Weeknight Cooking

15-Minute Kimchi Pasta, the All-Star in My Weeknight Repertoire

For Tuesdays nights (and every other night).

April 16, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

I run a Korean-American comfort food pop-up restaurant as my side hustle, so people are surprised to hear that I don’t actually cook at home very often. It’s just that, after each month planning a menu of five to seven dishes, buying all those ingredients, prepping them, then serving hoards of hungry people at the end of it all, the simple joy of concepting a Tuesday-night dinner at home for myself wanes significantly.

But carbonara, specifically kimchi carbonara, is the all-star player in my weeknight repertoire.

I first discovered spaghetti carbonara at a homey Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, where I went to college. The creamy noodles, studded with lardons of bacon and pricked with the subtle heat of black pepper, blew the lid off of what I thought I knew about Italian food, which until then had mostly been a few trips to red-sauce chain restaurants.

Carbonara was one of the first recipes I ever taught myself how to make. When I looked up the recipe (and I mean the original recipe, i.e. eggs, good Parmesan cheese, and black pepper whisked into a sauce, then tossed with spaghetti and bacon, and slicked with a bit of the bacon fat), it seemed so simple and easily attainable on a college budget, it became a regular in my meal plan. In fact, I loved it so much that I made it for myself nearly every day for a month, ceasing only when I started to fret about its potential impact on my body.

Carbonara, specifically kimchi carbonara, is the all-star player in my weeknight repertoire.

Carbonara in Korea, on the other hand, follows a strange path. Italian cuisine in general gained popularity during the past decade in the way many concepts do in Korea—via Korean dramas. In this case it was Pasta (2010), which featured Korean chefs working at a five-star Italian restaurant in Seoul.

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Top Comment:
“As for the recipe I must be one of the few people in the world not yet to have tried kimchi. I do have a jar in my fridge awaiting an occasion. This might be it. ”
— carswell

Pasta in Korea tends to be much sweeter than their Italian counterparts, with noodles more fully cooked versus al dente. In the case of carbonara, the Koreanized version is virtually unrecognizable when compared to classic Roman carbonara. It uses garlic and cream in lieu of eggs and cheese, as well as sometimes substituting in ham for the bacon or even adding mushrooms.

These days, the term carbonara is used in Korea to refer more widely to a variety of cream-based sauces. I struggle to place exactly where the flavor profile originates from—perhaps it resembles an Americanized version, or fettuccine Alfredo?—but there’s no denying its popularity. It’s seen on rice cakes as a fusion type of ddukbokki and new flavors of popular Korean instant ramyun brands like Samyang's Carbo (don’t sleep on it!) and Neoguri's Neogubonara (truly a tongue-twister of a name).

But while I might not completely understand the Koreanized "carbo" flavor, I am fully here for a Korean spin on my original carbonara. My mother would always insist on sneaking in a bit of her homemade kimchi whenever we went to an Italian restaurant (for her, no meal was a meal unless there was kimchi). Since Koreans like eating kimchi with everything, especially with creamy pastas to cut through the richness, it seems like a perfect marriage to unite the two in one dish.

More often than not I will have all the necessities in the fridge: a nub of Parmesan cheese, a few strips of bacon, definitely some eggs, and always the H-Mart gallon sized tub of kimchi that permanently resides on the bottom shelf. If we’ve grocery shopped that week, we will have remembered to purchase a few cartons of Sun Noodle fresh ramen, the exact brand that supplies noodles to most of the ramen joints in New York City, and the perfectly springy noodle for this dish. The whole thing cooks in just 15 minutes, minimizing time slaved over the stove and maximizing weeknight Netflix binging.

The best kimchi carbonara, however, is enjoyed after a few drinks out, when my husband and I stumble home and raid the fridge, using whatever dried noodles we can find in the pantry (one late Tuesday night during a poker session, I used four packets of the aforementioned Samyang), and often crumbling some Doritos atop our bowls (a trick we picked up from the late King Noodle in Bushwick).

That’s the ultimate weeknight dinner, if you ask me.

What's your weeknight all-star? Tell, tell in the comments.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Irene Yoo is chef and creator of Yooeating, a Korean American food channel that explores Korean home cooking, street food, and culinary history. She has developed recipes and penned essays for Food52, Food Network, and Bon Appetit, and previously presented about Korean culinary history at The Korea Society and The Museum of Food and Drink.


Marcus April 17, 2019
Loving the combo of korean and Italian/English 🙃😘
Eric K. April 16, 2019
Had no idea "carbo" instant ramen was a thing! I know what I'm getting on my next H-Mart run...
carswell April 16, 2019
I don’t usually indulge in being the language police but - concepting?

As for the recipe I must be one of the few people in the world not yet to have tried kimchi. I do have a jar in my fridge awaiting an occasion. This might be it.
Anita April 16, 2019
Irene! I love this! I always add cheese and bacon to my kimchi-bokkeumbap but I've never thought of adding all those ingredients (sans rice, of course) to pasta! Brilliant! I can't wait to try it :)