As Eric Kim blew out birthday candles in the Chilmark Community Center last Thursday, he wasn’t just celebrating himself. The 31-year-old cookbook author and New York Times journalist had only one person to thank for this moment: his mother.

Koreans eat a special seaweed soup on their birthday, Mr. Kim explained during a talk about his debut cookbook, Korean American, at the Martha’s Vineyard Author Series event. The soup, called miyeok-guk, is what Korean mothers eat during their post-partum recovery, as Korean birthdays are just as much a celebration of mothers as they are of birth.

“Thanks for reminding me, actually,” Mr. Kim told the audience. “I have to go home and make that soup.”

Mr. Kim has no shortage of respect for his mother. He said his book is actually dedicated to the woman who taught him every recipe, forged from her upbringing in Seoul and her experience as an immigrant in the United States.

Like many millennials at the start of the pandemic, Mr. Kim returned home. There he began to work on his cookbook, having never cooked Korean food before. Instead, he grew up eating his mother’s cooking and frequenting restaurants in the burgeoning Korean pockets of Atlanta. The recipes in his cookbook are largely translations of his mother’s cooking, but they betray influences of his own distinctly American upbringing, from the shrimp and seaweed grits to the macaroni and mashed potato salad.

“I’d like to thank Mr. Kim for no longer making me ashamed to get the macaroni salad at Cronig’s,” author series director Suellen Lazarus said in her introduction.

To Mr. Kim, cooking is both a technical skill and an art. At one point, when weighing the differences between food reporting and recipe writing with moderator and fellow New York Times food journalist Ligaya Mishan, he describes the former as “like fiction” and the latter as poetry – “Don’t tell people that our reporting is fiction,” Ms. Mishan quipped.

The poetry of Korean American lies in the interpreted space between his mother’s original recipes and his own versions, shown even in the book’s title. Mr. Kim intentionally omitted a hyphen between the Korean and American, wanting the words to stand for two distinct but equal experiences informing the other.

“I like to think of ‘Korean’ being my mom and ‘American’ being me,” he said, adding, “I usually go into teary-eyed mode when I talk about my mom.”

Like many kitchen matriarchs, Mr. Kim’s mother never wrote down her recipes, instead letting taste, memory and practice guide the process. He describes her cooking style using the Korean word “son-mat,” meaning “hand taste.”

“Korean has lots of food-specific words,” Mr. Kim explained. “Son-mat is about cooking with your hands, not your brain. There’s a sentiment that you can chase your mother’s recipe, but it has to come from her hands; the taste comes from her being.”

For that reason, Mr. Kim isn’t looking to replicate the tastes of his childhood – he knows he never will – but to capture the memory of them.

“That memory from childhood is the platonic ideal,” he said. “For example, Dunkaroos are not that good if you try them as an adult.”

Korean American is speckled with similar philosophical references and musings on the roles of cooking and family. Before making his foray into cooking, Mr. Kim had once pursued a Ph.D in literature. One passage quotes the Russian philosopher Viktor Shklovsky’s Art as Technique, stating, “Art exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”

“I actually stole that line from Nigella Lawson,” Mr. Kim admitted. “She had compared it to toasting pecans, which makes them taste more pecan-y.”

Mr. Kim’s fluid approach to Korean cooking hasn’t come without its controversies. For food writers from immigrant backgrounds, the pressures of authentic representation can be an albatross, especially in the Asian-American community, Ms. Mishan said. One of Mr. Kim’s first pieces for The New York Times, an essay on kimchi, drew an onslaught of hate mail — most from fellow Koreans.

“There’s a scarcity mindset, I think, when people who aren’t used to seeing themselves on the page are suddenly put on the page,” Mr. Kim said. “There’s an idea that, ‘Oh God, we only have one opportunity to talk about kimchi in the Times and this guy [messed] it up. I understand that mindset, but it’s why we need more voices in general.”

As Korean cooking further enters the American mainstream, Mr. Kim said he is happy to be one voice of among many others.

“There are so many nuances within the Korean American experience, and there isn’t just one,” he said. “My parents have their own Korean-American experience that’s different from mine. The more research I did, the more I discovered that’s the thing about historical circumstance…You think you’re special, but you’re really not.”