"In South Korea, people usually buy sesame oils manufactured from Korea's major food companies in supermarkets," a professed sesame oil sommelier, Lee Hee Jun observes. Despite having Korean food labels plastered all over these bottles, these oils are not truly products of Korea. "Those sesame oils are usually made from sesame from China, Africa, and India."
To Lee, it was perhaps a startling revelation — given the fact that the sesame oil is one of the key ingredients that form the bedrock of both traditional and contemporary Korean diets.
"What is the best way to find the true taste of [Korean] sesame oil," Lee questioned. He looked to the history books of Korea, travelled to old bookstores in Japan in search of archival Korean scripts, and eventually found a befitting recipe.
It was a sesame oil which Emperor Yeongjo (reigned from 1724 to 1776) of the Joseon Dynasty used to consume personally. The sesame oil was extraordinary — instead of the usual yellow-hued oil, it was an orange-hued concoction. Aside from the looks of it, Lee had no clue to how it tasted. He went on to try to recreate this recipe on his own accord.
Lee sourced locally-grown sesames from several ancient cities — one from an eastern city called Andong, another strain from Jecheon, a city recognised for its history in herbal products, and finally, sesame from the famed Jeju island.
He then approached 300 local sesame oil roasters, or masters as he calls them, and experimented with the roasting process. What they collectively came to realise was that there were two defining facets to the emperor's sesame oil — the strains of sesame used, and the temperature at which they had to be roasted.
Lee gestures to the cylinders of white and black sesame displayed behind him in the store — the orange hue in the emperor's sesame oil was a result of the use of both types of sesame. The roasting process was strictly kept at 170°C.
Along the way, Lee gained insight into how the emperor's sesame oil tasted. "The colour and flavours are different. It has a gold colour and deeper flavour compared to ordinary sesame oil from markets," Lee surmises.
By "deeper", Lee is referring to how the broader flavour profile of this sesame oil. Unlike the usual mass-marketed sesame oils which give off an acutely singular scent and flavour into the dish, the emperor's sesame oil concoction was mellow. If you could liken the former to a screeching violin soloist, the latter was a performance by an orchestra — a harmonised accord with a fresh nutty aftertaste which lingers in the throat.
In a bid to prove the balance of this sesame oil, Lee injected drops of it into milk, along with crushed sesame bits, blended the beverage and topped it off with a frothy cream layer. He calls it the sesame latte and retails it at Yeonnambangagna, a store where Lee is stationed at, located in the trendy Hongdae district of Seoul.
To Lee, what he does is more than retailing bottles of quality sesame oil. It is a showcase of the prowess of traditional Korean culinary techniques and culture to Koreans and travellers alike. Today, Lee produces 33 bottles of this sesame oil a day and sells up to 500 bottles a month.
In an hour's stay at the store, numerous young locals popped in to grab a bottle of the sesame oil. Lee adds, "Korea's traditional industries are disappearing." To him, there are many ways to keep history alive. Scripts and books may be one of them, but even those are scarce. This store is a physical manifestation and advocate of traditions. "Keeping and archiving these traditional recipes is the way to preserve Korea's traditions for the next generation."
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