Momofuku
by David Chang, Peter Meehan
Publisher: Clarkson Potter, Country: US
ISBN: 9780307451958, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

David Chang, owner of the famed New York restaurants Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar and Ko, chronicles his journey from noodle-eater to noodle-maker and guides us through more than 50 of his most popular recipes that showcase the fusion of modern technique and classic Asian comfort food. Throughout the book he gives us a peek into the creative process and the story behind each dish, citing his influences, failures, and inspirations. The recipes can be daunting and the flavors sometimes need tweaking, but ambitious home cooks should have little problem replicating or improving on the dishes, though the weak instructions and badly converted measurements might lead them astray. While there has been plenty of media focus on Chang’s “bad-boy” image, in the book he doesn’t hold back but still comes across as approachable and self-deprecating at best, and at worst annoying and trying too hard, but never offensive. Fans of modern Asian cuisine and the Momofuku empire will find the book both entertaining and fascinating.

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Full review

It’s nearly impossible to separate any assessment of the Momofuku cookbook from the persona of David Chang and the media hype that’s surrounded him over the last two years, which escalated to a fever pitch in the months approaching the book’s release. In a nation that had become accustomed to the gentle, encouraging tones of the books of Food Network matriarchs, Chang’s book exploded into the scene with a string of f-bombs and the media loved it. “It’s an ugly, nasty business, the cooking world. It’s hard, hot and grueling. Other books choose not to document this,” Chang said in an interview for The Wall Street Journal.

So, who exactly is this rebel chef? David Chang is an American of Korean descent, the son of a restaurateur, who grew up eating noodles and ended up majoring in religion. He abandoned his job teaching English to children in Osaka to chase a dream working at a ramen shop, but not before enrolling in the French Culinary Institute in New York. He then worked briefly at Craft before finding jobs at a ramenya and a soba shop in Tokyo. Upon returning to America, he worked at Restaurant Daniel and Café Boulud. A family emergency ended his stint there prematurely, and when it was resolved, he returned to New York to open Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004.

But that’s just the very condensed beginning of the story. The book has three main chapters, opaquely (at least to those unfamiliar with the Momofuku empire) called Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, and Ko. Each chapter begins with the origin of the chapter’s restaurant (the paragraph above summarizing the first half of the introduction for Noodle Bar). Chang comes across as charming in his determination and single-mindedness to live up to the memories of the best meals he’s eaten in his life — from eating jjajangmyun with his father as a child to galette de champignons in Paris’ L’Astrance on his way to the Omnivore Food Festival in Deauville. The introduction to Noodle Bar is the most engrossing among the three, narrating the several changes in fortune Chang encountered on his path from noodle-eater to noodle-maker, to successful noodle-maker. You really get a sense that he’s paid his dues and takes nothing for granted in his career.

After the introductions come the recipes that represent each restaurant of the Momofuku brand, including the most famous ones: Momofuku Ramen, Momofuku Pork Buns, and Fried Chicken from Noodle Bar; Oysters with Kimchi Consommé, Bo Ssäm, Pig’s Head Torchon, and Bánh Mì from Ssäm Bar; and Shaved Foie Gras, 48-Hour Short Rib, and Cereal Milk Panna Cotta from Ko. All in all, there are about 51 main recipes: 19 from Noodle Bar, 20 from Ssäm Bar, and 12 from Ko. However, the number of actual recipes is much larger since a few have several components (for instance, ham terrine for the Bánh Mì or pork belly for several other recipes) and I’ve counted a single heading for a subset of recipes as one (for example, “vinegar pickles” has 14 variations). Most recipes have an introduction that span from one sentence to a whole page, sometimes documenting the creative process behind the dish. There are four features a few pages long in between the recipes, the first a not particularly interesting narrative about how they went from sourcing alkaline noodles to producing them; the second a profile of Allan Benton and his smoked meat operation; the third Chang’s experiments with “meat glue” (transglutaminase), and finally, an overview of foie gras production at Hudson Valley, one of America’s few foie gras farms.

The results you’re going to get cooking from Momofuku will be variable, and at times dependent on the expertise of the chef. And that’s not even referring to the difficulty of the cooking processes involved in the recipes. You are no doubt going to find people impressed with the effort that goes into producing the ramen or pork buns by hand, but it takes a careful cook to know when to deviate from the recipes to make an even better product than Chang’s. For example, with the bacon dashi and the nori and the taré and the smoky bacon that goes into the broth for the Momofuku Ramen, there is a tendency for it to become too heady, too salty, too umami. Chang smartly advises you to trust your taste buds and adjust the seasoning accordingly (I find that I like mine to have many more scallions than Chang suggests, to “clean up” the taste). Depending on your cut of pork belly, neglecting it during the first hour of roasting at 450°F can result in anything between a pleasant char to charcoal (neither of which is how it appears in the restaurant). Using your imagination also helps: I found that Chang’s finish for the pork buns — a smear of hoisin sauce — was too one-dimensional and never compared to my many pork bun experiences. Adding some spices to the belly, as well as gochujang to the bun, elevated it. My guests were divided on the roasted rice cakes but, with its sweet roasted onions and ssamjang, I preferred its depth to the usual spicy dok boki. What’s clever about Momofuku is that if you’re the type of chef who’s daring enough to try the more involved recipes, you are also a chef who should be wise enough to trust your own tastebuds over the rigid confines of a cookbook.

One of my biggest frustrations with the recipes isn’t their difficulty or demands, but sometimes the haphazard way in which a few are written. While the recipes from Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar use customary US volume measurements that reflect the way these dishes are prepared in the restaurant (no real measurements, just eyeballing and adjusting), in the Ko chapter something is lost in the translation to metric. In some cases there’s only a difference of about 30 grams or 2 tablespoons, but in others, the results can change the recipe drastically. Is 6 cups of cornflakes 265 grams? Try 170 grams (265 grams is 9 and 1/3 cups). 2 grams of kosher salt is 2/3 teaspoon, not 2 teaspoons: a difference that could turn your cereal milk panna cotta salty. The fried apple pie is the worst offender, calling for either 1 1/4 cups or 125 grams of water: the difference between mildly enriched bread dough and very crumbly pastry dough. In this case, the volume measurement is correct.

Chang and pastry chef Christina Tosi lack those pedagogic nuances that make a great cookbook, like knowing to describe a mold before the recipe and how to completely describe it; making sure that the gelatin sheets indicated in the recipe are the correct strength; noting that a hanger steak cooked sous vide at only 125°F for 45 minutes and held in the fridge for three hours is in fact not safe for consumption by some people; and knowing when to concede that your text description of dissecting a pig head is severely lacking and the before and after pictures are not helpful.

Much has been said about Chang and Meehan’s writing style: that they felt they needed to cuss to be taken seriously, or that it reflects a kitchen environment to some extent. I find that the latter is unnecessary for a cookbook, as we are not looking to be hired by Chang and it doesn’t help make you a better cook. Fortunately, I also do not think that the amount of “crude” language used in the book is offensive in the least. If anything, it makes Chang seem approachable, more like Drunken Master than Venerable Sensei, a comparison he would no doubt enjoy. Throughout the text Chang vacillates between humble, self-deprecating perpetual learner to self-satisfied inspired tinkerer, which can be endearing if you consider that some of his recipes, like the Octo Vinaigrette and Ginger Scallion Noodles, are really just rehashing tried-and-true Asian formulas of sour-salty-spicy. Some of the more bothersome statements are those that are obsolete (“Everyone says ramen is rigid”), senseless (“I wish my prom date had worn a pungent dress”), or corny (“fucking delish”). Sometimes it feels like Chang is playing to the media, condescending as in the introduction for Pig’s Head Torchon (“Pigs have heads […] Farmers do not raise walking pork chops. If you’re serious about your meat, you’ve got to grasp that concept.”). I don’t know why he thought I didn’t know that, as I eat the snout, a part even he discards in the recipe. What food-lover who has the courage to take on the recipe would be unaware of this “concept”. I had to wonder if he wrote that to impress the mainstream media, who follow his every move.

However, don’t let the hype deter you from taking a peek. The intended audience should be the skilled (and well-stocked) home chef interested in modern techniques applied to traditional Asian cooking, and for the most part it is. Fans of Momofuku and those curious about what makes its renowned dishes so special will also be satisfied reading Momofuku from start to finish.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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