Korean Cooking 101

I am a fan of the culinary school at Toronto’s George Brown College. As part of their ConEd program, I take cooking and baking classes where I learn different cuisines and baking skills. I get instruction from and cook with professional chefs, work in industrial kitchens and use equipment and tools I wouldn’t normally have access to.

Where else would I have learned how to make croissants by hand? and then use a laminator to make them ten times faster? Or baked naan in a tandoori oven? Which at 600F – 900F can get super hot. The pandemic curtailed in-person classes but this was lifted in September. As soon as it did, I was scrolling through the catalog for my next course. After watching the addictive Netflix series Extraordinary Attorney Woo, I signed-up for Korean Cooking.

Aside from Korean Fried Chicken (the new KFC ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) I wasn’t too familiar with Korean food. To me, Korean dishes seemed like spicier Japanese food. My course shed a lot of light on the differences. It also explained things I’d seen but not understood in Seoul’s Gwangjang market.

I may have mentioned it before but whenever I visit a country, I always go to the market. It’s the best place to experience what local people eat. Seoul’s Gwangjang market is one of the largest and oldest traditional markets in South Korea. When I visited it, I’d been fascinated by its bountiful displays of fermented, pickled and preserved vegetables and seafoods.

Like friendly markets everywhere, I was offered samples to taste. Some, like the different types of kimchi were spicy and pungent. Others, like pickled raw crabs were great to look at, but required more courage than I had, to try.

These seasoned and fermented foods were for banchan, side dishes served as part of a Korean meal. The most famous banchan is kimchi but other plates include seasoned bean sprouts, cooked cucumbers and savory pancakes. In my six week course, I’d learn how to make different banchan, rice, stews and in the process, get familiar with some unusual ingredients.

I’ll write about some of my learnings in future posts. In today’s post, I’ll focus on one item which I thought I’d recognized in Seoul but which turned out to be something entirely different.

In Chinese cuisine nian gao is a steamed ‘cake’ made from rice flour. It’s slightly sweet, gummy and tastes nothing at all like cake. It’s more like a brown, bouncy, carby version of Jello. When I saw these beige disks in Seoul’s market, I thought they were Korean nian gao. It did seem strange that they were being sold with the vegetables. In Chinese stores they would’ve been sold with sweet bakery items. As it turns out, they were probably not nian gao at all. More likely, they were dotorimuk or acorn jelly.

Raw acorns contain tannins which make them bitter and toxic to humans. But if they are soaked in water, the tannins leach out and the nuts become edible. Dried and milled, they’re made into flour and used by Koreans to make acorn jelly and noodles.

During the pandemic, acorns were identified as the new ‘superfood’ and there was a massive surge in popularity. South Koreans anxious to get outdoors, started collecting wild acorns in forests and walking trails. So much so that food supplies for squirrels dropped to dangerous levels. Squirrels were starving because of this foraging craze. Luckily, volunteer ‘acorn rangers’ saved the day (and squirrels) by patrolling the trails and dissuading would-be foragers.

In class we’d received a bonus recipe for dotorimuk muchim, a salad made with acorn jelly and a spicy soy, garlic and sesame oil dressing. It was a bonus recipe in that we didn’t have to prepare it at school. I was intrigued by its description, so I decided to make it at home.

I made dotorimuk muchim with jelly purchased at a Korean market. I could have made it (and several vats more) from scratch; if I’d purchased the bag of acorn flour, cooked it with water (like cooking custard) and stored it overnight in the fridge. It was easier to buy pre-made.

How did it taste? The jelly itself was pretty bland but the texture was interesting. It was cool and slippery and provided a nice contrast to the garlicky vinaigrette and bitter salad greens. I could see this being a tasty addition to a light summer meal.

… but much like nian gao don’t taste at all like cake, dotorimuk doesn’t taste at all like nian gao. The squirrels are safe with me.


    1. It’s interesting that you’d try making it. What were you thinking to make with it? If you have a Korean store close by, you can find the acorn flour in the package I’ve shown.
      Thanks for reading & commenting!


      1. Hi Sandy. We were planning on making some recipes from “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen” recipe book. (Native Americans used to use acron flour, too.) We have oak trees in our yard and had a good acorn year the time we tried to make it ourselves. Not too many Korean stores in Duluth, MN, where I live but I think there’s a wild foods forager person I know who might have some acorn flour!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve read that acorns & oak trees are one those species that grow abundantly throughout the northern hemisphere. Up until recently, they were commonly processed & eaten by humans. With our industrialization of wheat etc. that fell by the wayside. I looked at a Google preview of that cookbook. It looks interesting. Thanks for sharing it.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m going to be interested to follow your posts about this course, after our visit to North Korea. The two countries separated recently enough that their cultures are very similar, including the cuisine, although I suspect the quality may be higher in the south. We didn’t get dotorimuk as far as I recall but maybe I’ll recognise some of the other dishes you learn to cook ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So I will follow-up with more posts then! I wasn’t sure if there’d be interest ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Do you remember any particular Korean dish Sarah? We spent a fair amount of time on festival type foods, I’d guess that these heritage foods will be common across North & South.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Kimchee of course, which I liked until my stomach decided to object to so much acid! Also there was a sort of eggy vegetable cake, a bit like a tortilla (no idea of the name) that we had in a few places, cold noodles (an acquired taste that I failed to acquire), some great BBQ meats (duck in particular). There must be much more I’ve forgotten that will come back to me if I see it in one of your posts ๐Ÿ™‚ We also had what they called a royal dinner one evening, with 11 different small dishes.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That Royal cuisine is what I disliked most in class. Chef seemed determined to teach us how to prepare these elegant dishes which required tons of minute prep work & focus on presentation. She’d always show us how to do it ‘right’ way, followed by the ‘quick’ way. Guess which way I went ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  2. So you have been busy! My hyper fussy food son loves Korean food! There is much to discover! I must ask him if he went to the market and I would LOVE the pickled raw crab. I discovered I loved pickled anything after a trip to Poland. And well it is crab and I love seafood! How funny that the squirrels lost their food supply during the pandemic but not funny for them! Typical of humans to go all out on some food fad and diminish supplies. What I don’t get is the Korean Fried Chicken – I will leave that to the Koreans…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Korean Fried Chicken is very tasty. The coating is lighter and crispier than regular fried chicken and it’s dipped (or served separately) in a sweet & spicy gochujang sauce. It’s very popular here in Toronto. If your son is Korean food fan, I’m sure he’s tried it. If not, then he should! You too!

      Raw seafood is not my thing. Indeed, raw-anything is not my choice. However, it does seem to be a common theme for both Korean & Japanese cuisines. Good for you that you’d try the raw crab – with all the spices, salt & vinegar, I’m guessing it’s actually ‘cooked’ by the acid and if not cooked, then certainly pickled by the salt. So a step up from sashimi.


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