• ONBAO 2021-10-28
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For Hideko Nakagawa, cooking and food are fun and joy in and of themselves. Students come to her classes to learn how to cook and to enjoy the food and conversation. Nakagawa poses for a photo in her kitchen.
[Korea.net] “Food brings joy. It connects people and builds relationships.”
So said Hideko Nakagawa, a Japan-born naturalized Korean.

Nakagawa has been running a cooking class dubbed “Gourmet Lebkuchen” at her home in Yeonhui-dong, Mapo-gu District, Seoul, for many years now. The word "gourmet" means gourmet and "lebkuchen" means gingerbread in German, in which she realized that various tastes and fragrances of the world exist as one.

Up to 10 people come to her cooking classes to learn how to cook Spanish, Mediterranean or Japanese cuisine. The cooking classes are so popular that more than 400 people are willing to wait for their turn. People with various backgrounds and a wide age range come to her place for cooking lessons.

Korea.net sat down with Nakagawa, who was bright and energetic throughout the interview, to learn more about her life as a Japan-born Korean homemaker, her cooking classes and her thoughts about food and cooking.
- You've been running cooking classes since 2008. What motivated you to begin the classes?
It all began with people I met from a Vietnamese cooking class that I took as a hobby. One day, I told them I know how to cook paella, a Spanish rice dish, and invited them to visit my place to cook together. The meeting later became my first cooking class. The meeting participants talked about my class to their friends. Some of them were from Japan or China. Many of them enjoyed the meeting, cooking and talking with others. At first, the classes began with four or six members who I directly knew. They became a small group and the gathering went viral, attracting new comers and expanding the number of classes.

- People from various professions came to the cooking classes. Your classes also have many people waiting in line. What's your secret behind your popularity?
I honestly have no idea. At first, I just thought, “The classes shouldn't cost that much, as I'll run them out of my home,” and, “If it doesn’t go well, I can always quit.” Now, up to 10 people can attend each class. Novelist Eun Heekyung was one of them a few years ago. She'll enroll in a new class in the future, too. There are many cooking classes out there. Unlike other classes, however, people here should do all the preparation, from washing and trimming ingredients, through to doing the dishes and all the other chores in the kitchen. I thought some of them might not be happy about that, but they seem to enjoy making friends while chatting and doing the dishes. I guess it's probably because of human relationships. Cooking is also a means in the end. What’s more important is the relationship among people. Men do join the class and they seem to be enthusiastic and to enjoy talking. There are at least one or two male members in all my classes. I remember a man in his 70s who used to work in the Korean foreign service. He even prepared a special apron and matching vinyl gloves that he brought from Italy. It's interesting to meet unique people through the classes.
Nakagawa emphasizes the effects that food and cooking can bring to humans, saying that, ‘Eating is part of our five senses, and that can bring people closer and feel happier.’
- You once said that, “Food offers the best rest, communication and happiness.” I wonder if you also experienced trials and errors before you realized such findings.
In the past, I did feel unhappy sometimes when I went to cooking classes every week. Now, in my cooking classes, students come to my place once a month to learn how to cook four or five dishes, including desserts. They'll be able to practice at home what they learn in class, until the next class, four weeks later.

I do feel difficulties when cooking sometimes, but the food does bring joy. I've always been teaching people. I taught Japanese language after graduating from university. I felt confident to teach others if I prepared properly. I thought cooking would be more fun than teaching Japanese, as I could enjoy the food after cooking. Cooking can be difficult for me when it becomes a labor, such as going shopping for groceries and preparing the ingredients. Still, I do feel I have an aptitude for it. I find it interesting. Cooking seems to be my vocation.

-You're a naturalized Korean, but I wonder if you might feel like a stranger sometimes. Is there any moment when you feel that way?
I don't feel like I'm a stranger here on a day-to-day basis. Recently, however, I did feel a little that way when I saw people taking unified action for socio-political change. Living here, I was a direct witness to this phenomenon. Other than that, however, I only really feel strange, more and more often, when I go back to Japan. I even think that, “I am no longer Japanese,” as I've been away for quite a long time. I can feel that when I talk to others or talk with clerks at shops, I sometimes feel that “I'm forgetting.”

- When do you feel most fulfilled while running cooking classes?
I feel most fulfilled personally when cooking moves someone’s heart. For example, I felt so happy when a female student told me that she reconciled with her father-in-law who used to not be on good terms with her, after she offered him food she learned to cook in this cooking class. I feel good when cooking affects human hearts in a good way, leading someone to show change in their character or life.

- You majored in linguistics, which has nothing in common with cooking. What made you later take an interest in cooking?
Although my father was a French chef, I always thought cooking was so difficult that I would never do it as a job. I taught Japanese at the Korea Military Academy. I later got married, had kids and raised them. When I went overseas or traveled to local regions, I always got interested in the food and in the dishes I was trying for the first time. I was so curious about new food. I cooked the food I ate when I came back home and fed it to my family. I then invited others to my home, which later became the cooking classes. I had both fun and delight, through cooking. I was more relaxed, too. I thought cooking was more fun than teaching Japanese.

- What was the first Korean dish you ever made? What's your favorite Korean dish that you enjoy cooking? On the contrary, are there any Korean dishes you find difficult to cook or to eat?
The first Korean dish I made was bajirak kalguksu or noodle soup with shellfish. I enjoyed the dish when I was pregnant with my first child. I cooked the dish at home, recalling the recipe from memory, and offered it to my father-in-law. My mother-in-law and husband told me later that he really loved it. When my family moved out from my in-law’s place, I tried to make a diverse range of food. I enjoyed making food that could go well with alcoholic beverages, similar to a Japan-style "Izakaya" bar. I like saengchae salad, made with oysters, radish and other raw vegetables, which people eat with bossam steamed pork, as it's a perfect match with Japanese sake. I personally love Korean food that we can't find in Japan. On the other hand, I don't cook galbijjim often because I can find similar dishes in Japan.

- Is there any Korean food you find most-suitable to represent the Korean people, or which is the most representative Korean food, in your view?
I reckon many people would think of bibimbap mixed rice, but I'm not sure about that. I don't think it would be bulgogi marinated beef either. The most representative Korean food could be samgyeopsal grilled pork belly. Many countries cook pork, in various ways, but I believe only Koreans grill the pork and wrap it in lettuce. When I think of Korean food, I feel like I want to have samgyeopsal. I prefer oyster salad with a spicy seasoning to kimchi. I love saengchae raw vegetable salad made with oysters caught naturally in the Yellow Sea.
Nakagawa emphasizes the importance of inheriting home cooking skills, saying that, ‘Korean mothers should be more willingly to teach their recipes to their daughters and daughter-in-laws.’
- Many people highlight home cooking and a mother’s food. Tell us about your views about home cooking.
I'm strongly interested in home cooking. Through my cooking classes, I can meet many students who are enthusiastic about food and cooking. Many of them are greatly affected by their mothers. When I meet such a person, I do wish to meet their mothers, to learn more about what and how their mother fed them. I see some Korean mothers are reluctant to teach their daughters their cooking secrets, but I do believe they should be more willing to teach them. Daughters-in-law should also show a willingness to learn from their mothers-in-law. That is how home cooking can be successful.

- Recently, we can see many cooking competitions or eating and broadcasting shows on TV. What're your opinions about those?
I'm not sure whether cooking should done in such an environment with extreme tension. I believe what's more important is why you cook, and for who, and for what reason. Can you feel happy from the food you cooked in such a stressful situation? When I watch these shows, I watch just a few minutes and then change the channel.

- Did you have any difficulty serving in your role as a wife, mother and daughter-in-law in Korea? I wonder whether or not you ever had a hard time, especially during traditional holidays such as Seollal Lunar New Year’s.
When I first lived together with my in-laws, I wasn't aware and didn't have any idea about how I should act in front of the parents-in-law. I found my mother-in-law’s actions very strange. I never said yes when I didn't agree. I later realized that my in-laws could feel hurt because of me. My mother-in-law was very understanding. I don't have any difficulties during traditional holidays. I cook almost all the food. Even my mother-in-law tells me to, “Cook whatever you like.” When my elder son became one year old, I secretly went to the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine to learn how to cook royal Korean court cuisine. I practiced the recipe at home and my father-in-law loved it. This made me gradually win his trust.

- Due to the rising interest in health worldwide, we can find a lot of information about eateries and diets on TV or social media. What would you recommend that people eat in order to stay well and to be healthy?
I've been working with a university hospital to introduce healthy recipes for breast cancer patients. All I do is introduce recipes with certain ingredients that had been recommended by a cancer specialist. There's nothing special about healthy food. You can make it with fresh seasonal food with less seasoning, and use simple cooking methods, like steaming or roasting, rather than deep-frying or some other fancy method. You don't have to stick to organic ingredients. If ingredients are dirty with something, you can wash them well before cooking. You can cook delicious food using easy and simple recipes.
Nakagawa recently published a new book titled ‘Hideko’s Cooking Class.’ She previously wrote four other books, including ‘A Daughter of a Chef’ and ‘Mediterranean Cuisines.'
- What do you wish to do in the future? Please tell us about your plans.
I've been considering a new project about home cooking, even though I haven't been able to carry it out yet due to my busy schedule. I hope to travel to many places around the country and conduct research into home cooking and related stories to write a book. I've been finding suitable people in Jeolla-do and Gyeongsang-do provinces with a few of my students. However, it's not as easy as it seems. It's not just about learning the cooking methods, but it requires time and passion to get closer with other people.

I'm thinking about working with a woman named Jeon Hye-seon who is from Gyeongju. A journalist introduced her to me. She's not a well-known Korean food expert or an eldest daughter-in-law of a leading noble family. She doesn't even have recipes for her food, but the food she makes always has the same, unique taste. For example, when it comes to tteokguk rice cake soup, she makes her own version of abalone tteokguk. I'm interested in such foods or banchan side dishes rather than kimchi or other gourmet foods. I believe we can find more such people in other regions, too. I wish to meet them all, to learn their recipes and to listen to their stories.

By Yoon Sojung
Korea.net Staff Writer
Photos: Jeon Han Korea.net Photographer
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