For over a decade now our little group of UK based Korean adoptees have hoped that we could find someone to teach us how to make our favourite Korean dishes. We love meeting up and eating at our generously sponsored lunches but in the weeks between our lunches, and if we can’t make it that month we suffer pangs and cravings for that special taste of Korea, especially the cheeky heat that comes from its chilli pastes and flakes, along with something I can only describe as a huge warm hug.
Some of us have dabbled at home searching out recipes online and from books but it is not the same as having a native Korean showing you step by step the secrets of this rich cuisine.
Our introduction to Kie-Jo came via London Korean Links which, like a well known wood preservative has ‘done exactly what it says on the tin’, by connecting us with this wonderful lady who runs regular cookery lessons from her home. When I first met Kie-Jo, she explained to me that she would like to offer us, as adopted Koreans, the opportunity have cookery classes with her and she would happily offer her time to us. I was overwhelmed. She explained to me that she sees food and cooking as a way of creating memories and that she sees we lost that part of our cultural heritage when we were adopted overseas. I remember spending a lot of special time with my Mum in the kitchen helping her, mainly by stealing a good percentage of what she was trying to prepare, but Korean food was relatively unheard of over here when we were little so I learnt lots of European cooking but no Korean. For many of us Korean food feels comforting and familiar to eat. Whether this is because we recognise tastes and smells from when we were little or just because it is ridiculously delicious we’ll never know, but being offered the chance to learn from Kie-jo was too good to be true.
Last weekend, on a British summer Saturday, three and a half of us met in leafy Buckinghamshire, (the half being soon to be seven years old Mollie), to have our first Korean cooking lesson. Kie-jo greeted us warmly and invited us to put on some slippers before taking us through to the kitchen, where there were already plates of finely chopped vegetables, sliced meats, bags of noodles and tantalising smells filling the room. Dried chillies dangled from a string above one of the surfaces and a pot of home made stock simmered on the hob. We were given recipe sheets to look over, we were going to be learning how to make Mung Bean pancakes, Kimchi Stew and Japchae, a menu mutually agreed on from a selection of menus we had been given in advance. Kie-jo began by chopping and mixing some of the ingredients whilst explaining the difference between using different levels of fermented kimchi in different dishes and the importance of making or using a good quality stock. I must admit that my mouth was watering already and I had to consciously focus on what Kie-jo was doing rather than fall into a trance induced by the delicious smells and bubbling.
Kie-jo has a wonderfully lively energy and seems expert in multi-tasking as on top of explaining, mixing, chopping and stirring through three different dishes she also managed to have coffee ready for us and chocolate biscuits for Mollie. We took notes as we went along, especially of little handy hints such as chopping and freezing spring onions and chillies so that they can be at hand when needed. I have let so many spring onions rot in the salad drawer of my fridge, but not any more! Once things were looking more complicated we gathered around the cooker to check in which order ingredients were being added, and were offered to taste as each dish progressed. Kie-jo says she prefers to cook by tasting rather than rigid measurements, unless baking a cake, she said then you do need to measure things! She also said she doesn’t like to be a strict teacher type cook, and wanted her classes to feel more like visiting a favourite Aunty. Standing in her kitchen, leaning over the cooker to try some bubbling Kimchi Chigae, it really did feel like a cosy warm gathering of friends rather than a lesson. I think we made good students as we made a lot of spontaneous appreciative noises at the smells and tastes as the lesson progressed.
Kie-jo mentioned to us that there is a worry that the skills of cooking Korean dishes and in particular of making Kimchi may die out as the younger generations haven’t learnt from their mothers. Youngsters now can buy Korean food so easily that their wish to learn to cook for themselves and spend long periods of time making kimchis and other complicated dishes is fading. We, however, having never been bored of Korean food are keen students and loved every minute! Before we knew it we were asked to help ourselves to rice from the rice cooker and we were sitting eating all the food Kie-Jo had just made for us. The pancakes were slightly crispy on each side with a rich, textured filling of minced pork, spring onions and shiitake mushrooms amongst other things. These were accompanied by a delicate dipping sauce made with lavender scented vinegar, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds. The Japchae had perfectly cooked glass noodles and marinated beef tossed with spinach and peppers, and the Kimchi Chigae was brought to the table bubbling and tasted exactly like the ‘Big Hug’ I mentioned earlier. I dare anyone to have some and not say Ahhhhh at the end of each spoonful. It was ‘Chincha Mashisoyo’, that is, Really delicious!
We are all really looking forward to the next class and also to making those dishes at home, so we won’t have to suffer unbearable cravings between our monthly lunches anymore, and of course so we can eventually pass on our skills to members of our families, and our next generation.
Kie-Jo offers Korean cookery lessons on most Saturdays of each month. Contact her at [email protected] to book or enquire about classes. She has a food blog at http://ksarsfield.blogspot.com and she has also written a book on British Cooking, in Korean.