▲ Chef Kim Ji Soon, left, with her son Yang Yong Jin at her cooking academy in Nohyeong-dong, Jeju City. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
Since The Jeju Weekly started its popular Flavors of Jeju series with Jeju cuisine expert Yang Yong Jin there have been two things that have I wanted to do. One is to try my hand at cooking a traditional island dish, and two, meet Yang’s mother, Kim Ji Soon, an acclaimed chef in her own right and the first person to fashion a cookbook on the subject.
After over a year of running this series I had the chance to do both on Sunday, Dec. 4 when I was invited to Kim’s cooking academy, Kim’s Cooking and Baking Academy, in Nohyeong-dong, Shin Jeju.
I arrived, as per usual, with my trusty translator at the appointed time and took stock of the place while we sat waiting for Yang. The academy was what one would expect of a cooking school. There were several cooking stations equipped with sinks and cluttered with utensils. The school was empty except for Kim and an assistant who were busily arranging ingredients on a plate.
At first I thought we were intruding, but once Yang arrived with a camera slung over his shoulder he explained that they were in the process of making a Jeju traditional food photo book and that I was to help them prepare the dishes for their close up.
Over the several encounters I have had with Yang, he has often told me that due to the harsh environment of the island, meals traditionally did not consist of many ingredients and are rather simple to make. Being a man whose idea of cooking consists of drizzling hot sauce on rice, I was thankful for this.
The first of two dishes for the day that we would prepare was bomalguk, a seafood soup consisting of seaweed, shellfish, garlic, salt, powered memil (buckwheat), and water. I followed Kim as she dumped the shellfish into a pot, pre-coated with sesame oil, and stirred with a wooden spoon. Next we added water and set it to boil. Once boiling, in went the seaweed, garlic, buckwheat, and salt, and we went back to stirring.
The dish took no more than 15 minutes from chopping to photo finish, but Kim pointed to her pot and said, “this one will be in the photo.” Though slightly hurt, I compared her soup to mine and noticed that there was definitely a difference between the two, a theme that would continue throughout the afternoon.
I asked what the difference was. “You stirred too much,” she said. Yang was quick to remark when cooking soup with powdered grain, if one stirs too much, one’s soup becomes cloudy.
While Yang took the preferred soup to his makeshift photo studio in an adjacent room, I asked him about why the government wanted a photo book of Jeju food.
“To preserve what’s left,” he said. With globalization traditional Jeju food has been combined with techniques and ingredients from the mainland and the West. Since there hasn’t been much documentation done on the island’s cuisine, this aspect of Jeju’s history is being lost.
The other purpose of the book is to fight fire with fire and attempt to globalize Jeju dishes. Though, with a soup like bomal, where its ingredients are not readily available worldwide, the book is to encourage people to try it while they are here.
The next dish was neureumijeon, similar to pajeon (a pancake-like dish with green onions), with its Western kin being an omelet. Again, it was a simple dish of green onions, bracken, eggs and salt. Once you have lined the bracken and green onion on top of each other in the shape of a log raft, you place it on the skillet and spoon egg on top.
The reason for carefully distributing the eggs on the vegetables, I later discovered, is to ensure that it keeps its well defined rectangle shape. You don’t want too much egg seeping over the side, nor too little.
And with the use of the square frying pan, you push the raft around on its sea of sesame to the raised sides to cement the whole thing together and give it a neat finish. I, unlike Kim, failed to do this well and with too much egg, and stray sticking out the side, my effort was again deemed not pretty enough for print.
This dish, Yang said, is specifically for jaesa (a funeral ritual). Due to its flat appearance, during food offerings to ancestors during jaesa, Jeju citizens say it resembles a blanket and leave it so the soul of the deceased can “used it to wrap [up the other food]. [Jeju people] believe the ghost will put the rest of the food on top of it and use the onions to tie the bag and the gosari [braken]” for shoulder straps.
Yang once again took Kim’s dish to be photographed, leaving mine behind to sulk. While he snapped away, I mentioned to Kim that she is probably the most knowledgeable Jeju traditional food expert.
“All Jeju locals are Jeju food experts,” Kim retorted, “because they have it all the time. Especially someone older than me, they would know more about Jeju ... but no one had put it all together, organized it and make a recipe out of it.”
That is what Kim is known for. In 1987 after two years of research she came out with “Food of Jeju Island,” the first full-length comprehensive cookbook about Jeju cuisine.
“At that time a lot of people misunderstood Jeju food, and I wanted to write something that was correct,” she said. I asked her how much of Jeju’s traditional food has been lost to dishes from the mainland or the West. “A lot, and it is still being lost,” she replied. “People don’t make much Jeju food these days because it is getting harder to get ingredients.”
After our conversation, she yelled to Yang in the other room. He came out and Kim told him to put my neureumijeon in the shot for the book, as long as it was well hidden, under her own.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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