When I first arrived in Asia I surprised myself by being unexpectedly adventurous and trying some unfamiliar foods such as rice and noodles (yes, really), and some slightly crazier foods such as duck tongue.
However, when I arrived in China and no longer had my Taiwanese friends translating menus and insisting that I try weird foods, I stopped doing it completely. I fell back into my old pattern of going to grocery stores to buy familiar Western foods and choosing to eat McDonalds or KFC over eating the weird-looking Chinese food.
My lack of willingness to try new things in China was really starting to get me down.
When I finally departed China, I was filled with a newfound energy and enthusiasm that I hadn’t felt in a while.
I was ready to immerse myself into Korean culinary culture.
My less than pleasant introduction to Korean food occurred on the flight over to Seoul. When I saw the air stewardesses starting to bring around our meal I stifled a small squeal and pressed my fist to my mouth to stop me from whooping in excitement.
I was about to have my very first taste of Korean food and, being plane food, I was expecting it to be safe, bland and tasteless – the perfect combination for my English tastebuds.
I couldn’t have been any more wrong.
Spying a tube of ketchup and not realising that it was lethally hot sauce, I smothered my chicken in it and took a huge mouthful. My reaction can only be described as being how I would imagine I would react if I were to stick my face into a bowl of sulphuric acid.
I screamed. Well, I attempted to scream but it came out sounding more like a dying turtle gasping for its final breath. I instantly became entirely soaked in sweat as I grabbed at my throat and hyperventilated dramatically, wondering if I was suffocating or having an allergic reaction. Tears were streaming down my face as I frantically looked around, searching the blank, confused eyes of the Koreans sat next to me, praying that they would take pity on me and provide an antidote. They just laughed.
That was the moment when I discovered that Korean food is some of the spiciest in the world.
Deciding that I hadn’t suffered enough and thinking it would be a good idea to torture myself even more, I decided to learn more about this insanely spicy food, but this time from a professional.
I arranged to have a cooking lesson at O’ngo Culinary School, where I would learn to cook two of the most famous Korean dishes – kimchi and bulgogi.
I nervously entered the kitchen and immediately felt out of my depth. I was so far away from anything even faintly resembling a comfort zone that I doubt I could have found it with a GPS. I sat there awkwardly listening to the excited chatter of the other students as they discussed their favourite Korean dishes and exchanged recipes and cooking techniques.
Gulp. What have I gotten myself into?
I remained silent and nodded along with their conversation and adding in the occasional “yeah” to give the impression that I was just as experienced as they are.
What would they think if they found out I have never eaten an egg before?!
Before they had a chance to realise that the only cooking experience I have is making toast, our teacher entered the room and we made our way to our workstations.
The first dish we were learning how to cook was Kimchi.
The teacher walked us through the steps first, and I was grateful that she assumed we were all beginners and started with the basics – taking care to explain every step and the reasoning behind it.
As we returned to our workstations, I was surprised at just how confident I was feeling.
And then my mind went blank and I realised I’d instantly forgotten everything we’d just been told.
I felt like I was back in school trying to discreetly look at what other people were doing so that I could copy them without realising. After standing there staring awkwardly around the room, the teacher noticed my lack of movement and came over to help me out and remind me what I needed to do first.
She soon realised I was an absolute beginner when I had to ask her which was the garlic and which was the onion.
After getting over my initial apprehension, I soon got into the swing of things and enjoyed being able to alter the recipes to my own tastes (I obviously used 10% of the chilli powder that was recommended), and this therefore led to my kimchi looking very white – something which greatly amused the other asian students in the class.
I felt surprisingly professional and here is the final result!
I definitely wasn’t expecting it to look so good!
Having found my feet and after realising that cooking wasn’t very intimidating at all, I was excited to start on the bulgogi.
I quickly raced through the recipe, trying to keep up with the other students as I watched their knives turn into a blur of silver with their chopping board spewing splinters and pieces of onion all over the room. I just chopped up my fingers.
By the end of the morning, I felt like the female Gordon Ramsey, and amazingly the bulgogi turned out to be even more delicious than my kimchi!
For the rest of my time in Seoul I was able to somewhat confidently order in restaurants and know exactly what I would be getting without freaking out that I was going to be handed a plate of dog intestines.
Despite having absolutely zero cooking experience before joining the class, I thoroughly enjoyed my morning and I was surprised how much fun I had learning how to cook. If you’re ever in Seoul and have a spare day to fill, this is a fun and interesting way to pass some time while learning a little about Korean cuisine.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary beginner cooking lesson from O’ngo Culinary School. All opinions expressed are my own.