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Explore South Korea's umami-rich foods like a chef

From making ‘meju’ to indulging in the famous temple cuisine of South Korea, chef Vanika Choudhary talks about her unforgettable trip to the country

Temple food in all its glory. Picture: Chef Vanika Choudhary.
Temple food in all its glory. Picture: Chef Vanika Choudhary.

Once you fall for the curiosity around fermentation, you might find it hard to not get entrapped by its charms. For chef Vanika Choudhary, fermentation has always been an exciting way to discover food and cultures. So for her, a recent trip to South Korea—a place with one of the richest traditions of fermented dishes—was a joy like no other.

Last month, Choudhary, entrepreneur, and founder of the Mumbai-based restaurant Noon and café Sequel, travelled to South Korea to deep dive into their food, especially those made with diverse ferments. She chose to live with locals, and explore quieter places around Seoul tucked away in bamboo forests, such as Damyang. “This time I went primarily to spend time with Grand Master Ki Soon Do and Chef and Monk Jeong Kwan(who lives in and cooks at the Baegyangsa temple),” Choudhary tells Lounge. Her trip to South Korea was all about learning about traditional home-cooked foods from the ‘masters’.

Also read: A new-age menu that reflects the chef's Kashmiri heritage

Choudhary came back to India with age-old fermentation techniques and the gift of understanding how to infuse tradition into modern cuisine. During the trip, her love for fermentation was well nurtured as she learnt how to make doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and ganjang (soy sauce) using meju (dried fermented soybeans). “It was a surreal experience to learn about the different ferments and the process of making them. For instance, Ki Soon Do taught me how to make meju and it’s an immensely valuable learning,” Choudhary says.

Making meju is a simple process, but comes with the teachings of patience. Soybeans are soaked overnight, boiled and mashed the next day. These are shaped like bricks and hung to dry with rice straw ropes to attract bacteria and begin the fermentation process which takes about 30 days. The meju is similar to axoné in Nagaland.

If you are planning a trip to South Korea, Choudhary recommends some must-try dishes to enrich your experience.

Temple cuisine


The temple cuisine is simple vegetarian food with no onion or garlic. “I stayed with Chef and Monk Kwan at her personal residence in Chunjinam to learn about temple cuisine and understand how she goes about making incredible dishes. It’s interesting to see how temple food uses historical ferments to accentuate flavours,” Choudhary explains. If you want to experience the nuances of temple food with monk Kwan, who is featured in Netflix's Chef's Table series, you can book an overnight temple stay at Baekyangsa temple.

Temple food is often a platter of simple dishes with a burst of flavours like shiitake mushroom with grain syrup, tofu paste with kimchi made of fresh vegetables, three-coloured radish pickle roll and fried soybean paste mushroom. Choudhary says, “The temple food is also automatically vegan, because dairy is not part of Korean people’s usual diet.”

Desserts made of Kumquat and Omija


Kumquat (top) and hangwa (a general term for Korean confectionaries). Picture: Chef Vanika Choudhary.
Kumquat (top) and hangwa (a general term for Korean confectionaries). Picture: Chef Vanika Choudhary.

A dessert is made of the fruit kumquat, wherein its slices are cooked and dried, alternatively for five days in sugar syrup. The tangy taste of Kumquat beautifully complements the sweetness of the syrup to create joy for the tastebuds. “It reminded me of murabba and is delicious,” says Choudhary. “I have never tasted something like that.”

Omija or five-flavour berry is a fruit that has five different flavours: sourness, sweetness, bitterness, pungency, and saltiness. "Chef and Monk Kwan ferments it and creates a heavenly tea. It's a gift of flavours,” Choudhary says.


Raddish kimchi. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Raddish kimchi. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

How can we not talk about kimchi? It’s taken the world by storm. Kimchi is made of fermented vegetables such as cabbage, cucumber, or radish and is a staple in Korea. It’s got the world charmed with its umami flavour and it makes its presence known through its powerful aroma. During her trip, Choudhary learnt the history of about 120 types of kimchi and was able to taste some of them. “I was blown away by kimchi, especially radish and seaweed kimchi as well as the mustard kimchi


Sikhye. Picure: Wikimedia Commons
Sikhye. Picure: Wikimedia Commons

This a traditional sweet drink made with fermented rice and malt barley. In a glass of Sikhye, you will find rice floating on the surface. This is because of the fermentation process which also gives it a sweet taste. During the fermentation, the activated enzymes transform the starch in the rice into sugars. Although the drink is a simple one, the preparation will take you a few hours but the patience will be worth it.

“It’s so refreshing and unique. It shows how fermentation can enhance the flavours of the simplest food. This rice in the drink adds a bite to it,” says Choudhary. It reminded her of Kanz, a fermented rice water made in Kashmir. “But Kanz is more on the sour side while Sikhye is very sweet because of the barley which is sprouted before being used in the fermentation process. This was the first time I had a fermented drink that was naturally sweet.”

Hodu-gwaja (walnut pastry)

Hodu-gwaja. Picture: WIkimedia Commons
Hodu-gwaja. Picture: WIkimedia Commons

These pastries are shaped like walnuts and stuffed with sweetened red bean paste and walnuts. The outer shell is made of flour and the sweetened paste is filled in the centre. “It's like biting into a cake but the surprise is the bean paste. Crushed walnuts are also added to the paste which adds a beautiful crunch to it,” she explains. Hodugwaja is often eaten during winter days in South Korea, according to Taste Atlas. It's also an easy travel snack. While traditionally red bean paste is used, some also use sweetened mung bean paste as the filling.

Also read: Karnataka’s hyper-local fare enters fine-dining spaces

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