Korean flavours bring out one’s inner chef

By Korea.net Honorary Reporter John Paul Vergonia
“The appearance of the food can affect perception, but what matters most is the taste.” This is what a judge said during the successful Philippine edition of the 2017 Global Taste of Korea competition.
The annual Korean cooking competition in the Philippines was held on July 29 at the Philippines University Culinary Institute, one of the top universities situated in the capital city Manila. As part of the continuous efforts to introduce Korean arts and heritage among Filipinos, this year’s Global Taste of Korea contest (GTOK) wasn’t just held to feature the Philippines’ finest chefs, but also aims to inform the public about the rich history and culinary prowess of Korean cuisine. Organized by the Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines and hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization in Manila, the cooking event was attended by a crowd of students, food enthusiasts, guest exhibitors and VIPs who were all delighted with the exciting line up of activities.
The 2017 Global Taste of Korea contest in the Philippines is held at the Philippines University Culinary Institute, located within the walled city of Intramuros in Manila, on July 29, 2017. (John Paul Vergonia)
In 2014, the GTOK began to feature top-class chefs from around the globe. It brought them to Korea to showcase their talents in cooking Korean food favorites. Although the main host of the competition in Korea didn’t organize this year’s event, the Philippine coordinators have decided to continue to bring the Philippine community an appetizing cooking competition every year that features the food of Korea in two broad categories: the Kimchi Battle and Freestyle Korean Cooking.
I’ve waited two years to gain the courage to participate in this very admired cooking competition, not just to showcase the food that I love to cook, but also to share what I have when it comes to cooking Korean food. I do still remember last year’s event, attending the GTOK Korea as part of a volunteer troupe from the Korean Cultural Center, assigned to the cooking competition area. It was such an awesome opportunity and the experience made me vow that one day I would send myself as a participant.
Chef John cooks his Korean-Philippine fusion dish kimchi-nigang, which is stewed fish in a sour kimchi broth, during the Kimchi Battle of the 2017 GTOK. (John Paul Vergonia)
As there were only two weeks to apply and some preparation was required for the competition, I was hesitant at first to participate, but because of encouragement I received from friends, I decided to continue with my plan. I do really love cooking Korean food, and with a lot of inspiration from which to choose, I opted to showcase kimchi-nigang, which is a Korean-Philippine fusion dish combining maeuntang (매운탕), a popular spicy fish stew from Korea, and the Philippines’ all-time favorite dish sinigang, which is usually a fish stewed in a sour broth.
There were 22 chefs selected to take part in the competition. There were 11 participants in the Kimchi Battle, and the other half took part in the Freestyle Korean Cooking category. With the new competition rules and two exciting categories, the Philippine edition of the 2017 GTOK this year was a fun-filled culinary event. Everyone was really excited about the Kimchi Battle, which was kind of the same format as the Korean movie “Le Grand Chef” (식객) (2007), because the famous Korean side dish kimchi took center stage and was the most celebrated ingredient in every chef’s beautiful dish.
As my entry was a kind of stew and fell within the Kimchi Battle category, I still had my half-filled jar of fully-fermented cabbage kimchi that I had made and stored in the fridge for several months, which was really good for a soup base as it has the refreshing spicy yet rich sour taste.
A Korean-Philippine fusion dish, kimchi-nigang, combines the popular spicy Korean fish stew maeuntang (매운탕) and the Philippines’ all-time favorite dish sinigang sa isda, which is stewed fish in a sour broth. (John Paul Vergonia)
Busan was one of the inspirations for my dish, as that’s where you can find fresh seafood and the freshest catch of the day in Korea. Kimchi-nigang, which I considered to be a seafood stew, is a term coined from the two words “kimchi,” or the fermented side dish, and “-igang,” from the fish stew sinigang sa isda in Tagalog. It’s a stew that’s basically a fish cooked in kelp seaweed, cherry tomatoes and a sour cabbage kimchi-base broth, boiled along with various vegetables, such as the Asian radish, eggplant, green onions and Asian cabbage. It’s then seasoned with a few Korean spices, including gochujang red pepper paste (고추장) and gochugaru red chilli pepper flakes (고추가루), so as to not overpower the mild sourness of the stew. Shrimp, clams and some famous Busan eomuk fish cake (어묵) were also added to the fish stew to enhance its refreshing flavours.
Gourmet burgers stuffed with kimchi patties are entered into the cooking contest. (Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines)
Beside my stewed fish in a sour kimchi broth, other contemporary dishes also captivated everyone’s palates, particularly those of the judges, as some of the chefs executed a different approach and went beyond traditional methods of cooking Korean food, incorporating kimchi as the main ingredient into their very own recipes. There were gourmet burgers stuffed with kimchi-made patties, steamed kimchi pork buns and sundubu soft tofu kimchi (순두부김치), just a few of the lovely dishes presented to the judges.
 Chef Kim Sung-bae from Resorts World Manila, directors of the Korea Tourism Organization Manila and the Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines, Park In-shik and Lee Jin-cheol, ralong with Chef Christopher Bautista of the LPU Culinary Institute and KCC Cooking Class teacher Lily Min, judge a contestant’s entry in the Freestyle Korean Cooking category at the 2017 GTOK, Philippine edition. (Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines)
As part of the competition, right after we plated our dishes, we headed to the amphitheater where the event program was being held. The five judges were Chef Kim Sung-bae of Resorts World Manila, Chef Christopher Bautista of the LPU Culinary Institute, cooking class teacher Lily Min of the KCC Philippines, and directors of the Korea Tourism Organization Manila and the Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines, Park In-shik and Lee Jin-cheol. They were all excitedly waiting to taste the entries, give comments and have the dishes scored. Braving the critiques of the judges in front of a live audience was something new for this year’s contest, and made the event more knowledge-rich and turned it into a learning experience for everyone.
The judges’ panel was indeed a showcase of talent where all the participants gave our best to present each of our dishes. As the contest highlight made us shake a bit, rather than the actual cooking and the preparation of the two dishes in just an hour, it was nice to see the judges enjoying all the food while sharing their critiques and suggestions for us to become more inspired and to be the best in the field.
As the cooking competition was held in two parts, with the Kimchi Battle in the morning and the Freestyle Korean Cooking category afterward, there were also exciting cooking workshops, like the Bulgogi– and Kimchi-Making session, which happened simultaneously. The workshops were graced by select participants and, fortunately, I was able to spot a chance after my morning competition in the kimchi-making session led by Woo Soo-jung, a renowned Korean chef and food stylist.
Korean chef and food stylist Woo Soo-jung shares a bit about the history of kimchi and how it’s traditionally prepared. (John Paul Vergonia)
People in the workshop were able to learn about the history of kimchi and, most especially, get some recipes showing how to make the cabbage-based side dish (배추김치), as well as cucumber kimchi (오이김치), two of the most common types of kimchi that are often served at the Korean table. Participants had a spicy yet sweet hands-on experience making kimchi from the ingredients on hand, including preparation, seasoning and an explanation of the fermentation process. As they were the ones who made the kimchi, the participants were able to bring home some of these lovely seasoned side dishes.
GTOK attendees enjoy a photo opt while wearing Korea’s very own Hanbok traditional attire. (John Paul Vergonia)
Aside from the workshops, there was also an Experience Zone that featured some Korean eating traditions where attendees had the opportunity to experience these traditions first-hand. This included a traditional Korean wedding and a Joseon royal banquet, both of which attracted long lines. People were given royal treats as they dressed up in Korea’s elegant Hanbok attire and sat next to a beautiful banquet setup.
A Korean fusion dish, aglio e olio tteokbokki, is served at the event. (KCC Philippines)
Bibimbap on rice squares is a modern take of the Korean culinary classic that includes mixed rice and sautéed vegetables. (KCC Philippines)
The Freestyle Korean Cooking competition ratcheted up the competition as the participants in this category shared their dishes in a very modern yet still traditional way, with the core principle being to cook Korean food. Aglio e olio tteokbokki (떡볶이)with some toast, japchae (잡채) noodles with a pan-fried whole chicken, seaweed rice rolls (김밥), modern bibimbap (비빔밥) and a seafood soybean paste stew were some of the creative dishes that served up awed excitement to the judges and audience alike. Aside from the meticulous palates of the judges, the select audience members and spectators got to sample our dishes and shared their critiques on the spot.
Furthermore, the KCC Philippines and the KTO Manila put up their own exciting booths where they hosted exciting activities, including a survey and a social media event where travel kits and freebies were given out to participating attendees. As the one-day event was mainly centered on Korean food, one exhibitor of Korean food products also graced the event that gave food samples and served every guest with some great-tasting mandu pot stickers (만두), spicy rice cakes and cooked-on-the-spot ramyeon instant noodles, along with various kinds of kimchi, both salty and spicy. My cousin, who helped me in the competition as an assistant chef and who was a first-timer at this kind of event, enjoyed all of the activities and made his stomach happy with all sorts of Korean food and delicious samples. 
Every participant showed their own expertise and made did some of their very best cooking, making not just delicious dishes but also healthy Korean food options, in traditional, fusion and modern ways. Following the rules of globalization, enticing food platings and visually appealing presentations were showcased to the judges. The taste and composition of the dish were still the top criteria for everyone in selecting the best chefs in each category, though, and whether a dish complemented the palate of the judges.
Chef Betina’s winning dish, kimchi chicken quesadilla, is entered in the Kimchi Battle at the 2017 GTOK, Philippine edition. (KCC Philippines)
Betina Erika Lim, with her Taegeukgi-inspired (태극기) kimchi chicken quesadilla, which is a family recipe of Mexican origin, gave the signature dish an entirely new look and taste, which hailed her as the grand winner in the Kimchi Battle category. On the other hand, Regine Monsanto, who impressed the judges with her colourful version of dwaejigalbi-jjim braised pork ribs (돼지갈비찜), won in the Freestyle Korean Cooking category, and was also a grand prize winner. Beside the PHP 15,000 cash prize (KRW 322,765, USD 297), Monsanto was also chosen as the best Korean chef at the 2017 GTOK. She also won a round-trip ticket to Korea, courtesy of the KTO Manila.
Chef Regine’s Korea-style braised pork ribs is a Freestyle Korean Cooking category grand winner, at the recently-held Philippine edition of the GTOK. (KCC Philippines)
Regine Monsanto’s emotional winning moment, as her counterpart, Betina Erika Lim, gladly gives her a warm applause. (KCC Philippines)
Regine Monsanto has been attending the GTOK as a contestant since the competition started four years ago. With her commendable passion and perseverance, to be able to further develop her cooking skills by enrolling herself in the KCC Philippines’ cooking classes for years, she finally found the key ingredient to winning the grand prize.
Cooking Korean food doesn’t require that you’re skilled in the kitchen and you don’t have to be complex, as long as you have passion. I didn’t win according to the judges’ taste, but my first try, the opportunity and experience to participate in the contest and to showcase my cooking talent, was something that I quite enjoyed. Moreover, the judges who shared their deep knowledge of cooking not just Korean food but of cuisine in general were really creditable and that’s something by which to be motivated, an inspiration to continue learning how to cook impressive dishes.
In this year’s fourth showcase of the GTOK in the Philippines, it was evident that Filipinos now embrace great interest in Korean cuisine. With the continued popularity of Korean products across the country, it’s without a doubt that the inviting food of Korea has profoundly influenced the Philippines and continues to be recognized throughout the world not only for its unique flavors but also as an inspiration for aspiring chefs to create healthier food options.
Korea.net Honorary Reporter John Paul Vergonia participates as a chef in the 2017 Global Taste of Korea competition. (John Paul Vergonia)
With future editions of competition set to be even bigger, I will try again to unleash my inner Korean chef. So until our next delicious culinary journey begins, bon appétit~