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 😉 ) 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.