Professor Hee Sun Jeong of the Korean Food Institute at Sookmyung University and I met when she came to Boston with a team to cook a meal of Imperial cuisine for 100 people! I visited the Institute when in Seoul and was greeted with a warming and refreshing cup of hot yooja tea. A piece of preserved yooja (citron) in sugar syrup is set in a celadon tea cup and topped with slivers of date, pinenuts and chestnut. This citrus is my very favorite flavor. Yuzu in Japanese, is still hard to find fresh in the United States.
For a reunion, Hee Sun (to my left) and her talented assistants and I went to lunch at fusion style restaurant that served delicious contemporary Korean food.
This sweet and piquant fruit salad was a highlight for me with apple, pear, celery, shrimp dressed in an ethereal creamy pinenut and mustard dressing.
Hee Sun invited my husband Dick and me to go with her family and their friends to Andong Province to stay in a traditional 17th century Korean home, about 4 hours south of Seoul. But don’t be fooled by the word south — it was still terribly cold! We pulled in late in the evening at Jirye Artist Colony, a compound of buildings, in a picturesque setting atop hill over looking a lake. We traversed our way up a very winding road for a half hour. The next day I was glad it was pitch black when we had arrived as the side of the road has a very STEEP drop.
Kim Won-Gil, the owner and his family greeted us with cakes and wine which we enjoyed in the building that housed the kitchen and common dining area. Mr. Kim is not only an inn keep for his ancestral home he is also a professor and poet. He showed us one of his poems with a line about Jirye as “a place to listen to the earth revolve.” As we left the warmth of the kitchen to go to our respective rooms in other buildings, we stepped into shoes and out into the cold night with a sky lit up by stars that seemed close enough to touch. It was time to go to bed and experience ondul — the radiant floor heating system, still in use today. However, this floor was heated the old fashion way, with fire that heated logs and kindle that smoldered throughout the night.
The brilliant system allows for the hot logs to be pushed through a channel under the floor. It got ever hotter as the night wore on. There was but a thin mattress between us and the very warm floor which is made of cement (HARD) and covered with multiple layers of paper brushed with natural plant oils, giving it a a shiny yellowish cast. The room was not heated — the floor was. Our bodies were warm but my nose was sure cold! The clothes, I refused to take off initially, got stripped off piece by piece, all the way to dawn — the socks were the last to go! It was a great experience but if I ever do it again, it will be in the summer!
The breakfast gong rang and we all emerged from our rooms. Somehow during the night the kids had left their building and crawled into the room with their respective parents.
Breakfast in the warm kitchen dining area was rice porridge served with platters of banchan, the side dishes that accompany all meals in Korea. Spinach, beans, seasoned fish are eaten with the thick soup.
After breakfast we walked around the grounds. Right outside the kitchen was the family’s collection of home made sauces and pastes in large clay urns. Soy sauce, soy bean paste, red pepper paste are but a scoopful away from the cook.
And finally, I got to see kimchi buried in the ground! I had been told that the texture of kimchi that comes out of these pots is different from its refrigerator cousin; so crunchy. Now I can attest to that.
There are drying herbs, vestiges of past outdoor kitchens, and a manual foot powered grinding stone in the courtyard as well. A precursor to the food processor?
We then climbed the hill to Mr. Kim’s library and study. You could see how inspirational it is to sit and write poetry here.
We walked in the woods above the grounds and came upon a family grave.
This is Mr. Kim’s son and his new bride, the next generation to care for this precious home.
Our evening stay and breakfast was a mere $50.00 for two of us. Such a deal and such a peaceful experience. I think I did hear the earth revolve.