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Korea: a spirited adventure

Korea: a spirited adventure
Korea Tourism Organisation
Anna Maria Espsäter gets to grips with kimchi-chilli pickled vegetables and gochujang in South Korea’s underexplored Jeollabuk-do province.
 
Korean food is experiencing something of a quiet revolution in the UK. A decade ago there was but a handful of Korean restaurants in London; today they number well over 40. And kimchi and other Korean staples are slowly making their way onto supermarket and deli shelves, whilst soju may soon rival its Japanese counterpart sake as a the potent tipple of choice. My own curiosity was piqued whilst trying out some of the country’s more famous dishes in London, so a trip to Korea to find out more about its culinary secrets seemed in order.
 
North of the border Korea is hardly famed for its tasty cuisine, so I headed South to Jeollabuk-do province and its capital, Jeonju, in the southwest, the heartland of traditional Korean food and home of Korean favourite, bibimbap, a multi-coloured, multi-layered rice dish that has become almost as synonymous with Korea as kimchi (chilli-pickled vegetables) and barbequed meats.
 
Jeonju boasts one of the best preserved old-style villages in the country with some 900 buildings built in the traditional Hanok style, where the structures are supposed to promote optimal health and well-being. It is the perfect place to get into the spirit of things; literally, as one of the quaint, well-kept buildings is home to the Museum of Traditional Wine and Liquor.
 
It may be small in stature, but the museum manages to give good insights into traditional rice wine and spirit-making techniques; and best of all, it has a very handy sampling counter and shop! “You pour the liquid thus,” Sky, my friendly guide, told me as I watched a perfect golden stream flow from the bottle held high above our heads, expertly hitting the tiny cup below
Korea: a spirited adventure
Korea Tourism Organisation
without a splash or drop spilled. Most spirits here are rice or sorghum-based and whilst some remain an acquired taste, those flavoured with fruits, flowers or herbs, slip down rather nicely.
 
Pleasantly fortified I was ready for the real challenge; the bibimbap cooking lesson. The Jeonju Traditional Cultural Centre allows visitors to take part in everything from a full-blown Korean wedding ceremony to energetic drumming lessons, as well as traditional cooking in beautiful kitchens kitted-out with all the necessary mod cons.
 
Suitably attired in bright red apron, I set to work under the quiet supervision of a female chef, boiling rice, chopping a huge variety of different ingredients, including cucumber, carrot, courgette, mushroom, spinach, cress, roots and tofu - all fried separately in sesame oil - and marinating some minced beef. The fluffy, white rice is then laid out in a hot bowl with its rainbow of ingredients, including raw beef, a good spoonful of hot red chilli paste, known as gochujang and a raw egg yolk to top it off. As decoration, Korean red date, dried, crushed seaweed, ground sesame seeds and gingko nuts are placed around the yolk. But just when your work of art is complete and looks enticingly scrumptious, you’re instructed to ruin it all by stirring it together so that the beef and egg yolk cook from the heat of the bowl. The final result may not look as good, but the taste as hot and cold, soft and crunchy, mild and spicy mingle together is halfway up the stairs to heaven.
 
Having scratched the surface of traditional food, I could’t leave without investigating Korea’s national obsession; kimchi. These nutritious chilli-pickled, fermented vegetables – there are over 160 different varieties, from the most common, cabbage, to the rarer water radishes, cucumbers and leeks – are the national dish par excellence. They turn up at every meal from breakfast to lunch and dinner, and are often served as a tasty snack between meals. Learning how to make it is still a vital skill for Korea’s modern women, especiallly in the countryside. Most households have a special kimchi fridge to keep these tasty pickles at the right temperature, and it is so strongly embedded in the national psyche that when Koreans have their photo taken, they don’t say “Cheese,” to create the perfect smile; they say “Kimchi!”
 
So, how is it made? The answer is simple. The vegetable of choice is marinated with salt and seasoned with brine, garlic, scallions and ground hot red chilli peppers, before being stored away in large clay pots to ferment for up to a year. It has become so ubiquitous and revered that there’s even a museum in Seoul dedicated to these humble vegetables that form such an integral part of Korean food traditions. Rather aptly named the Kimchi Museum, having eaten and drunk my way around the South, I couldn’t think of a finer place to end my culinary wanderings…
 
Address Book:
Jeonju: Gogung – Traditional Korean Restaurant 168-9, 2-ga, Deokjin-dong, Deokjin-ku, Jeonju (Hobanchon near Deok-Jin Park) Tel: +82-63-251-3211
 
Jeonju Traditional Cultural Centre – Offers cookery lessons, but also has a lovely restaurant. 7-1 Gyodong Wansan-gu Jeonju Jeollabuk-do Tel: +82 63 280 7000 – 1 Fax: +82 63 280 7070
 
Hawshim soondubu – Great tofu dishes. Hwashimri 532-1) Soyang-myon, Wanju-gun, Jeonju, Korean food in London: www.koreafoods.co.uk
 
Further Information: Korean Tourist Board (www.visitkorea.or.kr) and Jeonju Village (http://hanok.jeonju.go.kr/FLSite/default.aspx)
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