Megan Abbott

At Home With: Jordan Bourke & Rejina Pjo

Megan Abbott
At Home With: Jordan Bourke & Rejina Pjo

Originally published on food52.com

Chicken and potato stew with honey, garlic and chilies; battered cod and courgette with soy and vinegar dipping sauce; pine nut and rice porridge; shaved ice with sweet red beans and vanilla ice cream. These are the kinds of bold, generous flavours Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo are bringing to London. 

Our Korean Kitchen, their first cookbook, is the first of its kind in Europe. Curiously, Korean food has remained something of a mystery in the UK. We have very few quality Korean restaurants, and the typical home cook - well versed in the methods of Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese cooking - rarely reaches for a Korean recipe to try out. There are few stones left unturned in the culinary world here, but Jordan and Jina have found one. And it is their favourite food in the world.

We are sitting in the couple’s North London kitchen, the smell of sesame oil filling the air as Jordan gets to work on lunch. There are little echoes of Korea all over the kitchen in plates and bowls they have picked up on their travels, Korean products stacked on the shelves and the Korean labels that Jina has stuck on to every piece of apparatus. Jordan is brushing up on his reading skills. 

Jordan Bourke grew up in Ireland. After training at Ballymaloe Cookery School, he went straight into the kitchens of Petersham Nurseries, Skye Gyngell’s Michelin starred seasonal oasis. Since then, he has published two cookbooks, The Guilt Free Gourmet andThe Natural Food Kitchen, which was shortlisted for a Guild of Food Writers Award. His work has appeared in national and international publications like Vogue, The Times, Elle and BBC Good Food, and he has appeared on culinary shows for the BBC, Channel 4 and Fox International. But it is his work unearthing the delights of the Korean cuisine that has made him one of the most recognisable names on the British food scene lately. 

Jordan’s love affair with Korean food began with another love affair. He first met Rejina Pyo, a Seoul-born fashion designer, in a “really bad” bar in central London. Shortly after they met, Jordan moved to New York City and the pair didn’t see each other again until Jordan’s return a year later. In 2011, they wed in Ireland. Then again in Seoul in 2012. It was through Jina that Jordan discovered true Korean food. “I could cook him whatever I wanted at the beginning, and he would find it amazing! So it was easy for me!” Jina jokes. 

“I remember her cooking me this traditional sweet potato noodle dish on one of our first dates, and I just fell in love with it.” Jordan remembers. “I didn’t know a lot about Korean food. It was such a learning curve.”

Jordan began accompanying Jina on her trips back to Seoul, joining her mother in the kitchen as she cooked traditional family recipes. He wanted to learn every inch of this cuisine, which had been a mystery to him for so long. “It was hard for Jordan to learn from my mum in some ways. She doesn’t speak English, but they bonded over cooking.” Jina tells us. “Korean people grow up around home cooking, so it’s a natural thing to them. They all know how to do it. It’s purely instinctual, which is a problem for anyone who wants to learn! Jordan was trying to learn from my mum and she had no idea what measurements she used. She’s never used a measuring spoon or a weighing scale to cook with.”  “I had to just watch and learn!” Jordan laughs.

After learning the ways of the Korean Kitchen, Jordan worked in a few restaurants, and learned the nuances of traditional recipes from locals. After returning to England, despairing at the lack of authentic Korean food, Jordan and Jina began hosting pop ups, supper clubs and cooking demos. Seeing the reaction, they started drawing up the first drafts of Our Korean Kitchen

“The food in Korea is so incredibly good.” Jordan tells us. “We’d come back here and try to find some, and it was just always so poor. That’s part of the reason we wanted to start this, to show people the proper flavours of home cooked Korean food.”

The book blends Jina’s culinary heritage and Jordan’s classical training. The recipes are “traditional and authentic.” Jordan explains. “It’s really just our version of dishes. Which was kind of a fusion. We knew we had to do something traditional, and reflect the real food of Korea.” “Practically every recipe in that book is a traditional Korean recipe.” He continues. “They have hundreds and hundreds of recipes that are totally unique to Korea.”

Jordan and Jina’s project has come at a time of growing curiosity towards Korean culture in the UK. Along with the rise of K-Pop (Korean pop music) and K Drama (Korean tv shows), Korea’s complex, vibrant cuisine is being exposed more than ever before. “Every friend I take to Korea is amazed that they’ve never tried the food before.” Jina says. “They all want to make it at home but have no idea how. The dishes are so simple, but when the ingredients are so unfamiliar it can take a little push to get people trying to make it themselves. That’s why we wanted to do the book.”

We sit down at the table for lunch; bibimbap with a tableful of toppings. Juicy marinated beef, cucumber, daikon radish, shiitake mushrooms and a sunny yellow egg sat upon a bouncy bed of white rice. With this, Jordan and Jina offer us baby anchovies, tiny pieces of dried squid, mushrooms marinated with soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil, pickled garlic and the most potent, warming, kimchi we’ve ever tried. “Koreans would make all of these extra bits, and they last for months.” Jordan explains as we dip in to each little bowl. “They’ll make a quick rice or soup and they get out all of these fermented or preserved foods and suddenly it looks like a feast! The tables there just groan with food. It’s very resourceful cooking.”

“When it comes to food, Koreans really take care of others.” Jina says, mingling the ingredients together before filling our bowls. “When you’re eating in a group at the table, everyone looks after each other.” 

“That was the biggest shock for me, going there as a westerner for the first time.” Jordan agrees. “Around the table, everyone is looking after another person. Instead of everyone helping themselves, they help each other. And then when you look back at your plate, it is full.” 

“You know how in England we say “How are you?” when we greet someone?” Jina says. “In Korea, we say, “Have you eaten?””

Our Korean Kitchen’s success is largely down to people’s pleasant surprise. Korean food is often represented as heavy, oily and meat-focused. Which is far from the truth. “I think people are totally surprised by the flavours.” Jordan explains. “They expect it to be very dense and fried. And then they discover that it is predominantly vegetables with a little bit of meat.”

Jordan and Jina come from two very different countries. Their upbringings were different, and so were their surroundings. But one thing they shared in those early years were homes filled with cooking. “We always liked really good food in my family.” Jina says. “It just brings so much pleasure. Korea is quite a macho, conservative country, but my dad really enjoys cooking, which is quite unusual for his generation.” Over in Ireland, Jordan’s household revolved around his mother’s home cooking. “She was quite an unusual cook for the time.” He remarks. “Food was always massive in my house growing up. We’d be doing our homework at the kitchen table and mum would be making dinner. We were witness to so much cooking, we just took it all in. We learned by osmosis.”

Jordan and Jina still continue to pursue their respective passions. Jina’s fashion label is going from strength to strength, and Jordan continues to contribute his cooking to national and international publications, as well as lending his talents as a food stylist to other cookbooks. But together, the two have their sights set on challenging the perceptions of Korean food in the UK, and showing us all the colour, flavour and passion we have been missing all this time. 

“There is a love in the food in Korea.” Jordan says. “Whether it’s your mother or father cooking for you, or the school dinner ladies, there is just a love that goes in to the making of the food. You can literally taste it. There’s so much thought in the food. They are very present when they’re cooking. It’s not just feeding people, there’s respect and affection for food there.” 

Jina smiles and adds, “My mum always says that. She says the last ingredient in all her cooking is love.”