Exploring American & Korean Cultures Is How I Became Who I AM
If you’ve never tried Korean food before, Mikey Reisenberg would like to meet you.
“Those are my favorite people, honestly,” the Harrisonburg-based chef said. “I love to find someone who is a little reserved about trying something adventurous and then having the opportunity to blow their minds.”
He’s been blowing minds around Harrisonburg since 2013, when he opened a food truck to offer Korean-inspired dishes like steamed buns, quick-pickled kimchi and bulgogi. Six years later, he opened a brick-and-mortar space in downtown Harrisonburg. Both go by the same name: Mashita, which is Korean for “delicious.”
Reisenberg’s interest in Korean food began as a pathway to learn more about his biological roots. Born in Seoul, he was adopted as an infant, brought to the United States, and raised in the Shenandoah Valley. His food memories from childhood are of pickled eggs and potato salad, as well as snapping green beans in the summer heat.
“My family was very focused on maintaining a dinner time for the family,” he said. “The day centered on gathering at the same time, at the same dinner table to share what happened in your day and connect with each other.”
Despite that warm and secure family footing, Reisenberg sometimes felt pulled in another direction.
“I always struggled with my Korean identity, and not really knowing that part of myself,” he said. “So, a lot of my exploration of food has been an exploration of my own cultural identity.”
But his first foray into cooking wasn’t Korean at all.
“I was working in a bunch of restaurants, just trying to gain as much knowledge as possible about all cultures,” he said. “Noodles fascinated me the most, so I worked in some Italian restaurants, just hoping to learn more about making them from scratch.”
He later worked for the Joshua Wilton House with mentors who encouraged his interest in all kinds of cooking.
“They were the ones who introduced me to more Asian-focused cooking styles,” he said, “and to some of the French influences in cooking and fine dining.”
Reisenberg began to experiment with traditional Korean foods, using some of the approaches he had learned by preparing Italian and French meals. That multifaceted approach is part of Mashita’s success today.
“We always say that our food is Korean-inspired,” he said. “Although we try and replicate some of the major components and characteristics of Korean food, we also try and take a chef-minded approach to changing those flavors or changing the overall effect.”
Reisenberg also added some of what he learned in his own mother’s kitchen, which provided the basis for one of his favorite Korean-inspired dishes.
“It’s called Kimchi Jjigae,” he said, “a very traditional Korean stew.
When I first started making it, it reminded me so much of the cabbage soup my parents made when I was growing up. So, now the way we prepare it in the restaurant uses the foundation of my mother’s cabbage soup recipe. And it means so much to me. It reminds me of home.”
Reisenberg’s interest in the food customs of his birthplace has led him to learn more about its history and culture. When building out the space for his restaurant, he made sure to include the obok, a traditional Korean design in which blessings like health and wealth are represented by stylized images of bats.
“This is something I didn’t know about at all until I started cooking Korean food,” he said. “It led me to exploring Korean words, expressions, and the traditions and cultures that produced the food.”
Reisenberg said he has enjoyed finding the common threads shared by the land of his birth and the one he calls home, including a tradition of preserving seasonal vegetables through pickling or fermentation. While traditional kimchi is fermented, that process requires time and storage space that didn’t mesh well with a food-truck business model.
“It was way easier for us to market a quick-pickled kimchi that is reminiscent of spicy Southern-style pickles,” he said. “We still to this day have a ton of people that will only eat our kimchi and will never eat a traditional fermented version of kimchi, because they think ours is the best.”
By continuing to experiment with fresh ingredients and multiple influences, Reisenberg hopes to keep successfully honoring both nations that shaped him.
“The thing I struggled with most as a kid was the expectation that I should be like something,” he said. “But I just wasn’t sure what that was. Exploring my American and Korean cultures, and finding things I love about both, is how I became who I am.”
Recipe of Kimchi Jjigae
- 4 Onions
- 2 Heads Green Cabbage + kimchi liquid OR 8 Cups napa cabbage kimchi
- 5lbs Ground Beef
- 3 Quarts Savory Stock (Chicken, pork, or beef)
- 28oz Crushed Tomatoes
- 2-3 cups Gochujang paste, or to taste
- 1 Bulb crushed garlic
- Scallions for garnish
- Tofu to finish bowls
- Pork Belly to finish bowls
- Thinly Sliced Rice Cakes (Optional)
Halve the onions and cut into half moons, about 1/8th of an inch thick. Cut green cabbage or napa kimchi into 1”x1” squares. Crush and mince garlic bulb to prepare your mise en place.
To begin, start by browning the ground beef in a large pot, breaking up as it cooks and removing from the pot as it cooks through. Reserve residual fat to saute cabbage, garlic, and onions until slightly translucent. Add crushed tomatoes, stock, gochujang paste, and kimchi liquid (if using), and allow the pot to come up to a boil. Return the browned ground beef to the soup mix and allow to boil, reducing to a simmer once the soup boils. Prior to finishing each bowl of soup, gently boil the soup base and cook rice cakes until tender.
While the soup comes up to a boil, prepare a mixing bowl with ice water and julienne scallions in 3-4” sections. Once julienned, drop cut scallions into ice water to “shock” them into staying bright green and allowing them to curl into a beautiful garnish. Drain the scallions well before using.
Slice tofu of your choice and set aside to finish each bowl of soup, and slice slow roasted pork belly into 1oz pieces to sear and finish each bowl of soup. When your soup base is ready, heat a nonstick frying pan over medium high heat with a tablespoon of vegetable oil, cooking the tofu and pork belly until lightly golden. Shingle or domino the tofu and pork belly in an alternating pattern, set on top of the fresh soup and garnish with curly scallions. Enjoy with a side of steamed rice!