Chicago natives Jessica Perlaza and Danielle Arsenault met a few years ago when they were both teaching in Anyang. Their friendship soon developed into a creative partnership when they realized they shared a love of cooking vegan food.
While Arsenault is no longer calling the Korean Peninsula home, Perlaza is full of enough information to cover for her friend’s absence. I met Perlaza for a drink one recent Saturday -- green tea for her, a big americano for me -- and it turned into a vegetarian lovefest, the likes of which this quiet coffee shop had never seen.
Perlaza and Arsenault call their creative venture the Kitchens of Pinch and Dash. They are the creators of four magazine-style cookbooks, made start to finish from the comfort of their own homes. They’re filled with seasonal gluten-free recipes that are fresh and healthful, 100-percent vegan, and brimming with ideas and inspiration. These thin little zines are beguilingly lovely, a noteworthy addition to the thrumming life of the Seoulite foodie. I wanted to know, where did they come from?
Perlaza: A lot of the content for the first book, “Share,” the fall issue, came about when I was living in the countryside. My husband and I lived in a rural village with only 700 people, and just felt like a fountain of creativity poured out of me because, suddenly, I wasn’t being bombarded with the crazy city life. I’d never been in that country atmosphere, so I was never really able to shut all that off and just listen to myself.
I was always cooking, but soon I started taking pictures and writing, too. I had started cooking differently because there was only one HomePlus that was really hard to get to, so I came to rely on traditional markets. I couldn’t get things that were out of season, at all. I started blogging about it and never expected it to go further than that. Never. My sister-in-law even said, ‘Your stuff is so beautiful. You should do something. Promise me you’ll write a book,’ and I was like ‘whatever.’
Later that year, we got uni jobs and ended up leaving our little country home for Anyang. Danielle was teaching there and lived in the dormitory, just a couple doors down from us. We hit it off talking about food and vegan/vegetarian life, hiking every morning, and one thing led to another. We just said, ‘Yeah, we should write a book together. Let’s just do it!’ We’d planned on making a hundred little zines and giving them to our friends, but it just snowballed into this... little project. It’s grown to more than we could’ve ever imagined. It’s crazy. I never thought it would get to this point.
Groove Korea: Well, nobody ever does.
Perlaza: Well, my sis-in-law encouraged me and people enjoyed the blog. I already had so much content, so I thought I might as well put it into a little something -- if anything, a memento for myself. But people really liked it.
We had no idea what we were doing. I had photos and recipes, but we didn’t know anything about design and publishing. We asked around, downloaded some programs, and just started messing around. Later, we went to a print shop in Hongdae and asked for 100 copies.
You did it all yourselves?
Yeah! We did everything. Hours and hours of our lives were spent. The homegrown style makes it even more special to us. Recently, a Korean publishing house wanted to print the book, and they wanted to change everything -- take out the handwriting and illustrations, make it very text/picture style. I said, “Ehhh, that’s not really what it’s about.” Also, a lot of the recipes don’t have measurements. It’s more like a handful of this, a splash of this, a dash of that. Neither of us are trained chefs, and when we were cooking at home, you know, you throw in a little something, taste it, and fix it to your liking.
So the publishers weren’t ready for that?
We wanted to encourage people to get creative. Anyone can follow a recipe. It separates you from what you’re cooking, makes every dish come out differently for different people. It’s not about the measurements. ... You need to be able to taste what you like. But, the publishers said Koreans wouldn’t like to buy a recipe book and then be expected to improvise.
Going through and retesting everything for exactitude sounds like it would create an entirely separate product.
That’s how we felt, too. The whole point is to trust yourself. If you follow a recipe exactly and it doesn’t come out, you think you’ve failed. But really, all you need to do is adjust it, try something different. You’ll see you can make something really wonderful. We don’t want people to think cooking is hard.
It isn’t! You’ve just got to get the hang of it.
You know, people say to my husband all the time, “You’re so lucky to be able to eat like that everyday,” and he’s like, “Yeah... but it’s not like she’s a gourmet chef. It’s simple.” And it is. I throw things together that taste good to me, make sure it’s pretty, and that’s it!
That’s a common misconception, I think, that anyone who cooks a lot at home is going to specialty stores for expensive ingredients. Or that you need a myriad of spices in your kitchen so you can make toasted marshmallow brown sugar cupcakes with banana cream for dessert tonight.
Danielle and I have very different styles in cooking, and it’s totally obvious in the books. Danielle’s recipes have lots of super foods and many more ingredients and spices, but they’re still super simple because, literally, you take everything and throw it in a food processor. It comes out amazing. Our Lemony Cashew Custard Squares are the easiest ever -- spin it in the food processor, moosh it all together, lay it in a pan, spoon the custard on top. Her recipes seem more complicated because of the ingredients, but actually they’re a cinch. The books are a combination of our two styles.
It must have been great to work with a friend on this.
Danielle is a ball of energy, and she can do anything. Honestly, without her, this would’ve never happened. I’m the type of person who has ideas that never manifest, always saying, “Yeah we should do that.” Danielle says, “We should do that -- this afternoon.” That’s just her way. Everyday, she’d call me up to say she’s comin’ over, and we’re gonna work on this cookbook. Without her energy and dedication, it could have easily been one issue.
Were the recipes all developed here, while you were in Korea?
The first three zines, yes, are our recipes that we cooked together in Korea. But the last issue, “Bounty,” came out after Danielle had gone to Haiti to study permaculture. So instead, “Bounty” has recipes from all over the world. We found people in Haiti and Puerto Rico, the USA and Korea that were doing some great things. Local restaurants with local cooks, just people who were doing really cool things with food. We put together some of their favorite recipes for the last issue. We felt like we gave all our recipes and ideas, and we wanted to show what others were doing, too. Anybody can do it!
So many people here in Seoul have little projects they’re doing from their homes, and I think it’s really inspiring to see these folks. It’s part of our generation -- if you have an idea, you can do it. Our parents’ generation didn’t have that.
So everything in the books is vegan, gluten-free?
Yes, and some things are raw.
And where do you get your ingredients? Are they easy to find?
For the most part, though I do use iHerb.com for a few things. I’d say that 80 percent of the ingredients are fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds from the neighborhood market. So many of these recipes were developed from my isolated country home. I didn’t even know about iHerb then.
I only used things from the farmers’ market, and only when they were in season. In winter, there were no tomatoes, so I didn’t use them. Summertime was all about eggplants and cucumbers and peppers, so that’s what I ate. I really learned how to eat seasonally. In the USA, you can get pineapple in the middle of winter, and I never thought twice about it. I never had any idea! When I first came to Korea I would always say, “Ugh, why can’t I get an avocado?”
So why can’t I get an avocado?
Living in the country made it so much clearer. Nature has a reason for having this cycle, and it’s not just for frustrating us. This is what’s grown right here, you know, locally and seasonally. It totally opened my mind and made me more creative, rather than limiting me.
Is it specially tailored for Korea? Do you think people could still use the cookbooks in the USA or Canada?
Yes, I think they’re really general. The few obscure Korean ingredients we include can be found at any Asian food store or at Whole Foods.
Where do you hope this will go? Do you have any plans for development in the future?
A lot of my energy for this project has curtailed itself nicely into SPACE. We started it in May of last year, in my friend Dawn’s old apartment. We teach yoga and cooking classes there, bring all kinds of cool ideas together and out into the neighborhood.
Our calendar is jam-packed every day with classes, events, meals, and we’ve even started doing wellness retreats. We have another one coming up in March -- taking people out of the city for a weekend of meditation and nourishing food. We’re just trying to share this balance with other people because it’s what makes us feel good.
Danielle Arsenault teaches raw food workshops in Victoria, British Columbia, and has a ukelele album called “Saving Earthworms from Sun-Scorched Death.” She can be found at www.pachavega.com or at www.daniellearsenault.com.