drain all the excess water. We pickle for a couple of hours, which is just a brine, not a pickle. Then, julienne a pound of red baby radish for some color and crunch. When the cucumber is ready, we rinse it a couple of times and drain it until all the water comes out.
Next, we mix it all with vinegar. People can use white vinegar or apple cider vinegar, but we use rice vinegar. Add a little sugar [and] salt and just mix them all together. You will see a lot more liquid coming out from the radish. We save that to pickle again, or you can just drink it. [Top with sesame seeds.]
You can eat right away, but the next day is better.
Sweet and spicy crispy tofu
Buford Highway Farmers Market homemade tofu is the best. The texture often when I get tofu from the regular grocery stores is way too firm. But the market’s tofu is still soft, but firm. It’s perfect for anything.
You can pan-fry. We do a lot of Korean dishes with it seared on a pan with salt and pepper and some making some soy sauce or another yummy sauce. You pat dry with the paper towel and then cut it into small cubes. After that, season lightly salt and pepper. I recommend cornstarch and flour mixed together because it’s extra crunchy. If you don’t have cornstarch, just regular flour is fine. Toss in the flour and shake off excess. Fry once until light gold, and then you take out, wait two minutes to three minutes, and then do the second fry.
We make a kimchi base separate in a little bowl with three tablespoons of soy sauce, three tablespoons water, Korean red pepper [paste], and either sugar or agave syrup, a little bit of ground black pepper, and stir. The red pepper expands and makes the sauce thicker, so you stir until it’s thicker. Finally, drizzle the sauce on the tofu or drizzle and then top with sesame seeds.