An art of patience and endless questions – Advice Eating

Seo Myeong-whan, CEO of Mijeoggamgag, poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Yeonhui-dong, Seoul April 26. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

The fame of “K-Food” wasn’t built in a day.

Korean cuisine, a key component of the country’s soft power, along with K-pop and K-dramas, which have relatively short histories, dates back centuries, with written records dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. – 668 AD). .

In major cities, it’s easy to find upscale restaurants serving artful contemporary Korean cuisine and small eateries serving bite-sized Korean snacks. However, it’s hard to find places that serve traditional food in the manners and style that Korean ancestors used to enjoy.

Fortunately, there are those who are committed to studying, recording, and passing on the traditions of Korean cuisine. One such person is Seo Myeong-whan, food researcher and CEO of Mijeoggamgag, a food advice and cooking class center.

Poached egg with vegetables, one of the dishes served at royal court banquets during the Joseon era, prepared by Seo (Mijeoggamgag)

Poached egg with vegetables, one of the dishes served at royal court banquets during the Joseon era, prepared by Seo (Mijeoggamgag)

“My work is different from that of a typical chef or food researcher. I advise and teach restaurant owners, chefs, trainees and novices who seek the original and traditional Korean food,” Seo said one afternoon recently at Mijeoggamgag in Yeonhui-dong in north Seoul, during an interview with The Korea Herald.

For over 20 years, Seo has been teaching and advising leading entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and individuals who simply want to prepare Korean food the traditional way.

“When I was little, my dad used to take a spoonful of homemade soy sauce before he started eating. The right amount of saltiness stimulated his appetite and aided digestion,” he said.

Apprentice cooks prepare scallops for a seasonal dish at Mijeoggamgag.  (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Apprentice cooks prepare scallops for a seasonal dish at Mijeoggamgag. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Born in Jinju and raised in Tongyeong, both in South Gyeongsang province, Seo said what seemed like a common practice at his family’s dinner table contained the wisdom of elders that he only later realized as he studied Korean food.

Seo started working at a large Korean restaurant in Jinju in the late 1990s. Whenever Seo, an apprentice chef, tried to figure out and record the recipes, the chefs would yell at him and keep the knowledge and expertise to themselves.

“They told me that the kitchen is a place to work, not to study. But I was sure that there were many beginners who wanted to see and learn the exact recipes step by step. After work, I started digging through old Korean culinary archives and recipe books,” he said.

Seo would travel far to get his hands on old books on traditional cooking. Among them are rewritten versions of those first recorded in the 1670s.

Seo’s cooking classes focus on three themes – fermented food, seasonal food and tteok.

Jangdok, traditional clay pots, are on display at Mijeoggamgag.  (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Jangdok, traditional clay pots, are on display at Mijeoggamgag. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

“Fermented foods and sauces like kimchi, jeotgal, ganjang, and doenjang are the main sources that add unique flavors to Korean foods. But some Michelin-starred Korean restaurants today don’t pay attention to making proper fermented sauces, which is quite ironic,” he said.

In teaching cooking classes, Seo emphasizes the importance of time and patience when preparing fermented foods, which he describes as the first and last steps of a “decent Korean dish.”

Gujeolpan, a traditional platter of nine delicacies (Mijeoggamgag)

Gujeolpan, a traditional platter of nine delicacies (Mijeoggamgag)

Speaking of seasonal food, Seo mentioned that next year’s cooking classes will focus on different namul, followed by this year’s focus on jang.

Our ancestors didn’t eat namul raw because of the toxic elements that remain if not rinsed or heated properly, Seo said. Cooking namul properly so as not to compromise the freshness of the ingredients and its nutritional value is a difficult skill to master, he added.

Seo runs six classes of five students each for a year at Mijeoggamgag and finds that foreigners who attend the classes have a knack for understanding seasonal foods and ingredients.

“Namul is not about having prior knowledge of Korean food. It’s important to have keen senses to smell the fragrance and taste the texture without prejudice,” Seo said.

Seo's Favorite Wooden Tteok Pattern Tools (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Seo’s Favorite Wooden Tteok Pattern Tools (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Tteok has a special meaning for Seo. As a child, he didn’t like sticky rice cakes. “As a kid, I hated the gooey texture and I wasn’t a fan of candy either,” he said. But as he studied traditional Korean food, he learned that in wealthy households, tteok was part of life from the day of birth to the day of death.

“I wanted to make tteok that I can enjoy, that are easy to swallow and less sweet,” he said. He also learned that traditional tteok should be less chewy and more nutty and humble on the palate.

Yaksik, rice with nuts and jujube (Mijeoggamgag)

Yaksik, rice with nuts and jujube (Mijeoggamgag)

“I understand that modern tteok cafes today make them as candies, sometimes served with ice cream toppings to appeal to the younger generation. But I also hope that traditional tteok bakeries can coexist,” he said.

When asked about his definition of traditional Korean food, Seo’s face lit up.

“I’m learning every day. The more I read, the more Korean dishes seem like an endless question mark rather than an exclamation point,” Seo said, adding that he’s still figuring it out. “Sometimes I wish I could travel to the Joseon period to experience its culinary culture for myself, but that’s only in my dreams.Rather than defining (what traditional Korean food is), I hope I can get an inch closer to depicting the original dishes. ”

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)

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