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Korea: World's one and only sesame oil sommelier

Lee Hee-jun quantifies sesame oil, pursues globalization

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Lee Hee-jun, contents director of Yeonnam Bangatgan in Mapo-gu, Seoul, is the only sesame oil sommelier in the world. 

He visits master sesame oil makers around Korea and quantifies each recipe to preserve and promote it. He also opened Yeonnam Bangatgan, a cafe and food culture space, last year to share the Korean sauce with a wider audience including the younger generation and foreigners.

Sesame oil, also called "chamgireum" in Korean, is a popular vegetable oil consumed across the globe, but Korean sesame oil has unique characteristics.

"There are only three countries that eat aromatic sesame oil ― Korea, Japan and China. Its distinct amber color and smell come from roasting sesame. Other countries in the Middle East, America and Europe consume unroasted, cold-pressed sesame oil," Lee explained during an interview with The Korea Times, Tuesday. 

Korea is one of the countries that use the most sesame oil, but the largest exporters of sesame oil are Japan, China and Vietnam.

"From the viewpoint of globalization of Korean food, I see the potential for Korean ingredients and sauces abroad. True globalization of Korean food cannot be completed without exporting condiments such as ganjang (soy sauce), ssamjang (soybean paste), gochujang (pepper paste), deulgireum (perilla oil) and chamgireum," Lee said.

Before becoming a sesame oil specialist, Lee was known as a traditional market docent, who researches and educates about markets. 

"There are some 1,437 traditional markets in Korea and I've visited 1,011 of them over 10 times to meet the merchants and create archives of the markets. I visit each market multiple times because archiving a market is not a one-off event, but requires understanding of the commercial sphere as well as the lives of the merchants," Lee said. 

As he gathered data on Korea's traditional markets, he took an interest in mills that grind rice and other grains for customers, as the pivotal store of a market. 

"My data signaled that the mill is the store that lived throughout the life cycle of a market from the beginning till end. According to my research, the mill is the first store of 65 percent of traditional markets and the last store to survive in 75 percent of markets that became extinct," Lee said.

While sesame oil is one of the most used and popular cooking ingredients in Korean cuisine, Lee said sesame oil lost trust in local mills as there were had been incidents of the mills mixing other oils with the sesame oil in the extraction process, and lying about the origin of the sesame seeds. 

"To restore trust, we need an expert with professional knowledge in sesame oil, so I started to research it," Lee said.

History of 'chamgireum'

While many consider sesame oil as a very Korean condiment, in fact Korea's self-sufficiency rate of sesame is only 6 percent. 

"The rate was similar during the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom since sesame is more suitable for cultivation in a hot, dry climate. However, Joseon kings enjoyed sesame oil and the plant was grown to pay tribute to the king," Lee explained.

Lee looked up historical documents to find sesame oil recipes, but only could find writings about kings' fondness for the specialty oil, especially the 21st king Yeongjo (1694-1776). 

"In the Annals of King Yeongjo, once he had sesame oil, all the sesame seeds in eight provinces were gone. Back then, there were no oil pressing machines and sesame seeds were hand-milled in a grindstone. They were able to extract very little oil with human pressure on a millstone," Lee said. 

Lee is trying to restore the royal recipe for sesame oil, but he has found no documents remaining. 

"Sesame oil is a common food material in Korea and no one thought of recording a recipe for such an ordinary item," he said. 

So he is putting the puzzle together through oil pressers of Japan, China and the Netherlands, where Korea's oil pressing technique was passed down. "There pressing style is similar to that of Joseon sesame oil makers. Some of their documents are from Joseon."

Though technology developed, the core principle of sesame oil making is the same. "Sesame oil is extracted by pressure. In Joseon, grindstones were used to extract oil from sesame seeds and oil press machines were introduced in the 20th century."

"We might think that foreigners will dislike the strong nutty aroma of Korean sesame oil, but they respect Korea's food culture and are ready to accept sesame oil if proper guidance is given," Lee said.

He came up with a few pairing ideas to make sesame oil more widely used in Western cuisine. 

"Sesame oil is not just a flavor enhancer for Korean bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables). You can mix sesame oil with fig vinegar and pour the dressing over your salad or dip plain ciabatta or baguette in it. I think we can guide foreigners to sesame oil this way first and they will eventually use it in their food culture and lifestyle."

To export Korean sesame oil, Lee needed to quantify and document the oil making process.
"I visited and currently correspond with some 300 master sesame oil makers in Korea. They are on average 73 years old and most do not want to pass down the skill," Lee said. "I want to make a database of their world-class techniques before they pass away and the skill dies with them."

The secret of each sesame oil maker resulting in a different taste and aroma is the temperature of the roasting caldron. 

"It's similar to roasting coffee beans. The 0.1 Celsius degree makes a difference. Most master oil makers rely on their senses, acquired though decades of sesame roasting and oil making. I try to quantify the process by recording and averaging," he said. 

Sesame oil can be spicy, salty or even bitter. The taste can be decided by the roasting process as well as the seed's place of origin. 

"We have visited all sesame-producing districts in Korea and each area has unique characteristics. Andong in North Gyeongsang Province is one of the largest producers of the crop and maintains stable quality and flavor. Sesame grown in inland areas such as Andong, Jecheon and Chungju taste softer and fresher, while sesame grown by the sea wind are more wild and rough. Sesame seeds from Hallim on Jeju Island produce saltier oil," Lee explained.

Mill for new generation

Lee opened Yeonnam Bangatgan in March 2018 as an attempt to disseminate sesame oil with the public. 

He picked a residential house in Yeonnam-dong and renovated it into a cafe. "When I surveyed each neighborhood of Seoul, there was no mill in Yeonnam-dong. The last mill was turned into a wine bar in 2017," Lee said. "This house was built in 1978 when sesame oil became popular in Korea along with the introduction of oil pressing machines. Before that, sesame oil was a luxury item in Korea."

Lee introduced a sesame oil brand for the cafe, inspired by King Yeongjo's recipe. To familiarize customers with the sauce, he also invented sesame latte and sesame ice cream. 
"I hope Yeonnam Bangatgan will become a window to experience genuine Korean sesame oil full of characteristics," he said. 

At Yeonnam Bangatgan, Lee offered sesame oil pairing events to expand the possibilities. "We have hosted events with salted pollack roe and beef and guests tasted each dish with and without sesame oil, relishing the difference," he said. "We also had sesame oil from various countries such as Korea, China, Ethiopia and Togo to understand regional differences."

Lee thinks providing specific information on sesame oil is the key to promoting it overseas. 
"There are about 1,300 olive oil sommeliers in the world, contributing to the production, distribution and consumption of the oil. However, for sesame oil, I am the only one. I plan to introduce sesame oil to cooks and food researchers of the world."

Eventually, Lee hopes to export the Korean mill business to the world along with sesame oil. 

"We can only export sesame oil, but bringing the Korean-style mill to the world will make expansion easier. Think about a Korean mill in New York's Chelsea Market like how international coffee roasteries and breweries made their way into Korea," Lee said.