When I arrived in Seoul I had eaten Korean food all of one time, the day I signed my contract for this job. I was unfamiliar with even the most basic dishes and flavors of Korean cookery. As someone whose life basically revolves around eating I knew this situation would have to be rectified as quickly as possible, which is why when one of my friends mentioned a Korean cooking class I jumped on the offer. Less than two months after my arrival I was sitting inside the cooking studio of Sekyung An.
Sekyung holds cooking classes for Koreans looking to learn more about Western food and for foreigners who want some experience cooking the food of Korea. She studied at the CIA in New York and because of this has a knowledge of all sorts of cuisines and speaks wonderful English. About one Saturday a month I joined a small group of fellow teachers who were all trying to venture out beyond kimchi and bibimbap.
Each class began with a short explanation of what we would be cooking that day, what the ingredients were, and where we could find these ingredients back in North America. Sekyung would then demonstrate the preparation of each dish and after we would be set free to try to imitate her masterpieces. Working in small groups we would chop, dice and stir various ingredients hoping that they turned out anything like they should.
Some recipes were far more successful than others. One of my favorite dishes we prepared was called tteockgalbee. The word galbee in Korean means “marinated beed short rib” and it is extremely popular in barbecue restaurants. This dish was a slight play on that. Instead of the actual short rib, we wrapped a marinated mixture of ground pork and ground beef around a sesongee mushroom. The mushroom imitated the bone, but was edible, and the ground meat mixture was incredibly tender and flavorful. The recipe was surprisingly easy and will be something I try at home. When I have an oven. (So not while I’m in Korea.)
On the less successful side of things we have kimbap. Kimbap is an extremely popular food that can kind of be thought of as the Korean sandwich. Kimbap is brought on picnics, hikes, field trips. It’s mobile and easy to eat on the go. At first glance, to a Westerner, kimbap looks like a sushi roll. Wrong. While they have their similarities (they are both rolls wrapped with rice and dried seaweed), kimbap is usually filled with ham, cucumber, egg, and some pickled vegetables. There are other varieties with beef or tuna (the canned variety), but it is safe to say that they are all wildly different than the Japanese sushi we are used to in other parts of the world. Kimbap has grown on me over the past few months and I was excited to get my hands dirty and make some rolls. Only, it didn’t go as planned. I laid out my sheet of seaweed, scooped out some rice, placed the fillings inside, and rolled everything nicely. But then the knife was handed to me and it all went to hell. For whatever reason (I like to think that the knife wasn’t sharp enough, and that it had nothing to do with the person holding the knife), as soon as I made my first slice my roll started to crumble. And every piece I cut continued to get completely destroyed as the knife slice through it. I embarrassingly put the pieces I could salvage at the bottom of the communal tray and stacked the normal looking ones created by other people on top. And though they may have looked disfigured, my kimbap still tasted pretty darn good.
Maybe my knife skills aren’t up to bar and I won’t be serving up kimbap to large groups of people anytime soon, but I definitely feel like I have a better understanding of the flavors and ideas behind Korean cuisine. Taking a cooking class is a wonderful way to gain a practical understanding of something that is so integral to this culture.
For more information about Sekyung’s classes please visit her website. Information in English can be found under the link “Foreigner Cooking Classes”.