[Interview] A chef who brought Korean food traditions to Austria

Posted on : 2016-09-04 16:21 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Kim Sohyi is one of few chefs confidently presenting Korean dishes abroad and gaining recognition
Kim Sohyi
Kim Sohyi

I was drinking some iced coffee with a world-renowned chef during an unusually severe heat wave when she made the unexpected request. “Take a sip of iced coffee and let it sit for a while before swallowing it. What does it taste like?”

I awkwardly did as she said. “Hmm,” I ventured. “At first the coffee tastes bitter, and then it becomes sweet.”

“Is that so? For me, it tastes bitter at first, and then as the flavor concentrates on the middle of the tongue, there’s a burnt taste. Then the burnt taste fades and it tastes sour. After the sourness, it tastes sweet. As I push the flavor from my tongue to my nose, there’s a burnt flavor again, like scorched rice on the bottom of a pot. The final aftertaste alternates back and forth between burnt and bitter,” she said.

It’s no surprise that a culinary professional has a more sensitive palate than the average person.

“Is taste something you’re born with?” I asked.

“No, it’s a sense that you develop through a long period of training. Anyone’s sense of taste will improve with training.”

Kim Sohyi, 52, who has a reputation as a picky judge on cooking competition programs on South Korean television, says that the sight of cooking ingredients brings up a variety of possible combinations to mind without the need to even taste the food.

A Hankyoreh reporter sat down with Kim on Aug. 22 at the Cheonjin Hermitage at Baekyang Temple, which is located in Jangseong County in South Jeolla Province.

Sohyi Kim has achieved success with Kim Kocht, a fusion Korean restaurant in Vienna, Austria, which she has been running since 2001. She has also made a name for herself in South Korea as a judge on MasterChef Korea, a competitive cooking program on a cable food channel.

Recently, Kim has been putting on her apron and doing her slicing and dicing at temple kitchens.

For two weeks, she has been visiting four temples in South Korea renowned for their cuisine and learning about the essence of this cuisine from bhikkhunis, as Buddhist nuns are called.

When I met her, Kim had already learned about temple cuisine while staying for several days at Yeongseon Temple in Daejeon and at Baekryeon Temple in Gangjin County, South Jeolla Province. On Aug. 22 at Cheonjin Hermitage, Ven. Jeonggwan, the nun in charge of the hermitage, showed Kim how to cook a light gourd soup containing several kinds of mushrooms, a dish of fried kelp, and multi-grain rice.

At Yeongseon Temple, Kim had learned the recipe for grilled eggplant and grilled perilla leaves from Ven. Beopsong.

“The only seasoning in this gourd soup is a sprinkle of salt, but the flavor is so subtle and fresh,” Kim said. “I’ve learned that it’s completely possible to add flavor to food without pungent seasoning.”

Kim is learning a variety of dishes that are prepared with ingredients that are either grown in the temple’s garden or bought at the traditional market in the area.

Practitioners of temple cuisine derive the flavor from traditional sauces and natural seasonings without using animal products or the “five pungent roots” (onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leeks).

In addition to temple cuisine, Kim is experiencing the full monastery routine, including meditation and Buddhist services in the early hours.

Kim says she has loved vegetarian fair since an early age. Her goal is to create a genuine fusion of Korea’s traditional cuisine and Western food.

“Europeans think they‘ll die if they can’t have meat. With the recent increase in the number of vegetarians, there’s growing interest in the vegetarian diets of Asia, as well,” Kim said.

“My mother always used to tell me that there was a remarkable harmony between ingredients in traditional Korean cuisine. That’s why I made up my mind to learn temple food.”

One kind of temple cuisine to which Kim draws particular attention is pickled vegetables.

“Traditional pickled vegetables aid digestion much more than the yogurt that is selling so well these days. Kimchi and pickled vegetables are both better for digestion than any other food out there,” she said.

Kim expects that Korean temple cuisine will gain international recognition as healthy fare. Temple cuisine makes the most of the unique flavors of seasonal items without requiring a lot of ingredients, she explains.

That‘s why Kim is sorry to see more and more South Korean young people insisting on eating Western food when they have such a precious heritage. “They’re too enamored of Western food to be aware of the advantages of Korean cuisine,” she said.

“Even in cooking competitions, you see more young contestants cooking up French and Italian dishes. The reason there are fewer contestants confidently presenting Korean dishes appears to be because young chefs think they have to do Western food to gain recognition in the culinary world.”

Kim has never received formal culinary education. She traveled to Austria 30 years ago to study fashion design. After graduating at the head of her class from a Vienna school of fashion design, she ran a fashion business for five years.

But she didn‘t see a future in that line of work, so she opened a Korean restaurant in Vienna and started teaching herself how to cook.

She visited various restaurants and analyzed the dishes she tried there. One time, she fainted after having 13 meals in one day. Another time, she was taken to the hospital for exhaustion after cooking in the kitchen for 18 consecutive hours without a break.

In order to learn how to fillet salmon sashimi, she would buy 50 or 60 salmon at a time to practice on.

“I carefully watch the customers who are eating what I make. When someone is really enjoying themselves, I’ll bring them some more even if they don‘t ask. I also don’t serve food to guests who I think will get sick if they eat the food I‘ve cooked. I just get this feeling,” Kim said.

Kim carries a backpack around with her instead of a handbag. Her backpack contains a number of tools related to cooking. There’s even a ruler in it, which she uses to measure the size of dishes at other restaurants that she has taken a liking to.

Kim always carries a small folding knife in her pocket as well. She keeps the knife on her so that she can slice off a piece of food to sample wherever she may be.

“Kimchi is my favorite. Especially the really fermented kimchi - I just shovel that stuff down. It’s the tastiest processed vegetable dish in the world.”

Kim offered the following advice to young people who would like to become chefs: “You shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon just because everyone else is doing it. You need to be picking up that knife because you truly love food. If you don’t love food, you’re just wasting your time.”

By Lee Kil-woo, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]



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