At Drexel, mastering Korean cuisine

Teacher Jeehyun Lee (center), in traditional dress, talks with dinner guests Ming Chu (left) and Stephanie Boysen. The course, offered at Drexel for the second year, coincides with growing local and national interest in Korean food.
Teacher Jeehyun Lee (center), in traditional dress, talks with dinner guests Ming Chu (left) and Stephanie Boysen. The course, offered at Drexel for the second year, coincides with growing local and national interest in Korean food. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)

Student chefs serve guests at a dinner climaxing their 10-week course, funded by the Korean government.

Posted: November 23, 2011

For Drexel University culinary students, this was an exam of sorts: Dressed in chef whites, they were in the kitchen last week turning out banchan and kimchi courses, showcasing their expertise, from ingredient pronunciations to cooking techniques.

For the 35 or so dinner guests, the event was an opportunity to sample refined Korean flavors. Alumni, school administrators, and a Korean food critic were all in attendance, metal chopsticks poised to dig in.

Jeehyun "Jee" Lee was flitting around the dining room of Drexel's Academic Bistro, comfortably playing hostess at the Korean dinner prepared and served by her students, the culmination of the 10-week Korean cuisine course she teaches there.

"Upscale Korean food is something the students can really experience with this event," says Lee, who was outfitted in a black and yellow hanbok, a voluminous traditional Korean dress, that her mother sent to her for the occasion.

This is the second year Drexel has offered the course from Lee and cooking school instructor Adrienne Hall, funded by the Korean government to promote its native cuisine.

And the timing couldn't be better, as, government efforts or not, the cuisine of this Asian country has been inching into the culinary spotlight over the last few years.

Korean-born celebrity chef David Chang has popularized ethnic mash-ups such as Honeycrisp apple kimchi through his group of Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan. He also serves a food-geek-famous fried chicken dinner, complete with Korean-style chicken, that guests clamor for.

On the West Coast, the L.A.-based food truck Kogi Korean BBQ, helmed by chef Roy Choi, started a national frenzy with kimchi quesadillas and Korean tacos (you'll find similar versions all over Philly now at places such as Giwa and Ladder 15).

Both chefs have been lauded in national media. And Korean-based fast-food chains such as BonChon Chicken have been steadily popping up in New York and out West.

"Korean food is something that never really blossomed in the U.S.," says Lee, who came from her native country to the States to get her Ph.D. in food science. But, she said, that is starting to change: "People are always looking for new flavors and it's not just bulgogi and kimchi."

The Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp., a Korean government-owned public corporation with offices in New York City, is charged with spreading Korean flavors Stateside.

The significant financial support it gives Drexel pays for weekly ingredient runs to Upper Darby's H Mart, special cooking utensils, and traditional dishware called hankook china. The money also allows the students to experience food and culture firsthand, with meals at Korean restaurants (they have to write essays about their meals), and a day trip to Manhattan. Last year, Korea Agro-Fisheries even paid for a handful of students to take a two-week culinary tour of Korea. While the corporation won't disclose the amount given to Drexel, it's enough to keep the program running for three years.

"We are happy to see the students get more knowledgeable about Korean ingredients that can be used in all aspects of cooking, for their health, and enhancing foods they already eat and enjoy," says Hyoung-wan Oh, president of New York's Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp.

The dinner at Drexel started with the palate-teasing banchan and kimchi courses. Small bowls and plates were filled with pickled cabbage, spicy cucumbers, spinach, bean sprouts, and fried tofu with a sweet dipping sauce.

The students have learned about everything from high-end cuisine to street food. And sweets. While the first courses were being served to dinner guests, Drexel freshman Jericho Turingan was in the pastry kitchen, prepping one of the night's desserts. He was using the bottom of a metal measuring cup to flatten wheat-colored sweet dough balls called hotteok to a thick pancake, then searing them in a pan. The trick is to keep the sweet syrup inside intact. "If you don't wrap it correctly, then the syrup comes out," explains Turingan. "It's a technique we learned."

Before dessert was served, diners had been treated to a five-course meal with such traditional entrees as vegetable bibimbap, a rice bowl topped with vegetables, spices and sauces, and dak bulgogi, strips of marinated and grilled chicken. Guests watched an informative video starring Lee and the students, who explained the history and cooking process for each dish.

None of the students who were in last year's program has made a career of Korean cuisine. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Lee attempted to get one student a job in Korea, but the language barrier and the poor economy stood in the way.

But with the growing interest in Korean foods, Lee believes the course will be an asset for her students' resumes.

"When students go for job interviews, people are interested that they have this Korean food background," says Lee. "Our students know how to get the products and know the different flavors. They can put a few Korean items on the menu."

Chicken Bulgogi

Makes 4 servings

1 pound boneless chicken  thighs

3 tablespoons gochuchang red pepper paste  (available at a Korean grocery)

1 tablespoon minced green onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic      

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce    

1 teaspoon sesame oil         

1 teaspoon sugar or honey      

1 teaspoon rice wine

1 teaspoon corn syrup

Sesame seeds to taste

Black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

   1.   Cut meat into slices or chunks. Mix remaining ingredients, except vegetable oil, to make a marinade. Add chicken and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

   2. Heat vegetable oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Add chicken, reserving most of the marinade. Cook chicken until done, and set aside. Add remaining marinade and reduce until thickened. Return chicken to the pan and coat with marinade. Serve immediately. Steamed rice and leaf lettuce are the usual accompaniments.

- From Drexel University

Per serving: 288 calories, 41 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 334 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244,, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.

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