Learning How to Cook Like a True Korean

A friend of mine, Hannah, is a foodie just as I am, and a reader of this blog. When she went to Korea for a business trip, I have to say, I was just the slightest bit envious, since going to Korea one day is a dream of mine, in part because of my fascination with Korean cuisine. Just yesterday while grocery shopping, I met a Korean expat currently living in the city nearest me, and I got so excited about meeting her, because someone else would appreciate my love of all things Korean. 
Hannah told me that while she was in Korea she got to experience a side of Korean cuisine that most tourists don't get to experience- Korean real, home cooking, not the touristy stuff or the foods geared towards restaurant clientele, but every day cooking. I asked Hannah to write up about her experience as a guest post, because it sounded fascinating..

A few weeks ago I had a business trip to Seoul, South Korea. I was excited about the prospect of traveling to a part of the world I had never been to before, meeting new people and seeing new places, but I wasn't too excited about the food. I know Korean food is supposed to be amazing, and I have seen many Korean recipes here on Penny's blog, but I didn't think I'd be able to try much for myself because of my strict dietary requirements. Oh well, I thought, I can enjoy travel even without the food.

 The first day, everything went as planned. Together with friends we went to a food market, the food looked amazing, and I found a stand that sold roasted sweet potatoes- but a different variety than the one I know. I enjoyed the treat, even having two.

But as the days went on my frustration mounted. Finally, on the day before last, I asked a friend of a friend who is Korean-American, living currently in Seoul, if she knew of anyone who could give me a private vegetarian cooking class. She immediately invited me to spend the evening with herself and her parents, and promised me a cooking class with her mom, using only ingredients I could eat. So I set out in the subway from the center of the city to a quiet suburb, as many people in this huge city of 20 million do every day.

I was greeted warmly be the friend and parent, and quickly put to work. First we put a quarter of a cabbage in a steam basket. Next we mixed little Korean non-spicy peppers with some flour, and added them to the steam basket- for about 5 minutes.

After the peppers came out they were tossed with sesame oil and sesame seeds. We sliced up some tofu, dredged it in flour and fried it- with no seasoning. As I would see later, most of the food was pretty bland, with the seasoning coming from sauces.

Similarly, we thinly slices skinny eggplants (I think back at home we call them Japanese eggplants, but from now on I'll call them Korean eggplants), dredged in flour and fried them for a few minutes on each side, just until they browned.

We set out to making scallion pancakes- so easy! We chopped up a bunch of scallions, about 10 skinny ones, and mixed them with about 5 or 6 eggs, and then fried them as pancakes.

Lastly we made the sauce- it started with thinning out the soy sauce. When I asked what kind of soy sauce they use the mother explained that when they are in the US they use Kikkoman, but when they are home they have soy sauce made by the grandmother who- get this!- died 15 years ago. I asked how they have it left, and she took me out to the porch were she showed me 3 huge jugs full of this stuff! It's thicker than commercial soy sauce, so they thin it out a bit. So to make the sauce we took about 1/2 C soy sauce, 1 T rice vinegar, some red chili flakes, chopped scallions and chopped garlic (she used a short cut from the freezer).

One of the coolest things was the use of chop sticks. I know people eat with chopsticks, but did you know that people also stir and cook with chopsticks? Flip pancakes with chopsticks? I didn't. They were kind and gave me a fork when I was struggling to eat with the chopsticks.

So after cooking we sat down, and two more things joined the table- perfectly steamed Korean rice from the rice cooker- kind of like sushi rice, sticky, and without any flavoring- not even salt, and the last thing was a sweet condiment kind of like ketchup made from red peppers, rice malt, dates and rice vinegar.

The best part of the meal was these little parcels we each made from a leaf of steamed cabbage, a bit of sticky rice and the ketchup-like sauce, closed by hand and popped into the mouth. Yum! The tofu, eggplant and scallion pancakes were eaten with rice and the soy sauce based sauce. They apologized for not having meat, since that is how they would usually host, but due to my request they made a simpler meal. I assured them I was in heaven! We talked family, politics, and everything else in between. It was a wonderful evening sharing food with friends. And now I'm hoping to recreate the meal at home for my family.

In the airport on the way out I looked through all the Korean cookbooks on display and found one that most resembled the cooking I saw at this family. Since it was quite expensive (typical for anything you buy in an airport) I quickly checked and found it for half that price on Amazon, I'm planning on getting it soon.

I love Maangchi.com for great Korean recipes. If you like Korean cooking, here's a few Korean recipes here on Penniless Parenting.

Bibimbap- Mixed Rice Bowl (pic from my new cookbook, Penniless Foodie in the Wild, set to be released April 18!!!)

as well as cucumber salad (oi sangchae), mung bean pancakes (nokdu bindaetteok), turnip/radish salad (mu sangchae), cucumber soup (oi naengguk), and more...

Have you ever been to Korea? For business or pleasure? What was it like?
Are there any countries that you dream of being able to visit one day? Does the food there play any part in your desire to visit?

When you're a tourist, would you appreciate home cooking lessons from locals, or do you prefer to just go out to restaurants or bring along your own food?
Are you planning on trying out any of these recipes? I definitely want to try variations of these recipes that suit my dietary needs! The sauce especially intrigues me!

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. Very interesting article but I think it would be better titled: Vegetarian Cooking in Korea. A lot of Korean recipes use fish stock or other seafood so while she had vegetarian korean dishes, I wouldn't consider it "cooking like a true Korean" since they did have to modify their recipes and the dishes they presented to suit her dietary needs.

  2. This is very timely. My daughter's kindergarten are having a shared cultural lunch next week and I was planning to make a Korean dish. I taught English in Korea many years ago and loved many dishes.

  3. I love Korean food and make (modified) Korean recipes regularly!

  4. We also love Korean food, brought about I think, by the fact that we adopted our children from Korea. My favorite dish is fire chicken (from Maangchi's site). Yum!

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