Graphic Novel Review: Cook Korean! + All American Girl by Robin Ha

Cook Korean! A Comic Book With Recipes by Robin Ha. Ten Speed Press, 2016. 175pp including an index. 9781607748878. 176pp.

The hanbok wearing Dengki teaches us how to cook (because Ha is busy drawing comics). There’s a guide to Korean ingredients and meals, including different kinds of rice and rice by-products — you’ll probably love nurungji — before Dengki shows us how to make rice perfectly, even in a nonstick pot on the stove. The chapter on kimchi includes easy and advanced recipes, not all of which are spicy and/or fishy. (I’m going to make the “square-cut kimchi gazpacho” (nabak kimchi) soon — it fits with my new heart healthy diet._ The section on vegetable side dishes includes one I love, acorn jelly, which is tasty but nearly impossible to describe. (Ha illustrates a mishap when making it, when she accidentally makes acorn rocks.) If veggies aren’t your thing there’s a huge section on making different kinds of Korean barbecue, including the green onion salad that’s usually served with it. There are also soups, stews, porridges, and snacks like the easy to make brown sugar pancakes (hotteok) and even kimchi pancakes (don’t put syrup on these).

The cookbook hints at her relationship with her mother and her childhood, which is why it was great to read her new book:

Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha. Balzer + Bray, 2020. 233pp including a glossary and great acknowledgements pages, especially when she talks about her mom. 9780062685094. 240pp.

During a middle school vacation in 1995, Ha and her mother took a trip to Alabama to visit her mother’s friend Mr. Kim. After a few weeks in his house she told her daughter that they were staying, and that she and Mr. Kim were getting married. Alone, unable to speak English, and an outsider in a family with other kids her age, Ha had none of the comics she loved (they were all still back in South Korea) and no chance to stay goodbye to her friends. Her journey to becoming Korean American included a lot of abuse at the hands of racist school bullies. (Minor spoiler: she does eventually stand up for herself and find a teacher who cares.) At first Ha sees her mom as a bit of a tyrant who makes all of the decisions, but as she gets older her view changes. Raising a child born out of wedlock in Korea wasn’t easy, and her mom became a very successful businesswoman despite the obstacles she faced. Ha eventually looks back on her life in Korea and realizes it wasn’t perfect — she had to hide the fact that she had no father, and her family situation led to at least one teacher abusing her.
This is a very balanced story of two strong women that reminds me a lot of the difficulties my wife had to navigate in South Korea as a strong willed, take-no-bullshit woman. And comics are at the center of it all for Ha! It’s got everything I could ask for, including references to old 90s K-Pop. This book belongs in all middle and high school libraries.

You can find other recipes and art by Robin Ha by going back a bit in her blog, Banchan in Two Pages  (“banchan” means side dishes)


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