The first time I decided to make kimchi by myself, at age 23, I ran into a dilemma: Despite having watched my mom and aunties make the fermented cabbage at family gatherings and holiday festivities, I couldn’t remember a damn thing about the recipe.
This was disappointing. Kimchi is the national dish of Korea, after all — a food that I see and taste in my earliest memories. Surely, it was something I needed to learn, understand and practice. So I called my mom, hoping for some unique insights into how to prep the cabbage, make the deep red seasoning paste and layer it all together.
Instead, I got a big giggle and a sigh.
“I haven’t made kimchi in a decade! And, to be honest, I didn’t really have a recipe, you know? The amount of ingredients depends on how big your cabbage is,” she continued. “Do you need to bother, anyway? I hear Costco has kimchi over there, if you can’t make it to the Korean market.”
To be fair, my mom was never really communicative about how to make my favorite Korean dishes, often suggesting I just relax and eat out rather than labor away in a kitchen. But I wasn’t about to give up and schlep it to a store in defeat. I wanted to make it right, and a quick Google search led me right to Maangchi, YouTube’s Korean mom and a veritable encyclopedia of good recipes.
The kimchi turned out perfect, and ever since that day, Maangchi (which means “hammer” in Korean) has become a go-to resource whenever I’m craving a particular Korean dish. Her real name is Emily Kim (no relation obviously), and she lives in New York, producing content for her 5.6 million subscribers. But to me, she’s an amazing example of the kind of “internet mom” who goes viral through an indelible mix of charm, wisdom and nurturing vibes that cut through the internet’s cynicism and clickbait. (It’s something Maangchi’s fans have expressed, too — they literally refer to her as “mom” in the comments.)
The thing is, I’ve never personally seen anyone’s mom casually making incredible soy-sauce marinated raw crabs and pretty little harvest rice cakes, nor providing a reliable recipe that I can reference in the future. I think that’s a big reason why there’s so much vicarious joy in YouTube channels like Maangchi, Cooking with Dog, De Mi Rancho a Tu Cocina and Momma Cherri, to name a few. They all cook with the smooth, confident movements of someone who’s been in a kitchen a long time, with a natural ability to tell stories about the dish, a place and a culture.
The amount of knowledge they’ve given us for free can’t be understated. It’s one thing to understand Korean food, having grown up watching my own mom and aunts in the kitchen. Other cuisines, however, I’ve only understood from the outside-in as a diner, with no sneak peeks behind the scenes. That’s certainly true of Mexican and various Latin American cuisines, which I got hooked on as a kid living in central California, as well as most Japanese food, which is ironic given my parents owned a sushi business.
No matter — now I can spend ample time with the women who make my favorite version of sukiyaki and who taught me how to make red Mexican rice from scratch.
I can dig the wit and premise of Binging with Babish, the frenetic energy of Matty Matheson, the slick production of Bon Appetít or the myriad superstar guests on VICE’s Munchies. But when it comes to capturing the vibe of learning from a lifelong pro, with no pretense and flash, I’m sticking to people who remind me of family.
My mom was my conduit into a life spent eating — and learning — about the foods that make us nostalgic and happy. But these days, I mostly just send her pictures of bubbling stews and perfectly made kimchi, hoping for her approval. I know she can’t help but be impressed because she often asks me the same question: “Where on Earth did you learn to make that?”