Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Stay at a Traditional Korean Inn

Professor Hee Sun Jeong of the Korean Food Institute at Sookmyung University and I met when she came to Boston with a team to cook a meal of Imperial cuisine for 100 people! I visited the Institute when in Seoul and was greeted with a warming and refreshing cup of hot yooja tea. A piece of preserved yooja (citron) in sugar syrup is set in a celadon tea cup and topped with slivers of date, pinenuts and chestnut. This citrus is my very favorite flavor. Yuzu in Japanese, is still hard to find fresh in the United States.

For a reunion, Hee Sun (to my left) and her talented assistants and I went to lunch at fusion style restaurant that served delicious contemporary Korean food.

This sweet and piquant fruit salad was a highlight for me with apple, pear, celery, shrimp dressed in an ethereal creamy pinenut and mustard dressing.

Hee Sun invited my husband Dick and me to go with her family and their friends to Andong Province to stay in a traditional 17th century Korean home, about 4 hours south of Seoul. But don’t be fooled by the word south -- it was still terribly cold! We pulled in late in the evening at Jirye Artist Colony, a compound of buildings, in a picturesque setting atop hill over looking a lake. We traversed our way up a very winding road for a half hour. The next day I was glad it was pitch black when we had arrived as the side of the road has a very STEEP drop.

Kim Won-Gil, the owner and his family greeted us with cakes and wine which we enjoyed in the building that housed the kitchen and common dining area. Mr. Kim is not only an inn keep for his ancestral home he is also a professor and poet. He showed us one of his poems with a line about Jirye as "a place to listen to the earth revolve." As we left the warmth of the kitchen to go to our respective rooms in other buildings, we stepped into shoes and out into the cold night with a sky lit up by stars that seemed close enough to touch. It was time to go to bed
and experience ondul -- the radiant floor heating system, still in use today. However, this floor was heated the old fashion way, with fire that heated logs and kindle that smoldered throughout the night.
The brilliant system allows for the hot logs to be pushed through a channel under the floor. It got ever hotter as the night wore on. There was but a thin mattress between us and the very warm floor which is made of cement (HARD) and covered with multiple layers of paper brushed with natural plant oils, giving it a a shiny yellowish cast. The room was not heated -- the floor was. Our bodies were warm but my nose was sure cold! The clothes, I refused to take off initially, got stripped off piece by piece, all the way to dawn -- the socks were the last to go! It was a great experience but if I ever do it again, it will be in the summer!

The breakfast gong rang and we all emerged from our rooms. Somehow during the night the kids had left their building and crawled into the room with their respective parents.Breakfast in the warm kitchen dining area was rice porridge served with platters of banchan, the side dishes that accompany all meals in Korea. Spinach, beans, seasoned fish are eaten with the thick soup.

After breakfast we walked around the grounds. Right outside the kitchen was the family's collection of home made sauces and pastes in large clay urns. Soy sauce, soy bean paste, red pepper paste are but a scoopful away from the cook.

And finally, I got to see kimchi buried in the ground! I had been told that the texture of kimchi that comes out of these pots is different from its refrigerator cousin; so crunchy. Now I can attest to that.

There are drying herbs, vestiges of past outdoor kitchens, and a manual foot powered grinding stone in the courtyard as well. A precursor to the food processor?

We then climbed the hill to Mr. Kim's library and study. You could see how inspirational it is to sit and write poetry here.

We walked in the woods above the grounds and came upon a family grave. This is Mr. Kim's son and his new bride, the next generation to care for this precious home.

Our evening stay and breakfast was a mere $50.00 for two of us. Such a deal and such a peaceful experience. I think I did hear the earth revolve.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Asian Sojourn

On December 13, 2009 my husband Dick and I started on our trip to North Asia. We were in Seoul, South Korea for 10 days then onto China - Beijing for 6, Shanghai for 6 and now we are in Tokyo until January 29th. Both of us have been working along the way and here in Tokyo I will be doing research for my new cookbook with the tentative title of: My Japanese Kitchen- Favorite Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking with Friends. Although Korea and China were fascinating, we found out what it's like not to be able to communicate! At least Dick could read in China. Now, we are in our second home in Japan and it is a relief to know what is going on! I was so busy in Seoul there was not time to blog and there is NO blogging from China (or Facebook or Twitter) so this post will give you some highlights from Korea and China.

On our first day in Seoul we wandered around surprised at how cold it was. There were lots of street vendors and stalls selling snacks. Hot, glazed sweet potatoes was our first treat and of course the universal roasted chestnuts.

That night we had dinner with my internet friend WooKyung (Woogie) Park. We connected over a blog on Korean food and have written to each other for almost a year. What fun to finally meet in person! Woogie took us for a delicious tofu and mushroom hot pot and then on for a dessert of warm bean paste pudding a hot cinnamon tea with jujubes (Korean dates) and pine nuts.

Seoul Sisters

During our 10 day stay in Korea I was hosted for 2 days by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. A lovely young woman, Simi Kim was my interpreter. On the first day I was taken to Bongnyeongsa Temple (English available) in Suwon City about 1 ½ hours outside of Seoul for a Vegetarian lunch and cooking demonstration. I baked several fruitcakes in Boston to take with me to Korea as gifts and brought one with me here, of course made with eggs and alcohol -- lots of alcohol! At the time I didn't realize it was vegan cuisine. So I slipped that back in my bag and gave them special honey from Vermont. I think that was OK but not sure! The temple is run by women and is a seminary for women studying to take their vows as Buddhist monks and is well-known for its simple and elegant food. Sun Jae, one of the monks, a famous vegan cook and cookbook author, oversaw the preparation of the elaborate array of flavorful dishes. There was a meal also being served to those who had come to the temple for prayers that day.

We were greeted by a friendly nun who hooked my arm and toured us around the newly renovated premises. Their quilted outfits of smoky gray were as elegant as anything in a designer showroom. Knitted caps in hues from creamy white to gray kept their bald pates warm. And let me tell you it was freezing.

The grounds are hundreds of years old but a brand new temple has just been erected. The scale is monumental and the paintings on the wooden posts, walls and ceiling exploded with color. I asked if they poles were painted and then lifted to form the roof. The answer was no, Artisans painted the poles in place – move over Michelangelo.

Temple cuisine eschews the use of strong aromatics, like onion, scallion and garlic and red pepper is used sparingly. Although mild, all the tastes were present: sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and sour. Each dish was memorable and there were all the elements of a Korean meal including banchan and kimchi.
The lunch was an array home grown vegetables ( fresh and dried), mushrooms, squares of fried tofu, small mung bean pancakes laced with sweet bell peppers, doenjang soup with homemade soy bean paste, namul made with bean sprouts and tea leaves. Jap chae, the classic glass noodle dish was made with the earthy and smoky flavored burdock root, stir fried in sesame oil. What a flavor boost. The elegant presentation was worthy of any starred restaurant.

In the courtyard beyond the dining hall stood large pottery urns with home made soy sauce, soy bean paste, red pepper paste (gochujang), vinegars and preserved vegetables.

These urns are sold in markets all over Seoul and are made from a special porous clay that allows the contents to “breathe.” These urns can be seen on apartment terraces, and outside of restaurants.

Sun Jae conducted a cooking demonstration for myself and the students at the seminary. A gentleman who was been working with her for years assisted. She made a Napa cabbage pancake using whole leaves and that delicious jap chae with burdock root.

I met another American that day who had started out as an English teacher in Korea 8 years ago.

I was told she heard Sun Jae speak and the rest is history. She has been studying for 4 years at the temple and will be taking her vows shortly.

It was a most memorable afternoon.