It only seems fitting that actors and comedians Randall Park and Ali Wong, stars of Netflix’s recently released rom-com Always Be My Maybe, first met at a university fried-rice cook-off back in the late 90s.
Park recalls hosting the cook-off at his apartment. It was organized by members of an Asian-American theatre company at UCLA that Park helped start. Park remembers Wong, who was just starting university, submitting a cranberry fried rice that he diplomatically says “did not win.”
In the movie, Wong plays Sasha, a celebrity chef who returns to her hometown to open her upcoming much-hyped restaurant and is reunited with Park’s character, Marcus, a childhood friend whom she had a falling out with after an awkward teenage hook up. Of course, the movie is also getting attention for a delightfully unhinged Keanu Reeves cameo that spawned a full-length song by Park about punching the actor in the face, as well as being a rom-com with a predominantly Asian cast that doesn’t fall into stereotypes.
Not that Park considers himself a culinary expert in real life, but in the movie Marcus accuses Sasha of straying from her culinary roots as she calls her new Vietnamese fusion spot “transdenominational” and prints the menus on rice paper because “white people eat that s—- up.”
“I think being a chef is analogous to her life as a comedian,” says Park when asked why Wong’s character was made to be a chef. “For a comedian, the jokes have to be good or else you’re not a good comedian. Similar to a chef, you can do all sorts of gimmicks but the food has to be good. One thing our director Nahnatchka Khan says is that food is memories and food is connected to (Sasha’s) past and as she became successful she veered away from that.”
At the start of the film, Marcus’ mother Judy teaches a young Sasha how to cook Korean food. In particular, we see a bubbling pot of jjigae, a nourishing kimchi stew that’s garnished with green onions cut with a pair of kitchen shears. “We Koreans use scissors for everything,” Judy tells her.
So when Park dropped by the Star’s test kitchen, it felt appropriate to serve him a comforting bowl of jjigae and have him do the honours of cutting up the green onions before we ate. “It’s different from the one I had growing up,” he says with the first few tastes. But he nods approvingly and continues to slurp up spoonfuls of kimchi, seared pork belly and shiitake. “I want to take it to go…you could start a business with that!”
Most viewers already recognize Park as patriarch Louis Huang in the last five seasons of the ABC sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, which was created by Always Be My Maybe’s director Khan and had Wong as a writer for three seasons. Park also gained a cult following for his many smaller roles over the years such as Asian Jim in The Office, Governor Danny Chung in Veep, Dr. Stephen Shin in Aquaman, Agent Jimmy Woo in The Antman and The Wasp, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the controversial Seth Rogan-directed comedy The Interview.
“I’ve definitely been lucky to be in a lot of different things. No parts were that huge that it would make me an international star, but it was enough to fill that niche,” he says. “The acting was so slow at times that I was making shorts and web shows, and some of them caught fire. I still get recognized for IKEA Heights, a 2009 soap opera that we filmed in an Ikea without the store’s permission. All that work was leading up to this.”
“I don’t consider myself a foodie, but I like what I like,” says Park, taking another bite. “Like this jjigae.”
Jjigae (Korean kimchi stew)
There are many variations on jjigae. Some swap out pork belly for pork shoulder, others add in canned tuna or chunks of beef, it can be made vegetarian by just using tofu, and some will make a base stock of dried anchovies for that extra punch of umami.
My version uses dried shiitake mushrooms, which adds a earthy flavour to contrast the sweet, sour and spiciness of the kimchi (be sure to get the dried version, available at most Asian grocers, as they taste completely different from fresh). Gochugaru is Korean red pepper flakes found in many Korean dishes and has a complex spicy, sweet and smoky profile. Doenjang is a Korean fermented soybean paste that’s similar to Japanese miso but has a much sharper flavour.
1oz dried shiitake mushrooms
1/2lb skinless pork belly, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tsp (5 mL) freshly grated ginger
2 finely minced garlic cloves
3 cups (750 mL) water
2 cups (500 mL) kimchi with brine
1 tbsp (15 mL) each gochujang and doenjang
1 tsp (5 mL) gochugaru
1lb firm tofu, cut into slices
Green onions, for garnish
Place mushrooms in a medium-sized, heatproof bowl. Bring a small pot of water to a roaring boil. Pour water over mushrooms, enough to fully submerge them. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, foil or a plate and let sit for at least 20 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender. Drain, reserving liquid, and slice mushrooms into strips. Set aside.
In a large pot over medium heat, add pork belly and saute until fat begins to render and pork is browned. Add ginger and garlic. Saute until fragrant. Stir in reserved mushroom liquid. Scrape up cooked bits of fat from bottom of pot. Stir in sliced mushrooms, water, kimchi and its brine, gochujang, doenjang and gochugaru.
Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove lid, turn heat down to medium and let simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and allowing jjigae to thicken and intensify in flavour. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
Add tofu and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until tofu is hot. Transfer to serving bowls and garnish with chopped or cut green onion. Serve immediately.
Makes 2 generous servings or 4 servings if served with steamed white rice.