Reviving culinary delights of yoreIn her elegant hanbok and chignon hairstyle, Yoon Sook-ja embodies a traditional mother figure of the Joseon Dynasty. As director of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food her work is to carry on the culinary traditions of that era, instructing a class of 50 disciples, mostly women, in the art of making tteok, or rice cakes. Today’s lesson: How to steam mugwort rice cakes and coat others in pumpkin flour.
“When you mix the rice flour with mugwort, make sure you mix well so that the sugar water forms an even batter,” says Ms. Yoon, whose recipes are laced with cultural and historical significance.
“You know, mugwort appears in the Dangun Legend [relating to the birth of the Korean nation]. A bear ate mugwort and garlic for 100 days before it turned into a woman who married the son of heaven and gave birth to our forefather Dangun. That is why mugwort rice cake is sometimes called ‘Legend tteok’,” she says as an assistant tends to the bowls of green powder.
“People don’t realize that it actually takes ten minutes to create rice cakes. They buy them ready made when they could be homemade,” says Ms. Yoon, as the class diligently takes notes.
Once a week, Hwang Seon-hwa, 51, comes to Seoul all the way from Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, just for the class. “I am opening a rice cake cafe in Cheongju in October and to prepare for it, I decided to take this course because it gives me ideas on how to make diverse kinds of rice cakes. I strongly agree with Ms. Yoon that tteok will become the next big thing in the future, surpassing cafes that only offer cakes and coffee,” says Ms. Hwang, a former school teacher.
Gang Seong-bae, 33, owns a rice cake factory in Bupyeong, Gyeonggi Province, and is one of the few but growing number of men taking courses in traditional food. “The institute teaches us how to use new design in the rice cakes, like fusion style tteok, which will appeal to consumers.” Ms. Yoon’s rice cakes, which she calls “upgraded and modernized” use natural colorings from yellow pumpkin and red omija.
Ms. Yoon says rice cakes are the next best food after Kimchi to represent Korea because they are made from nutritious ingredients such as glutinous rice, beans, nuts, vegetables, fruits and even ingredients used in Chinese medicine. “All ingredients are natural, and that’s what will appeal to people all over the world,” says Ms. Yoon. But despite the back-to-nature image, Ms. Yoon has also developed packaged tteok that keeps for three months, and is cooked by microwave.
“Our traditional foods are superb in every way, but the legacy is being broken, and the diversity of our traditional dishes are losing ground,” says Ms. Yoon. That is why after teaching at a university she decided to open the institute in the hope that traditional food will carry on. “Teaching in academia is only confined to college students, but I felt I needed to transfer knowledge about traditional food to the general public in order to sustain our legacy.”
“There are more than 200 types of traditional liquor [recorded in Joseon history], but only 20 remain to this day. Most have forgotten how to brew in the traditional method, and opt to buy them. While the Japanese have upgraded their sake, our traditional wines are fast disappearing,” says Ms. Yoon. Some traditional liquors that have all but vanished, including boksaju, samilju, and nokpaju, while rice porridges no longer served in dinner tables include ubunjuk, and fermented beans dishes made with green moss. “Our ancestors also made kimchi using water used to wash rice,... and pheasant was a delicacy often served at dinners,” says Ms. Yoon.
These traditional foods are becoming lost primarily because the ingredients are hard to find and the painstaking cooking process is time consuming. But after the MBC television drama “Daejanggeum” (Jewel in the Palace) ran from 2003 to 2004, there has been a resurgent interest in traditional Korean food, particularly palatial dishes. This trend has reached Southeast Asia, where Korean dramas are particularly popular. In June, Ms. Yoon and other lecturers from the institute visited Taiwan to attend the Taipei International Food Expo, where they presented traditional culinary dishes to visitors. “Our dishes were more popular than the Japanese,” Ms. Yoon said enthusiastically. “It’s because our food is aesthetically presentable, delicious and it is well-being food. Korean food is not instant, it is fermented, and the process takes time, so it is slow food, which is the new slogan of the day.”
The institute’s Continuing Education Center offers three-month courses on making palatial food, traditional food, kimchi, traditional liquor, tea and drinks, rice cakes and pastries, fermented bean foods, and bridal food. Those enrolled in the courses range from high school students to housewives to middle-aged men who want to start a business in traditional foods such as a rice cake cafe. “Many people attending the rice cake classes are owners of bakeries, while those at rice porridge classes own rice porridge restaurants,” says Ms. Yoon. “But most of them are just interested in learning to make good old fashioned foods like kimchi and tea for their families.”
The institute seeks out traditional food specialists from all over the country, and invites them to revive traditional cooking procedures and recipes in order to maintain and transfer the tradition. “We’ve invited local experts in traditional food from various provinces to come and lecture at our institute,” says Ms. Yoon, who has also presided over national traditional food contests hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
Situated near the Jongmyo Shrine in Jongro district, the institute is situated in a ten story building that includes a rice cake cafe called Jilshiru (which refers to the traditional pot that is used to make rice cakes), the Kitchen and Utensil Museum, the Rice Cake Museum, the Food Culture Experience Hall and a library. The institute also provides foreigners with classes on making rice cakes and kimchi, tours of museums and other traditional experiences.
A native of Gaeseong, North Korea, Mrs. Yoon learned how to cook traditional dishes from her mother, which is normally how tradition is passed on. Ironically, as a mother of two grown men, Mrs. Yoon says she feels somewhat lucky that she does not have a daughter to teach. “I can transfer my expertise to all the people who come to my courses. They are carrying out the legacy of our traditional food culture.”
by Choi Jie-ho