Italians get 5-course lesson in Korean cuisine

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Italians get 5-course lesson in Korean cuisine

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Lee Young-ae introduces herself to leading Italian cultural figures at a Korean banquet co-hosted by Gucci last month in Florence, Italy. Provided by Gucci Korea

Outside the Gucci Museo at Piazza Della Signoria in Florence, Italy, on Sept. 17, about 6 p.m., an Asian woman clad in a teal dress made her entrance.

With her frock emphasizing her decolletage, some 20 odd people standing around turned their eyes toward the new arrival.

It wasn’t long before she beamed a smile and greeted them all.

“Thank you for coming. … I hope you enjoy tonight’s dinner.”

The woman breaking the ice was none other than Hallyu actress Lee Young-ae.

It was like a scene from Lee’s famous 2003 drama, “Dae Jang Geum,” in which she played the titular chef- turned-court physician, except that it was in the future.

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Lee with the student chefs from Woosong University who prepared the meals.

The idea for the dinner, which was co-hosted by the iconic fashion brand Gucci, was conceived in April when Lee was named ambassador for the National Trust of Korea to increase awareness of Korean cuisine.

So just what kind of bounties were atop the table set up by Lee? And what was the response?

Lee and Gucci CEO Patrizio di Marco, the co-hosts for the evening, were seated at the center of a rectangular table with 24 distinguished guests. She went on to explain that for Koreans, food was not just a source of energy.

“Eating is a way to connect for us, and I’ve worked hard to increase awareness for Korean culture and cuisine. Through this opportunity, I hope that the exchange between Italy and Korea will be strengthened and that the two nations can become closer.”

It wasn’t long before the feast got under way with glasses full of sweet potato-flavored makgeolli (rice wine) being lifted for a toast.

The dinner consisted of five courses.

The hors d’oeuvres was a medley of dried fruit and vegetables: lotus plants, sweet pumpkin and jujube with mousse - a subtle hint of ginseng with a sweet aftertaste of cream.

Guests were intrigued, stirring their food and examining it as if they were in a science lab.

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Gucci Museo, or the House of Gucci, at Piazza Della Signoria in Florence, Italy, is where the banquet took place. Lee with Gucci CEO Patrizio di Marco.

When a Korean reporter announced, “This is foreign, even for me,” Stefania Ippoliti of the Toscana Film Commission joked, “Your expression looks not too different from mine,” who’s trying Korean food for the first time.

After that, the banquet hall became filled with laughter and sounds of cutlery clanking.

Porridge, cabbage and perilla leaf kimchi, king prawn marinade in pine nut, broiled meat in ginseng, potato and sweet pumpkin roots marinade were served up on the finest Korean brassware.

The third course was spicy chicken on skewers with mung bean pancake.

With each dish, the guests oohed and aahed over the immaculate presentation.

Then Lee explained how a Western-style soup was different to juk (Korean porridge), and what a jeon (savory pancake), tteoksanjeok (spit-roasted rice cake) and jeonbyeong (pancake) were.

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Hors d’oeuvres consisting of dried fruit and vegetables, an appetizer of cold meat and vegetable roots marinade, spicy chicken skewers with mung bean pancake, and the most popular dish of the night, galbijjim (beef short rib dish).

The actress, who learned about royal cuisine when she took on her period drama, said she’d studied each menu item in English leading up to the Italian banquet.

Then came the highlight of the meal, the main course consisting of galbijjim (beef short rib dish) and rice in lotus leaves, accompanied by an assortment of colorful side dishes.

Claudia Kozma Kaplan, the marketing and communications director at Gucci, flushed in the face after a taste of the pickled deodeok (mountain herb) root, asked, “Is this the spiciest Korean food?”

Then, some time after 9 p.m. came the dessert, consisting of salad made of omija (a five-flavored berry) and rice crackers.

The verdict of Italian palates was that Korean food was “beautiful” and “healthy.”

Riccardo Lami, who oversees art exhibitions at the Palazzo Strozzi, also delved into why he thought there wasn’t awareness of Korean food in Florence.

“Italians have this pride with their food. Florentines eat pizza even when they are traveling abroad,” he said, adding that how food is presented may change preconceptions about Korean food and become a new cultural experience.

“It was such a touching moment. Until now, the alliance between entertainers and fashion brands was just fashion shows,” said Lee in an interview with JoongAng Sunday.

When asked to give her criticism, she said, “Wasn’t it just delicious?

“Di Marco is constantly dieting, but for that night he put his diet on hold and finished nearly all of his galbijjim.

Lee added that she was even more proud of the fact that the menu was not the contemporary “fusion” style of Korean food, but every dish was cooked using traditional methods.

The cooks behind the successful banquet were students from the renowned culinary school Woosong University. In all, five students and two professors oversaw the project.

To show her gratitude toward the young chefs, Lee said she in turn cooked for them.

And to make sure that the chefs were in good spirits, Lee added that she prepared tteokbokki (spicy rice cake) for them a day before.

She custom-ordered the rice cakes and marinade ahead of time from Korea.

“It was my husband’s idea actually. I just wanted to reward the young kids that were putting in so much hard work,” Lee said.

She also said that she revealed a secret when it came to cooking Korea’s favorite snack, “a few drops of sesame oil.”

The trick seemed to have worked as Lee professed “the students were scraping the bottom of the pan.”

It’s no secret that Lee studied cooking while she filmed “Dae Jang Geum.” She is able to cook up any traditional dish and since she got married five years ago, she’s learned to cook even more dishes.

Her favorite meals to cook at home are soybean soup cooked with high-quality anchovies.

Since getting married, she’s remained out of spotlight, arousing much interest about her private life.

And it’s clear that for now, domestic life is the only thing she thinks about.

Throughout the interview, she talked of marriage, family and her twins constantly.

Apart from being the honorary ambassador for the National Trust of Korea and the DMZ, she hasn’t taken on any other work as of late. And it seems there has been a shift in the way she sees the world.

“After marriage and becoming a mother, I’ve become more fluid in the way I handle things,” she said. “I don’t see things as either this way or that anymore, but if there is some good attached to a project, I’m ready to go along with it.”

The reason, it seems, is motherhood.

“Since giving birth, all I wish for is world peace, no pollution, and for my kids to grow up well and healthy.”

She said that while dramas and movies were important too, she saw more meaning in using her celebrity status to improve the world.

“I don’t think that charity works are any less important than securing 50 percent viewers’ ratings.”

But she does say she misses the old days on the set.

“I watched ‘Gwanghae’ and ‘The Berlin File’ back to back on the plane to Italy.”

She said that while the two movies brought back memories, she just couldn’t go back to acting because she was a mother first and foremost.

“Once I start working, I’m completely consumed by it. I become supersensitive, and I can’t be a mom one minute, then an actor the next.”


By LEE DO-EUN [carlasunwoo@joongang.co.kr]
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