Written and photographed by Karly Pierre
Cooking class has ended, and all of the pots and utensils have been cleaned and put away. Na Su-mi, 52, pours a packet of powdery instant coffee into a cup and offers it to me. In today’s class, we made donkkaseu (돈까스, fried pork cutlet) and godeungeo-mujorim (고등어무조림, braised mackerel with radish). The sickly sweet coffee is oddly refreshing, so I take a few more sips as Na pulls up a chair next to me and flips open her phone cover. Her eyes brighten as she swipes through the photos she’d promised to show me.
“This one blooms at night,” she says, pointing to the frosty white petals of a Dutchman’s Pipe Cactus. “It fills my house with the wonderful scent of lemon and closes at sunrise.”
She scrolls through more of the rare and exotic flowers growing in her home, some of which she has spent more than ten years caring for.
“It’s like spring in my house year-round,” she says with delight.
Na’s green thumb is rivaled only by her deft hand at cooking. Her knife skills are precise and nimble. In the blink of an eye, she can transform a whole carrot into fine, evenly sliced shreds. It’s a skill she decided to perfect because of her children.
“I have four children – all daughters,” says Na. “When they were young, I made homemade potato chips. I tried using a German slicer because it was faster, but I cut myself so badly that it scared my kids. So I quit using a slicer – just used knives. It’s more difficult, but at least I wouldn’t traumatize my kids anymore.”
Na has a quiet and graceful presence in the class that draws admiration and respect from the other students. As a child growing up in Naju, she was an introvert.
“I didn’t like being in front of the class. Sometimes my classmates would appoint me class leader, but that sort of thing always made me uncomfortable. I felt responsible for every mistake my classmates made or their bad behavior. I barely talked in school or played with friends.”
While in college, her father’s business collapsed, and later he was involved in a car accident that resulted in a person’s death. Those were two harsh financial and emotional blows to the family. Na had to quit college, but even after getting married and having children, she never gave up on her dream of completing university.
“When my youngest daughter started middle school, I decided it was time for me to pursue my dreams again… I just graduated from a four-year university in February.”
Making food from scratch the long, hard, and traditional way has always fascinated Na. She attends various lectures about age-old cooking techniques and reads ancient texts such as the Eumsik-dimibang (the first cookbook written in Hangul) to learn more about the Korean lifestyle lost to modern life.
“We brew and drink makgeolli (막걸리, Korean rice wine) at home like people did in the past. I stayed in Jeonju for six months to learn how to make makgeolli from a master traditional wine-maker named Park Rom-dam. We live in the countryside, so it’s easy for us to gather all of the rice we need… besides, my husband likes alcohol more than rice,” she says, smiling.
Na’s interest in these archaic techniques stems from her desire to solve a family mystery.
“When I was little, my grandmother always made traditional sweet rice puffs in winter. She would spread them on her floor. I also remember her making jocheong (조청, grain syrup) in a huge iron cauldron and selling it. It was as clear and clean as honey. Those memories are carved so deeply in my mind that I want to replicate her recipes. My biggest regret is that I only ate her food and never asked her for the recipes. I have called relatives to ask them about her recipes, but they don’t remember either. So, I’ve decided to figure it out on my own. I have no idea how long that will take, and I’ve failed so many times. But I continue to practice every day, and hopefully one day I’ll succeed.
This recipe uses traditional equipment to make makgeolli. You can substitute some of the special equipment with more modern kitchenware such as a glass jar, metal strainer, and metal steamer.
Korean earthenware jar (hangari, 항아리 or suldok, 술독)
Traditional Korean woven basket filter (yongsu, 용수)
4kg glutinous rice (chapssal, 찹쌀)
500g nuruk yeast (누룩)
5.4 liters water
- Rinse rice in water and soak for 8–10 hours in a bowl. Rinse again lightly until the water is clear, then drain.
- Soak the clay steamer in water for at least 30 minutes. This will prevent the steamer from cracking.
- Pour some water in the base of the steamer. Place cheesecloth on the steamer basket and attach the steamer basket to the base of the steamer.
- Put the soaked rice on the cheesecloth and cover the steamer. Steam the rice on medium heat.
- Periodically turn the rice over in the steamer so that the bottom and top of the rice cooks evenly.
- Sprinkle a little cold water on the rice. Make sure the rice is well cooked. Remove the rice from the steamer. On a flat surface, spread the rice out thinly and evenly. Allow the rice to completely cool and become dry.
- In a pot, boil 5.4 liters of water. Cover with a lid and allow to completely cool.
- In a bowl, thoroughly mix rice, cool water, and nuruk yeast by hand.
- Pour the mixture into the Korean earthenware jars. Wipe any splashes on the inside and lip of the jar clean with a cloth. Cover the opening of the jar with a cotton cloth, and tie a string around the lip of the jar to secure it. Cover with a lid.
- Wrap a blanket around the jar, and put it in a place with a constant temperature. Let rest for two days.
- When the mixture begins to bubble, remove the lid and put the jar in a cool place.
- Once the bubbling has stopped, cover the jar with a lid and wrap in a blanket for 3 weeks in a cool place.
- When there is no more carbon dioxide in the liquid, you can drink the makgeolli. If you want your makgeolli to have a cleaner appearance, use a traditional woven basket to filter out the rice.
Karly Pierre has an MA in Mass Communication and has worked as an editor and writer for several publications. She is currently an assistant professor in the ESL department at Chosun University.