Jennifer Barclay, author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi, learns to cook traditional Korean food…
Kiejo Sarsfield stands in her Cath Kidston apron in a kitchen stuffed with cookery books in leafy Chalfont St Giles. Having left South Korea thirty years ago and lived all over the world with her English husband, she is passionate and knowledgeable about food. I’ve come along with a group of four young women to have a Korean cookery lesson.
Since ancient times, foods in Korea have been chosen for their health-giving properties as well as their taste. Even young Koreans generally enjoy traditional foods and ways of eating – such as taking the time to share a meal together. While North Korea is reportedly opening up fast food restaurants for the first time, in fast-paced, high-tech South Korea as in Europe people appreciate the joys of slow food, of taking the time to eat well – fresh, natural ingredients cooked with care.
When I arrived in Seoul for the first time almost a decade ago, I was entirely ignorant of the flavours of Korea – unlike Chinese, Japanese and all sorts of other Asian food, this was a culture that hadn’t penetrated my western world yet.
I fell in love with Korean food. These days, there are umpteen Korean restaurants in London, often busy with non-Koreans, but by a cruel twist of fate I now live in Chichester, a very lovely Sussex town with not a smidgeon of Korean cuisine, so it’s time for me to learn to cook Korean.
Koreans eat a delightful array of unusual things, including silkworm pupae, sea slugs and fried jellyfish. (My friend Jeffrey Kim delighted in telling me that many Koreans – like other Asians – still eat dog, though it certainly isn’t widely available. At the Korean Food Festival in New Malden, another Mr Kim who was cooking beef marinated in seventeen ingredients over a searing hot barbecue told me Korean food was the most highly developed in the world. ‘The French, they have one hundred and seventy different cuts of beef. Koreans, we have closer to three hundred.’ An impressive fact, I thought, although I wondered privately if it was a good thing to eat that many parts of a cow.
When people ask me what Korean food is like, I can only say it’s not like anything else, and that it’s hugely varied. In Seoul you go to one type of restaurant for freshly prepared noodle and rice dishes, another for barbecues set in the table for grilling meat and fish, another for raw fish (they look to westerners more like pet shops than sushi restaurants, tanks piled up outside with a strange array of live sea creatures to choose from).
Today, we’re learning to make barbecued beef and a summery salad, and rice cakes in spicy sauce. Most ingredients can be bought in an ordinary supermarket but some have to be sourced from Korean food shops, either in the Korean enclave of New Malden, or central London such as Centre Point Food Stores or Tomoko at 73 Charing Cross Road.
Tteokbokki – rice cakes stir-fry with spicy sauce
‘Street food is good in Asia!’ says Kiejo, explaining that these stir-fried rice cakes, once served in royal palaces, have become a spicier, hearty snack in recent times served from huge paella-style pan in street markets. Rice cakes are made of rice flour compressed into something shaped like solid penne, and can be kept in the freezer and then defrosted in boiling water when needed – and are therefore a student favourite. Red Korean chilli paste or gochujang is thick and sticky and strong; in the old days, the head of the family used to make a big batch for everyone.
300g rice cakes
100g beef (braising steak or top side) or a hard-boiled egg – optional
1 cup beef or chicken stock
1 green or red pepper
1 medium onion
For the sauce:
1 tbsp spring onion
1 tbsp dry sherry or white wine
1 tbsp Korean chilli paste (gochujuang)
1 tsp crushed garlic (not overly pungent)
1 tbsp clear honey or golden syrup or Korean grain honey (mool-yut)
Chop all the vegetables and the beef into strips about 5cm long and ½ cm thick. In a big pan or wok, heat the cooking oil, fry the chopped onion and the carrot until they begin to soften, then add the pepper and leek and finally the meat. Meanwhile, mix the sauce ingredients together. Cut the rice cakes into sausages about 5cm long, and add them to the mix with the stock and sauce, cover the pan and cook until soft.
Seaweed and cucumber salad
It’s possible this may originally have been a Japanese dish – the two cultures have overlapped a lot, especially as Japan colonized Korea during the first third of the twentieth century. You need to use long dried seaweed, mi-yeok, and soak it in just-boiled water – it expands a lot into thick strips. Shop-bought seaweed has been cultivated, but in Korea you can gather it wild, and it’s generally recommended for women who have just given birth because of all its nutrients.
150g long dried seaweed
2 tbsp clear (chicken) stock
1 tbsp rice vinegar or white wine/cider vinegar
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp sugar
Toasted sesame seeds (toast in frying pan or roast to bring out the flavour)
Drain and cool the seaweed by rinsing in cold water. Chop it and throw away the ‘ears’ or hard ends. Quarter the cucumber, scoop out the seeds using a teaspoon so the salad isn’t too watery, then slice it thinly. Sprinkle with salt and leave for five minutes, then wash and drain. Use Maldon sea salt as it’s tastier and has no chemicals. Mix the stock, vinegar, oil and sugar into a dressing and season with salt and pepper. Additional ingredients such as sugary sake (mirin), wasabi paste, strips of white spring onion or radish can be used. Add the dressing and leave salad in the fridge to cool.
Bulgogi and Galbigui – barbecued marinated beef
Bulgogi is made with very thin slices of steak – you can use sirloin or ribeye, feather steak or braising steak, and the trick to slicing it very thinly is to freeze it first. This recipe also works for short rib beef or galbi, but you won’t be able to slice this thinly at home because of the bones so you need a supplier such as an Italian butcher. It has a stronger flavour and is a slow-cook meat – marinate for at least three hours at room temperature – but is tasty cooked over a charcoal barbecue. The sauce should be infused overnight ideally, and like many Korean sauces it’s a mixture of sweet with a little salt. It’s important not to add too much soy sauce, as it can be very salty, so take care – you can always add more later.
2 tbsp pear juice (or water)
Red or white wine or sake
1 tsp grated ginger
4 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tbsp chopped spring onion
1 tsp black pepper
Take a soft and juicy pear – to tenderise the meat – and either blend in a food processor or grate then pound with a pestle and mortar. Add to this some red or white wine or sake, ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil. Dip the meat into the sauce or mix it with your hands so it permeates, or leave for an hour in the fridge; if you need to leave it for longer, add more pear juice or water to the marinating sauce to prevent the beef getting too salty. The meat should be at room temperature, an hour out of the fridge, or it will shrink when cooked. It’s normally cooked on a griddle, but you can use a frying pan. The thinly sliced beef only takes a minute to cook. Serve it with chopped spring onion and sesame seeds.
Lesson over, Kiejo serves up platters of meat with steamed rice and kimchi, and bowls of lettuce leaves. Take a lettuce leaf, pop a piece of hot beef inside and pop into your mouth – delicious! We eat two types of kimchi, cabbage kimchi and the chunky, crunchy radish kimchi. Kimchi, usually Chinese cabbage mixed with hot red chilli peppers, ginger, garlic and fish sauce and left to ferment, is such a staple of Korean food that you can have kimchi pancake or kimchi stew on a cold day… Every time of year has a different kimchi, depending on the vegetables in season. As well as its other healthy properties – elements help to fight cancer and break down fats in the body, as well as providing more vitamin C than an apple – it was traditionally eaten for its healthy bacteria created in the fermentation process, as Koreans didn’t eat dairy products. When you arrive at a friend’s house, it’s not unusual for them to comment on the state of the kimchi.
Ma-si-say-yo – delicious!
To find out more about Kiejo Sarsfield’s Taste of Korea cookery classes just half an hour from Marylebone station in London, contact her on kiejosarsfield [at] hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk.
If you just fancy trying this kind of food but don’t have the time or inclination to cook it, then pop into Soul Bakery on St Giles High St next to Centrepoint and see what’s cooking… This place used to sell decadent delights such as cream-filled pastry puffs but has evolved into an informal and friendly café.