Friday, October 1, 2010

Beyond the basics

A student makes traditional Korean rice liquor at the Susubori Academy, central Seoul. The recently opened school provides English-language courses for those interested in learning about fermenting rice grains.
/ Courtesy of Susubori Academy

By Ines Min

The crunch of crisp vegetables on wooden cutting boards, the sizzle of a hot pan, the sweet and savory aroma of spices rising to envelop a kitchen. For many, the call of the culinary arts is a lure both practical and emotional, a desire for survival while appreciating the taste of nostalgia. Yet, when traveling, this passion is not only an act that is familiarly comforting, but explosive and intriguing with every new destination. 

While expatriates and tourists have the opportunity to learn to cook a range of basic hansik, “Korean food,” in schools and promotional programs, this year has seen the branching of the educational field to offer those chefs-to-be an even broader outlook. While acquiring the know-how to create the perfect kimchi for one’s palette has served as the core for a number of cooking classes, now the likes of more complex dishes such as “dakgalbi” (spicy chicken barbecue) and even traditional Korean liquor can be mastered at two new sites in Seoul. 

A balance of fare

Han’s Cooking Academy was once one of the giants in English-language cooking schools in Seoul, but when doors closed earlier this year, the budding O’ngo Food Communications appeared on the scene, ready to continue in the field of educating foodies from around the world. 

Though this three-year-old company only began cooking programs this February, it’s menu and curriculum provide one of the greatest arrays of dishes taught to English-speakers, from vegetarian Buddhist temple food to the classic “haemul pajeon,” or seafood pancake. Other recipes can be requested as well, for the more adventurous looking for a challenge — or to satisfy a craving. 

Two resident chefs offer beginner, intermediate and advanced classes, with participants comprising an eclectic crowd: tourists, residents and international chefs, to newlyweds on holiday looking to share a memorable experience. 

Classes are chock full of friendly exchanges between student and chef, and helpful historical information to help understand the place of a food in the culture.

Chef Kim Hye-jin explained the process of “gim-jang,” or a gathering of family to create a large stock of kimchi before winter, to a group of three tourists on Wednesday at the academy’s studio in Insa-dong, during a beginner-level class. The participants, all in town for a short stay, were each cooking Korean food for the first time, but no fear gripped the fierce Australian, Scotswoman and American.

“The simplest things and you realize that the preparations took ages,” said 55-year-old Margo Hosie of Glasgow, for whom the charm was in the complex processes behind each dish. “I’ll be taking this home with me,” she said of the recipes and cooking techniques. 

Another immersive aspect of O’ngo is its offer of market tours at the conclusion of every lesson. The additional guides of the traditional markets help the future cooks learn what to look for and navigate the winding alleys of merchants’ stalls (tours are a specialty of the organization, which also conducts the popular Nightly Dining Tours throughout the week).

The menu recipes, which are selected, tested and authenticated by the heads of the company, offer a refreshing cornucopia of Korean food pairings so that students can learn more than just the odd entree. 

“The whole idea is we want people to not just make one dish, but a complete dinner,” said Daniel Gray, chief of marketing and tours at O’ngo. “So if you have a soup, an appetizer and the main course, and you know how to make it all, you can easily go home and make an entire Korean meal for your friends instead of just having one element of Korean food.”

Although the classes certainly help share hansik with the world, the company goes beyond mere promotion in order to encourage a greater cultural exchange. 

“We’re figuring out what different countries like,” Gray said. “We found that some of our French guests really like ‘samgyetang’ because it reminds them of ‘la poule au pot.’ But they hate something like bibimbap.

“We’re flexible because we’re trying to understand other peoples’ culture as well, as much as have them learn about Korea. We’re not trying to force feed it and I feel like the best way to globalize anything, there has to be a mutual cultural consensus.”

“We want to nurture a food community.”

Classes start at 65,000 won, although prices vary by menu and season, and discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. Each session lasts from two to three hours. For more information on cooking classes, dining tours and other projects, visit

Intoxicating rice

To help wash down the mounds of Korean dishes those foodies are learning to make across the city, Susubori Academy in central Seoul offers a unique chance to brew traditional rice liquors and wines. 

The specialized school, partnered with Kyonggi University and the Foundation of Agriculture, Technology Commercialization and Transfer, is one of the few centers in Korea where people can enroll in intensive courses and earn certificates as brewers of traditional Korean rice liquors and wines. Opened at the start of September, the classes — which begin with a two-month basic techniques course that teaches how to brew at home and go up to a year-long advanced class — are all taught in Korean. However, a special short program with English interpretation was implemented, in order to reach out to non-Korean speakers and spread information on local fermentation methods. 

“There’s no expert for Korean liquor,” said Park Min-ji, coordinator at the academy. “There’s sommeliers for wine, meisters for beer, but there’s no one for Korean traditional liquor.” 

Currently, there are three types of classes offered for English-speakers, which follow the number of distillations desired for the final product. “Danyangju” is the simplest type, and the single-distillation drink can be made during one class period (roughly three hours). “Iyangju” comprises two distillations, while “Samyangju” takes three, and is the most complex in flavor. 

Thus far, students are still growing from the initial enrollment numbers of under a dozen, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with many of the attending foreigners intrigued at the process of creating the alcohol. 

“They learn how Korean liquor is made and they’re often surprised that we use only rice and water and ‘nuruk’ (yeast),” Park said. “Rice can have various flavors, and some liquors have hints of fruit, although it’s just made of rice.”

Hilary O’Neil, a 25-year-old English teacher here from the United States, has so far attended three of the four foreigner classes and has entered into the 2010 Korea Liquor Contest, which opens today at COEX in Samseong-dong and runs till Oct. 2. The competition is hosting a special foreigners-only segment, comprised of teams from Susubori. O’Neil is one of 20 people who have signed up for the event, with participants hailing from Germany, China, the Philippines and Spain. 

“I studied biology in school so it’s a good combination of science and cooking, and learning about culture too,” O’Neil said of her experiences at the academy. Though she had prior experience brewing beer in the U.S., this was her first time experimenting with Korean alcohol. 

“I think it has given me more of an appreciation for the alcohol I’m drinking over here,” she said. “I can tell the difference between good stuff and bad stuff now.” 

More English-language classes will be held on Oct. 16 and 30 at Susubori Academy, with prices yet to be announced. For more information, visit 

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