That erudite philosopher Luciano Pavarotti once said:
One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.
What is even nicer? To have the luxury of time to devote one’s attention to cooking and eating in a convivial atmosphere with fellow enthusiasts.
Certainly, one can jump on the internet for a recipe, or even a full-blown free cooking lesson on YouTube. But, in my heart of hearts, I am a social animal. I enjoy face time with other sentient beings.
Being in a live kitchen, taking in the sizzles and smells, and having an expert talk to me, provide a far superior cooking lesson than having a computer screen talk at me. Time permitting, of course.
Korean Cultural Office cooking classes
This is how I found myself joining Heather Jeong’s cooking lessons at the Korean Cultural Office (KCO) in Sydney.
For experienced cooks, Heather keeps them stimulated by sharing nuggets on what makes a certain dish special, and traditional practices surrounding it.
Structure of the cooking class
The KCO cooking lessons are hands-on, with up to 8 students each making about 3 dishes.
Heather demonstrates, then I do my best monkey-see-monkey-do to replicate each dish.
The class ends with everyone sitting down to a meal.
We always cook more than we can eat, so takeaway boxes come in handy. That’s dinner settled, then.
And Heather always supplements the meal with a generous spread of Korean side dishes (banchan).
Sometimes she surprises us with rare treats like:
~ her stash of pickled garlic leaves direct from Korea,
~ mineral-rich mossy seaweed, or
~ home-made dried enoki mushrooms.
Apparently it is easy to grow. Heather plants it in her garden. The leaves sold in chilled sections of Korean grocery stores are grown locally.
To me, its flavour is a cross between mint and aniseed. It’s fresh and not overwhelmingly strong.
O perilla leaf, how do I love thee? I love thee in all thy guises – as a wrap, or shredded into salads, or pickled, or cooked.
During this class, Heather was going to teach us how to make perilla leaf pickle, perilla leaf kimchi and a dish cooked with perilla leaves. Heaven!
Dish #1: Perilla Leaf Kimchi
The finished product had similar flavours to napa cabbage kimchi, but with aromas injected by the perilla leaves.
Dish #2: Pickled Perilla Leaf
We made a marinade of soy sauce, garlic, chili, vinegar and sugar. The perilla leaves were immersed in this and left in the fridge for a few days.
Despite the everyday ingredients in the marinade, this ended up tasting really good. The sweet-and-sour soy sauce marinade paired perfectly with the perilla leaf.
Heather revealed that Koreans nickname this pickle “The Rice Thief”. Reason? It is eaten with rice, and Koreans like it so much that they eat a lot of rice.
And it’s true! Rather too salty on its own, the pickled perilla leaf wrapped around sticky Korean rice resulted in a spectacular combination.
Heather showed us how to wrap rice in the perilla leaf and pick up the bundle with grace:
Dish #3: Buckwheat Noodles in a Chilled Broth (Makguksu)
Another wise Italian philosopher, Sofia Loren, once gave this sage advice:
Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.
That’s a useful tip for eating buckwheat noodles too.
Like the food of Italy, the food of Korea is regional. Many a town has its own claim to culinary fame. You could call these Die-Die-Must-Try Dishes of those towns.
Makguksu is a local specialty of Chuncheon, a town in the Gangwon province in mid-eastern South Korea. There is even a Chuncheon Makguksu Museum which documents the history of the dish. There, visitors can make, then eat, their own noodles.
Many open-minded people say they will taste anything once.
But I’ve found that certain foods must be tried twice.
At first taste, I’m distracted by presumptions and thoughts of how bizarre the item might be.
By the time I have a second taste, I will have overcome the initial stupefaction. That is when the dish gets a fair go. That’s when:
~ I’ll have set aside any preconceptions (like: “Nobody drinks cold beef soup!”)
~ I can grasp the true flavours, and
~ I can objectively decide whether I fancy the flavour combination.
Beef broth – chilled to the point of slushiness, and combined with vinegar – is one of those try-it-twice dishes for me.
I was underwhelmed when I first tasted plain (non-Chuncheon) chilled noodles in a restaurant eons ago. But now I love it.
To her credit, my 10-year-old loved it from the first mouthful. Perhaps she has a more sophisticated palate. Or perhaps my Chuncheon makguksu noodles – with the kicker described below – made it instantly palatable.
Makguksu comprises buckwheat noodles in the slushie described above, topped with a spicy paste, hard boiled eggs, sweet nashi, cucumber and pickled radish. It’s a revelation of salty, sweet and sour flavours in creamy and crisp textures. And everything is cold!
The kicker – which distinguishes the Chuncheon version from other chilled Korean noodles – is in the garnish: toasted sesame seeds and Korean seaweed. These add aroma, crunch and saltiness, lifting the dish to a higher plane.
You’d think this would make a refreshing summer lunch, wouldn’t you?
Well, Heather divulged that Chuncheon folk like eating it in winter, thanks to their (overly) effective heating system. Apparently the traditional Korean floor heating system (ondol) is so effective that people eat this in winter to counter the heat.
Dish #4: Chuncheon Spicy Chicken with Vegetables (Dak galbi)
- a lift from the scent of sesame leaves
- the Chuncheon touch of – surprise! – curry powder
- chewy cylinders of sticky rice cakes
- soft slices of purple sweet potato.
All brought to the dining table in the cooking pan, for family-style eating.
You thought that looked good? Not so fast, Batman! Don’t just finish everything, because there is this to follow…
A traditional practice (and Korean restaurants will do this on request) is to use leftover dak galbi at meal’s end to fry with rice in the pan with its remaining streaks of sauce, adding sesame oil, sesame seeds, salt and seaweed.
See it being done here by Oliver, a professional chef in his own right, and Heather’s assistant for the day:
This is an independent, uncommissioned review. FITK attended the KCO cooking classes at own expense.
A Korean food tour
Want to learn more about Korean food?
Join the all-Kpop-singing, all-eating, all-shopping Korean Adventure, which includes a generous and mainly non-spicy Korean banquet, plus a shopping trip to demystify Korean food items.
It is not just about putting food in front of you – you will find out about pop culture, etiquette and traditional practices as well! More details here.