$20 Dinner with Hannah Chung of Simply Seoul Kitchen

Atlanta's kimchi queen creates a heartfelt Korean meal on a budget

Thursday March 3, 2016 04:00 am EST

Soybean sprouts: 89 cents
Kelp: $2.99
Garlic: 22 cents
Onion: 79 cents
Sesame oil: 28 cents
Green onion: 40 cents
Local ground beef: $6.14
Eggs: $1.68
Soy sauce: 23 cents
Rice wine vinegar: 50 cents
Red pepper paste: 42 cents
Sesame seeds: 73 cents
Carrot: 34 cents
Zucchini: 49 cents
Mushrooms: 50 cents
Spinach: 79 cents
Mung bean sprouts: 89 cents
Rice: 60 cents
Total: $18.88

Pantry items: Sugar, olive oil, salt, pepper

For Simply Seoul Kitchen founder Hannah Chung, navigating Asian grocery H-Mart in Doraville is as much a shopping trip as it is a trip down memory lane. From the glossy, crimson boxes of Choco Pie dessert cakes she and her brother adored as kids to an elaborate Hula-Hoop designed to torch unwanted belly fat (popular among Korean women of a certain age who like to Hula-Hoop while watching TV), Chung's anecdotes reveal a catalog of Korean-American experiences that shaped her as a person and as a chef.
"In Korean culture, girls learn to be in the kitchen whether they want to or not," Chung, 34, says with a laugh. "Growing up I had very limited playtime because I was busy being a prep cook."

She says her grandmother, who helped raise her, was the most important person in her life. Chung would spend hours in the kitchen watching her prepare artful, elaborate meals. Despite their closeness, a significant language barrier existed. Her grandmother's English was limited, and it wasn't until much later in life that Chung began learning to speak Korean. They mainly communicated through food.

"She would speak in Korean while she cooked, slowly and rhythmically in this grandma kind of way, with a cadence. It was more like she was talking to herself, but sharing her thoughts with me. She'd be like, in Korean, 'OK, now we're gonna flip this and this goes on here.' And I would just understand. She wasn't necessarily teaching me."

Now entering its third year, Chung's small-scale artisan kimchi and steamed bun company Simply Seoul has grown in both scope and size. The former line and prep cook (Bacchanalia, the Porter Beer Bar, Holeman & Finch, Miller Union) still makes buns and kimchi at her commercial kitchen in Decatur almost every day, but now Chung has a team of nine employees to help. Simply Seoul kimchi is currently available in about 40 stores including small local grocers and Whole Foods locations in five states. In September 2015, Chung launched a Simply Seoul food stall in Ponce City Market.

"There's this drive in me to create," Chung says enthusiastically, "whether it's breakfast that day or kimchi. Now Simply Seoul kimchi is a thing that's in people's fridge."

Chung is proud she's been able to impact Atlanta food culture and help expand diners' awareness of Korean cuisine by popularizing kimchi. But she wasn't always so keen on embracing her heritage. Growing up, the army brat attended parochial schools and was often the only Asian kid in many of her classes. She felt like an outsider.


"My mom would pack me Korean beef and vegetable rolls for lunch or a Korean lunch sack, which is like rice, kimchi, and a couple boiled eggs. All the kids would be like, 'Ew! Your lunch pail smells like garbage!' And I would just be so ridiculed and bullied because of it. I'd just beg my mom for a Lunchable. I would be pulling on her pants crying, begging for a Lunchable and a Fruit Roll-Up. But nope."

Chung says she more or less rejected her culture until after high school. When she was 19, her grandmother passed away and Chung's perspective began to shift. All the lessons and memories from spending so much time with her grandmother in the kitchen resurfaced.

"Losing my grandmother did something to me. It's like I'd taken her for granted and expected her to exist forever. I started cooking Korean food all the time on my own, and going out to Korean restaurants. That's when Korean food just kind of became my world. It felt like I was connecting with her through food."

When asked to make a home-cooked family meal for less than $20, Chung naturally planned a menu that channeled her grandmother. Today Chung plans to make a traditional Korean bibimbap with a simple soybean sprout soup on the side.


CHUNG'S INMAN PARK APARTMENT oozes century-old charm with its elaborate crown molding and handsome hardwood floors. There is a narrow galley kitchen with black-and-white checked floors and black matte countertops. Chung unpacks the H-Mart haul and arranges the ingredients on a wood cutting board. As she switches into cooking mode, a focused look settles on her face. She consults a stack of papers covered in measurements, ingredient lists, and recipe notes and mutters quietly to herself, strategizing. After a couple minutes she takes a deep breath and gets to work.

First she rinses a pot of rice and pops it into the rice cooker. Next she tips a package of ground beef into a large mixing bowl. A set of metal measuring spoons jingle and clink as she uses them to pour sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine vinegar into the bowl.

"There are so many interpretations of bibimbap, it's like interpreting a hamburger," she says, clutching a petite MAC chef's knife. "But I wanted to give people a traditional recipe without modern or western deviation, just exactly how my grandmother would make it." She smashes a few cloves of garlic beneath the side of her knife and pitches them into the bowl. She kneads the meat with her hands until all the ingredients are incorporated and then sets the bowl aside to let it marinate.

Bibimbap is a bowl of rice with an array of meat, vegetables, and fried egg arranged on top.

"Bap means rice, bibim means to mix or stir. So ultimately it translates into 'mixed rice bowl,'" she says.

The dish is typically finished with a drizzle of bibim sauce, Chung says, a subtly spicy blend that includes Korean red pepper paste, aka gochujang, sesame seeds, and soy sauce.

Because the combinations are endless, bibimbap lends itself to improvisation. It's an ideal way to empty the fridge of leftovers and reduce food waste. Bibimbap is simple to make, but it can be labor-intensive because its many components are prepped and cooked separately. The process is tactile and involved. Chung doesn't recommend making it if time is a factor, nor does it make sense to go through the trouble preparing it for just one person. For Chung, bibimbap is a great party food and a dish people can enjoy making together.

Chung is meticulous in the kitchen. She cleans as she goes. She takes her time with the steps, but never more than is needed. She hates inefficiency. Using a mandoline, Chung shreds a fat carrot and a small Korean zucchini. As she slides each one back and forth over the thin blade like a washboard, the vegetables fall in uniform matchstick threads. One by one, she sautés each component simply with salt and olive oil and then sets them aside to await assembly.

As the cooked bibimbap ingredients cool to room temperature, Chung throws some sautéed onion, garlic, kelp, and soybean sprouts into a pot and covers everything with water. Minutes later, the bubbling contents are transformed into a clean, simple soup. Chung begins arranging piles of al dente vegetables and browned ground beef in small piles over the rice. A fried egg with a runny yolk is the cherry on top. After a drizzle of brick-red sauce, the dish is complete. Peering down into the bowl, she steps back and admires her creation. With each colorful ingredient positioned just so, the presentation resembles a mosaic or a stained glass window. It almost looks too pretty to eat.


"STARTING A BUSINESS with nothing, with no help and no investors takes hundred-hour weeks for years," Chung says, as we mix up our bibimbap with wooden chopsticks. "I really gave up myself and gave up my relationships and friendships and a life to get it off the ground. I didn't take care of myself. I didn't connect with anyone. I didn't do anything I like. I just worked my ass off. I got so sick last year I almost had to close the business, so that was a big wake-up call. I'm just coming into alignment and balance in my life right now and really feeling alive."

Empowered by her success with Simply Seoul, Chung has rediscovered her passion for restaurants. She wants to channel her relentless creativity into edgy Korean concepts. She likens commercial food production to a sitcom, whereas cooking in restaurants is more like live TV. She's interested in feeding people, and connecting with them in real time.

"I've been asked to go to other regions and be picked up by national distributors but my heart is just so into restaurants. Production is great. I'm good at it. I've done something with it. But I want the chaos of a restaurant. ... I really see myself going into edgier Korean concepts that aren't watered down or Americanized. I'm going to be some, like, Korean restaurant mogul. Maybe it won't be until I'm 60. But I do feel like I'm at the beginning of something that's going to be very big."

Next: Hannah Chung's recipes for ground beef bibimbap and soybean sprout soup.


Soybean sprout soup

• Sesame oil
• 1/2 onion, julienned
• 2 garlic cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 pound soybean sprouts, washed
• 6 cups water
• 1/2 cup kelp
• 2 green onion stalks, julienned
Lightly heat oil in a pot over medium high heat. Sauté onion and garlic with salt for two minutes. Add sprouts and sauté for 1 minute. Add water and kelp and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off heat and add green onions. Remove kelp before serving.



• 2 cups rice (preferably Korean)
• Water
Wash rice several times until the water runs mostly clear. Follow the recipe the rice calls for in rice cooker.

Ground beef bulgogi

• 1/2 pound ground beef
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon sesame oil
• 4 garlic cloves, minced
• Pinch black pepper
• 1 teaspoon grape-seed or olive oil
Combine all ingredients through black pepper and let the mixture marinate for 20 minutes. (Can prepare Bibim sauce while meat is marinating.) Next, cook the meat with a teaspoon of oil over medium high heat. Set aside.

Bibim sauce

• 6 tablespoons red pepper paste
• 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
• 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
• 2 teaspoons sesame oil
• 1 garlic clove, minced
Mix all ingredients together and set aside.


• 1 small carrot
• 1 teaspoon oil
• Pinch salt
Julienne carrots into even matchsticks by hand or shred using a mandoline. Heat pan on medium high heat with oil, lightly sauté for 30 seconds, season with salt. Set aside.


• 1 small zucchini
• 1 teaspoon oil
• Pinch salt
Julienne zucchini into even matchsticks by hand or shred using a mandoline. Heat pan on medium high heat with oil, lightly sauté for one minute, season with salt. Set aside.


• 8 ounces enoki mushrooms (or any shroom of choice)
• 1 teaspoon oil
• Pinch salt
• 1 teaspoon soy sauce
Rinse mushrooms and remove stems. Sear in a hot pan with oil in an even layer. Add salt. Do not stir for 30 seconds. Reduce heat to medium and add soy sauce. Cook until mushrooms are glazed, about two minutes. Set aside.


• 1 bunch fresh spinach
• 1 teaspoon oil
• Pinch salt
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Wash and chop stems off. Lightly heat oil in a pan on medium heat. Add spinach and sauté with salt for one minute. Add garlic and continuing cooking for two minutes. Remove from heat, mix in sesame oil, and set aside.

Mung bean sprouts

• 4 quarts water
• 1 pound mung bean sprouts
• 1 teaspoon sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon salt, divided
Boil water with one tablespoon of salt. Wash mung bean sprouts and set aside. Once water reaches a rolling boil, reduce heat to medium high. Add mung bean sprouts and boil for 1-2 minutes. Sprouts should become tender, but not overcooked. Drain and shock in cold or ice water. Once cooled, squeeze out excess water with two hands. Mix in sesame oil and a teaspoon of salt.


• 4 eggs
• Pinch salt
• 1 tablespoon oil
Fry eggs sunny side up. Sprinkle one pinch of salt over all the eggs. Set aside.

Bibimbap Assembly

Once all the elements are ready, center a scoop of rice in the bottom of a large bowl. Arrange all the cooked vegetables in separate piles around the rice. Place an egg on top of the rice in center of bowl. Serve at room temperature with bibim sauce on the side.__










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