Since the age of 6, Irvin Seo has been helping his mother cook traditional Korean food in their family kitchen. A latchkey kid, he was the one his mom called from work to check on the soups simmering all day on the stove top, asking him to add a potato here and some chili paste there.
His family moved from Seoul to Portland, Oregon, when he was just one. There, his mother labored to replicate the food she missed from home, phoning relatives back in Korea for advice on how to make her favorite dishes, substituting ingredients native to the Pacific Northwest.
“I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her. I still do,” Seo says. “She loves my kimchi. That’s a big point of pride for me.”
This summer, Seo, now 24, has teamed up with Collin Morstein, 27, both alums of the Parts & Labor kitchen, to launch a series of popup dining experiences to introduce Baltimore diners to traditional Korean food, tweaked with local Maryland ingredients. Savory pancakes with zucchini and yellow squash, anyone? Fermented radish water with chives?
“We want to keep things interesting, we want to move around, we want to meet new people,” Morstein says. “We want to set ourselves up for success.”
The duo call themselves Haenyo after the traditional fisherwomen who free dive into the cold waters off of the Korean vacation island of Jeju to pluck fresh clams and seaweed from the ocean floor.
“The quality of the ingredients and the way they prepare it there is where we got our name,” Seo says, recalling a seafood soup he had on the island that “was like licking the underside of a tide pool rock.”
“I mean that in the best way possible,” he insisted. “It was salty and really earthy, slightly fishy and super refreshing.”
For their first popup, they transformed the space of Holy Crepe Cafe in Canton into a tasting emporium focused on traditional savory pancakes called pajeon, flour-based and fried on a griddle. They offered three choices served on bamboo plates: kimchi, the traditional cabbage fermented in red chili paste, gama-jeon, made with potato and a touch of powdered mushrooms, and a seafood pancake, haemul pajeon, with shrimp and squid, folded like a French crepe and strewn with strips of black seaweed like leftover streamers from a surprise birthday party, along with a swizzle of mayonnaise and sweet pickled cucumbers dusted with chili flakes.
“All the recipes were traditional,” says Seo. “The presentation wasn’t traditional.”
Instead of the traditional banjan, a proliferation of small plates of shared appetizers served with Korean meals and sampled with the reach of a chopstick, pickled cucumbers and kimchi were served together in a paper French fry tray. They also offered deconstructed beef lettuce wraps, sweet roasted beef with kimchi, pickled garlic and a touch of sesame to offer something more familiar to the diner acquainted with Korean barbeque and fried chicken, and perhaps not quite ready for seafood in their pancakes.
“I think you need to have a guide, or you can simplify it so it makes intuitive sense,” Morstein says of serving up traditional Korean food to new diners. “The idea is not to overwhelm.”
They threw in a fermented radish drink called dongchimi to shake things up, a salty and savory sort of mocktail served with delicate purple flowers and scallions floating on the surface.
“It’s more of a winter thing, but I love having it in the summer because you can do it as a cool, refreshing drink. It’s kind of like a really, really natural soda,” he says with a laugh, acknowledging that it’s not an immediate palate pleaser for everyone.
“I thought it was cool to do it because it was so left field, and so many people tried it,” Morstein says. “We sold so much, which was great because that signals to us that people want to try new things. They are interested. They are curious.”
They were just surprised to find eager tasters lining up the minute they opened for business, and realized they really might be on to something.
The duo met at Parts & Labor in Remington, where Morstein was the manager of the butcher shop and marketing manager for the Foodshed Group. Seo was working in the kitchen after earning a degree in behavioral biology from Johns Hopkins University and realizing his heart just wasn’t in pursuing the requisite Ph.D. in the field.
“The tipping point was we were hanging out with some friends and asked Irwin to show us some of the traditional Korean cuisine he was eating growing up,” Morstein says. “We spent all day shopping, cooking, serving roommates and neighbors, and it was a revelation. This is something we can do on a larger scale for more people and we can have a blast.”
Their second popup took a deep dive into chilled beef and vegetable broths, big bowls of noodles and summer vegetables from Karma Farm in Monkton. This time they staged an evening at Café Andamiro, a South Korean coffee shop at the west edge of Mt. Vernon. Icy, cold, sweet-tart mul nangmyun, a kind of savory snowball soup with beef broth and buckwheat noodles, was served up along with dongchimi guksu, a cold noodle soup made with pickled radish and kimchi broth, along with more familiar gimbap, Korean-style ‘sushi’, seaweed-wrapped rice rolls stuffed with fresh vegetables, and bibimbap, rice with greens and braised beef.
“I’m trying to stick to as traditional as possible,” Seo says. “I don’t want to say that and make a lot of Korean old ladies mad because using local ingredients, there is going to be a few changes here and there. I want the flavor to be what someone might experience growing up similar to the way I did.”
As of press time, they were moving into a stall at R House for a week-long run at recreating popular Korean street food dishes, like hobakjeon, a savory summer squash pancake, and sweet roasted beef wrapped in lettuce, known as gogi ssam.
“Our pledge is stay mobile and don’t get bogged down doing one particular thing for too long,” Morstein says. “Hopefully we’ll build a group of people who will follow us around and try the different styles of Korean food. It’s exciting.”