Korean Culture Camp

A Do-it-yourself Experience
by Amy Krause  |  photography by A. Krause Studio

Growing up in the Midwest as a Korean adoptee in a transracial family, it was always important for me to experience opportunities where I could learn more about my Korean heritage. One of these opportunities was a summer camp in Minneapolis that was dedicated to celebrating Korean culture. Korean adoptees and their families came from all over the United States to experience this magical week filled with traditional Korean dance lessons, taekwondo demonstrations, music class, language lessons, delicious food and more.

I have fond memories of returning to the camp for many summers and then transitioning to a teen-focused camp, which included classes that discussed topics of race and building self-esteem. As I grew older, these experiences helped me to appreciate my heritage and helped to shape my identity as an Asian American.

Legacy Building

When I became a mother, I began teaching my own children about their Korean heritage. From an early age, they were eating Korean food, helping me cook Korean food and attending events that celebrated our heritage. After we moved to Rochester, we found a local Korean culture camp for them to continue to learn more. We were even fortunate enough to take a family trip to Seoul, South Korea, in the summer of 2016. It was a great learning experience, and we made so many wonderful memories during that trip.

A DIY Summer

In March, things started looking much different all around us due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As things progressed, summer plans and camps started to be canceled. As a do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiast, I resolved to create our own family camps this year in hopes of keeping the spirit of summer camp alive.

One of the camps I wanted to recreate was our own version of Korean culture camp. After a bit of Pinterest perusing, craft room ransacking and a quick trip to the Asian Food Store, I was all set for an epic week of celebrating our heritage.

Five Days of Food and Fun

The first day of our camp adventures began with a cooking lesson. It’s important to note that my love for cooking Korean food was born out of a desire to connect more with my heritage and also a lack of Korean restaurants in our area. Living in Rochester, the nearest Korean dining experience is an hour and a half drive to the Twin Cities area. Over the course of several years and a lot of practice, I learned how to replicate my favorite Korean dishes, so we can have them any time without needing to drive for miles.

One of the dishes I love to make is called gimbap or kimbap. This is a rolled rice dish that uses toasted sheets of seaweed (gim), cooked and seasoned rice (bap) and various fillings. At first glance, someone may say it looks like Japanese sushi, but it is quite different in taste and fillings. Some common fillings are spinach, carrots, egg, beef, spicy Korean cabbage (kimchi) and Korean pickled radish (danmuji).

We started the gimbap cooking lesson by discussing each ingredient while my kids helped prepare by washing, slicing, mixing and cooking. We arranged all of the ingredients, and then they each practiced rolling their creations with a bamboo mat. It was a delicious first day of camp.

Day two of our camp consisted of more tantalizing treats. This time we discussed Korean refrigerator and pantry staples. We discovered which foods come from different regions in South Korea. I taught the kids how to make two types of Korean side dishes called banchan. Typically, these are placed in several small bowls around the main course and are shared community style. We made a spinach salad (sigeumchi namul) and a bean sprout salad (sookjuk namul).

After our salads were marinating, we moved on to prepping ingredients for bibimbap, a mixed vegetable and rice dish that often is served with beef. To make bibimbap you start with a bowl of rice and then add various toppings. Our bibimbap included zucchini, carrots, green onions, seaweed, egg, spinach salad, bean sprout salad, kimchi and marinated beef (bulgogi). As a visual person, laying out all of the toppings in an aesthetically pleasing way is very satisfying. Once the dish has been assembled, we mix everything around to get the perfect bite of delicious ingredients.

The following days consisted of—you guessed it—more cooking lessons. We made Korean sweet pancakes (hotteok) and Korean dumplings (mandu). We also enjoyed beef bulgogi and a type of street food called tteo, which includes spicy fried chicken and rice cakes.

In addition to all of the delicious food, we had a lesson about traditional symbols and patterns in Korean culture, which the kids used to create their own symbolic paintings with bamboo brushes and ink. We also learned about the historical significance of Korean masks (tal). You can find several videos of traditional mask dances on YouTube that demonstrate how the masks are used in the arts and theater. Using plaster casts on balloons and paint, the kids created their own dragon and lion masks.

We rounded out our camp experience with another history lesson that included the origin of traditional Korean clothing called hanbok and how it has subtly changed over the years. I passed down my childhood hanbok to my daughter, and I was able to have a new hanbok custom-made for myself during our most recent trip to Seoul. They are both treasured pieces of our heritage that we proudly wear on special occasions.

Full Stomachs, Full Hearts

At the end of the week, our stomachs were filled to the brim ,and our hearts were full of pride for our Korean heritage. We continued our tradition of cooking together and learned some new things along the way. It is my hope that my children will always have hearts that honor this beautiful side of themselves and celebrate their Asian American identities.

If you are interested in learning more, there are several Korean culture camps in the Midwest that I highly suggest. In fact, there is even one here in Rochester, called Camp Moon Hwa, that is open to all. YouTube has a plethora of informational videos and travel vlogs that can help you experience Korea virtually. If you would like to try some of the recipes in this article, check out some books from the local public library or your favorite bookstore. Just as my family has bonded over our appreciation for cooking and eating Korean food, you may also enjoy this experience as a simple step toward learning more about Korean culture.

Gimbap (Korean Seaweed Rice Rolls)
Ingredients:
• 7-8 sheets dried seaweed (gim)
• 4 cups freshly cooked short grain white rice
• 1 large carrot, julienned
• 1 package yellow pickled radish (danmuji), cut into thin strips
• 1 cup spinach, washed
• ½ cup Korean fermented cabbage (kimchi), drained and chopped (optional)
• 3 eggs
• 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1 Tbsp. water
• salt
• toasted sesame oil
• toasted sesame seeds

Makes 7-8 rolls

Notes:
To make this dish vegan, omit the eggs.
For a variation, you can add cooked beef, ham, fish cakes, tuna, crab or your other favorite protein.
Feel free to add cucumber, cooked baby kale, sauteed peppers or whatever vegetables you have on hand. 

Directions:
1 Season the cooked white rice with ½ tsp. salt, 1 Tbsp. sesame oil and a dash of sesame seeds. Mix well and set aside in a small bowl.

2 Blanch the spinach in a large pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain the water and set the spinach aside until cooled to the touch. Once cooled, squeeze out excess water and season it with a dash of salt and ½ tsp. sesame oil. Set aside in a small bowl.

3 Saute the carrots in ½ tsp. sesame oil and season with a dash of salt. Once the carrots are cooked, set aside in a small bowl.

4 Whisk the eggs with 1 Tbsp. water and a dash of salt. Heat vegetable oil in a medium-sized pan over medium heat. Add half of the egg mixture to the pan spread out into a thin circular layer. Once the bottom of the egg mixture starts to set, flip and cook the other side until cooked through. Set egg aside and repeat with remaining egg mixture. Cut the egg omelets into thin strips and set aside in a small bowl.

5 Set out all of the cooked ingredients with the kimchi, danmuji strips and toasted sesame seeds.

6 Lay one sheet of seaweed (rough side up and shiny side down) on a bamboo rolling mat. Place approximately ½ cup rice onto the lower half of the sheet and spread out into a thin layer. Then place a layer of each ingredient on top of the rice in a horizontal pattern. Add a sprinkle of the toasted sesame seeds. Carefully gather the lower edge of the bamboo mat with the seaweed and slowly fold over to the top portion of the rice. Start to roll the mat with the seaweed and press down with both hands to form a tight log of the seaweed with all of the ingredients wrapped inside. This may take some practice to create a fully enclosed roll.

7 Lightly brush the roll with sesame oil and cut into 8-10 pieces with a sharp knife. Serve right away and store leftovers in a container with a tight lid in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.