There are dishes that get under the skin—they intertwine with our senses and emotions, nestle deep into our bodies and memories. The spicy rice cakes with chorizo and pickled mustard greens at Joule is my favorite plate of food in town.
Contrast is the heart of this dish—and that's what makes it so good. The cakes, flat ovals made from glutinous rice, are inherently chewy, but after being fried in a hot pan, their exteriors become crunchy, even crackly. The chorizo (spiked with cumin, pimenton, and coriander) is meaty, smoky, and satisfying, while the mustard greens light up your palate with brightness and tang. All of it gets bathed in a smooth gochujang-based sauce (which gets a hit of sweetness from mirin). It's a dish as comforting as it is invigorating.
I used to work as a server at Joule, and I found it difficult not to order the rice cakes at the end of every shift. I ate them regularly throughout my first pregnancy, when by the end of the night, my legs felt like cinder blocks. To sit down to the steaming ivory bowl was to become one with exhaustion, relief, and satisfaction.
I'm not the only one who loves these rice cakes. According to chef Rachel Yang's recently published cookbook My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines, on any given night, one out of every three customers orders it. Joule receives 80 pounds of rice cakes each week, but still occasionally runs out. The rice cakes are loosely based on a popular Korean food served by late-night street vendors in plastic bags. But Yang, a chef of wild creativity balanced by classic technique (she and her husband and co-chef Seif Chirchi have been nominated for a James Beard Award four times), transformed the dish, which pulls from Mexican and Chinese playbooks, into something entirely original.
For many, Yang's food is their first introduction to both Korean ingredients and the boldly flavored, boundary-pushing food that defines much of American dining now. She understands innately that elements such as kimchi, fermented tofu, and fish sauce aren't novel ingredients poised to "arrive" on the food scene, but ingredients that have always been here, part of so many people's history and everyday lives.
In My Rice Bowl, as much mini-memoir as cookbook, Yang details how, after moving to the United States, she tried her best to become "American." In the restaurant world, that meant cooking classic French, fine-dining cuisine. But she also admits that she didn't find satisfaction and success until she embraced the fact that her heritage, like that of other immigrants, is exactly what makes her food—and America itself—so interesting. Like a bowl of spicy rice cakes, identity, for many of us, is a delicate balancing act.
My favorite passage is Yang's subtle but full-fledged embrace of the complexity of her identity. "I don't tend to use Korean words for foods. My tendency to give ingredients and my dishes American names reflects my own way of making them more understandable," she writes. "Often, American chefs who specialize in specific cuisines try to advocate for authenticity, but I'm already Korean. I'm as authentic as it gets."