This month, Drexel University's Hospitality Management, Culinary and Food Science program kicked off a class dedicated to the fine art of Korean cuisine. According to assistant professor Jeehyun Lee, the program is among the first in the United States to offer a course focused solely on Korean food.
Although Lee is Korean, chef Adrienne Hall and the rest of Drexel's culinary staff had little direct experience with the intricacies of the Korean table. "I'd tasted kimchi, but that was about it," said Hall. "Everything we've been learning from Jong Im Lee has been a surprise. It's been a challenge, because I can't automatically assume anything, or apply my cooking experience to Korean cooking. It just doesn't translate."
Jong Im Lee, a popular television chef in Korea, is also director of the Korea Food and Culture Research Center and president of the Soodo Cooking Institute in Seoul. She came to town, along with her daughter, chef Bokyung Park, for a few weeks to school the Drexel top chefs on the ins and outs of Korean cooking.
Her visit was funded by the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation and Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Republic of Korea, which are proactively promoting a better understanding of Korean gastronomy in the West and globally.
Speaking through Drexel's Jeehyun Lee as an interpreter, Jong Im Lee acknowledged a few of the common misconceptions that exist about her native cuisine.
"People think Korean food is only spicy. That isn't true," she said. The chile was introduced to Korea in the 17th century, and spread across the globe by Portuguese and Spanish merchants as they conquered the New World. Korean royalty traditionally avoided hot and spicy food, instead dining on intricate dishes powered by much more subtle flavors.
Another misconception: Korean food is all about the beef. While it's true that the spiced marinated short rib bulgogi is the most familiar dish to Western palates, the Korean diet is based more on vegetables and seafood than beef. And when beef is present, it's usually in minuscule amounts as a flavor enhancer, not a main course.
"A recipe that calls for a few ounces of meat might seem odd at first," noted Hall. "But then again, we're used to sitting down to a huge steak that covers the plate. That's not how they do things."
The Korean diet is rich in fermented foods, vegetables and grains, with soy sauce (ganjang), soybean paste (doenjang) and red pepper paste (gochujang) the three most used flavorings.
The daily fare of most Koreans, outside or inside the home, still consists of rice, soup and many side dishes - a formula that has barely changed for hundreds of years. As here in America, Korea's table reflects regional influences and climate.
In the mountainous northeastern part of the country, for instance, dishes feature wild ferns and native roots. In the rice-growing valleys of the south, the best-known dish is a large bowl of rice covered in a variety of finely sliced vegetables, meats and a spicy sauce called bibimbap. Seafood, fresh and dried, is ever present, even at breakfast. Dried cuttlefish is a popular snack food - even sold in vending machines - and seaweed is featured in many dishes.
In this proudly health-conscious society, it's no coincidence that the Korean word for seasonings, yangnyom, comes from the Chinese word for "remedy." Many foods are prized for their disease-prevention effects, with individual ingredients often associated with specific organs of the body. "There is a lot of symbolism in this cooking," said Hall. "The presentation is very specific. Each plate she [Jong Im Lee] prepared looks like a work of art."
Jong Im Lee's refined dishes, not something you'd see on just anybody's dinner table in Seoul, demonstrated serious knife skills and incredible attention to detail.
Ingredients used - like fermented soy bean paste, dried soybeans and ginseng root - are available in Asian specialty stores, especially the Korean-owned H-Mart, with multiple locations including Upper Darby/69th Street, Cherry Hill and Elkins Park.
According to Drexel's Lee, the new course of study will explore the fundamentals and philosophy of traditional South Korean cuisine, with a strong emphasis on cultural influences, the Korean aesthetic, knife work and terminology. Students will learn about Korean food through hands-on sessions on how to cook rice, soup, condiments and a wide variety of Korean foods using Korean produce.
For the first course, 14 students enrolled in the lecture "Intro to Korean Cuisine" and nine signed up for the hands-on cooking lab. Since Drexel's students go on to jobs in the restaurant and food business, they'll now be able to take their exposure to Korean cooking with them, said Professor Lee.
"Our goal is for better global understanding of our food," she said.
"This course is a an important step in making that happen."