Cooking class is draining experience

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Cooking class is draining experience

When 20 guests in elegant business attire were invited to learn how to cook traditional Korean dishes at the Shilla hotel, they had no idea what they were getting into -- not until they entered the kitchen in the back of the hotel and got a look at the professional gas stoves, sinks, cutting boards and utensils ready for each of them.

Most cooking classes consist of the teacher demonstrating while students watch and taste the preprepared food. This, however, was decidedly hands-on. Everyone excitedly rolled up her sleeves, threw on a large apron and got to work.

To promote the cookbook series "The Food of Korea" (2002, Periplus Publishing Company), the hotel arranged a special cooking session for the wives of foreign diplomats and businessmen in Korea. The day's menu -- sanjeok (skewer dishes) and oi saengchae (cucumber salad) -- was led by the master chef Cho Hee-sook from Sorabol, the hotel's Korean restaurant.

Ms. Cho, assisted and translated by the food expert Jinny Salmon, demonstrated how to prepare the skewer dishes and cucumber salad.

Fresh ingredients of sanjeok and cucumber salad were conveniently prepared on a large plate: 1 medium-size cucumber, 2 slabs of beef sirloin, 3 large new pine mushrooms, 3 large shiitake mushrooms, 3 green chili peppers, 1 medium-sized carrot, 1 leek stem, 3 bamboo skewers and a small bowl of crushed pine nuts. The sauce was prepared separately, a mixture of soy sauce, water, sugar, chopped leeks, finely chopped garlic, sesame seeds, sesame oil, vinegar and a black pepper mill.

Ms. Cho instructed her students to cut the cucumber into slices one-third of a centimeter thick. Put in a small amount of salt, mix well and set aside. While the salt gives the cucumber a crunchy texture, move on to preparing the sanjeok dishes. The key points of making the sanjeok are to cut the vegetables evenly, about 7 centimeters long, and to make sure the meat is 1 centimeter longer than vegetables because it will shrink when cooked. Before marinating, poke the meat with the end tip of the knife. Deseed the peppers so that they won't taste spicy. Don't wash the mushrooms because washing will diminish their natural flavor. The chef said the color coordination of the ingredients was very important and the color should be arranged symmetrically.

As they got to work, many women couldn't get that perfect 7 centimeters. A few moaned as peppers ripped when skewed. The less experienced couldn't distinguish sugar from salt, until, of course, they tasted. Two got minor burns from the oily pans. But everyone managed to put all the ingredients into the skewer, all color-coordinated Korean-style.

The typical marinade for Korean dishes is a mixture of soy sauce (2 tablespoons), water (6 tablespoons), sugar (1.5 teaspoons), chopped leeks (2 teaspoons), finely chopped garlic (1 teaspoon), sesame seeds (1.5 teaspoons), sesame oil (1 teaspoon) and a dash of black pepper. Marinade the skewer with the sauce and set aside.

Now, drain the cucumber using a fine cloth. The key point here is not to squeeze hard lest the shape of the cucumber is destroyed. The Korean-style salad dressing is made from chopped leeks (1 teaspoon), vinegar (2.5 teaspoons), sugar (2 teaspoon), salt (1 teaspoon), sesame seeds (1 teaspoon) and red chili pepper powder (1 teaspoon). Chopped garlic (1 teaspoon) is optional and the sweet, sour or spicy taste can be adjusted for personal preference. When the mix is ready, put on the cucumber.

Preheat the pan with salad oil. Ms. Cho recommends pan-frying the sanjeok at a high temperature first so that vegetables and meat can maintain the fresh taste, and then lower the fire to cook more. When pan-frying, be sure to add the marinade to bring a richer flavor. By this time, the kitchen became smoky and greasy.

When the food was ready, Ms. Cho also taught everyone how to present the food. A simple course meal comes with steamed rice, soup and small side dishes such as kimchi, fermented pickles and a dipping sauce.

Frederika Ornbrant from the Swedish Embassy was surprised at the outcome. "I imagined Korean dishes to be very strong in spice," she said, "but this is very elegant and delicious, and can work in any occasion."

by Inēs Cho

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