SOFIA (Yonhap News) ― Presiyan Petrov, 22, proudly takes out a bottle of white liquid carefully wrapped in a plastic bag as he enters a sunny apartment in central Sofia.
The white liquid is makgeolli, South Korea’s signature rice wine, which he has been attempting to make over the last 18 months.
“Try this one. Oh, I also tried putting in some raspberries and people seem to like it,” Petrov said as he handed the bottle to his South Korean friend Yoon Jae-hong.
“That’s nice. But makgeolli should be makgeolli. That’s when it tastes the best,” said the 57-year-old Yoon, who heads the Information Technology Cooperation Center between South Korea and Bulgaria.
Petrov, together with his 26-year-old colleague Kristina Georgieva, are among a growing pack of “new” fans of the Korean wave, known as hallyu, that are more interested in Korean cuisine and traditional culture rather than the K-pop glitz of dramas, films and pop songs.
The two frequent Yoon’s apartment where they bombard him with questions about Korean cuisine and culture, with subjects ranging from starch syrup to General Gyebaek of Baekje Dynasty (B.C. 18-A.D. 668).
Like most hallyu fans, their love for Korean culture began when they started watching Korean dramas, and the two were soon mesmerized with the country’s culinary culture.
However, they took a different path from the ordinary when the two, who work as sourdough bakers at a local bakery, became serious about cooking Korean food.
“In every drama, there’s kimchi, so I thought I wanted to really taste it. But there was no way to get it here, so I thought I’d make it myself,” said Georgieva, who first started making kimchi roughly six years ago.
“I made my first kimchi without the fish sauce. And I thought I need to have more. I got addicted. Now, every time I have money or ingredients, I make it,” she said.
The two, who were separately cooking their Bulgarian versions of Korean dishes with locally available ingredients, met each other at a Korean arts performance in Sofia two years ago. Since then, they have set out on a quest to make the best Korean cuisine they can despite the hurdles they face.
“Many of the Korean ingredients are hard to find here.
Sometimes, we try the Chinese market or order from a foreign country, but it’s really expensive,” said Petrov.
In order to overcome the difficulty, the two stocked up on boxes of Korean ingredients during visits to Asian markets in nearby European countries and asked Korean friends to send them some key ingredients.
Language was another barrier. While both could read and speak basic Korean through years of watching Korean dramas, getting their hands on authentic recipes written in English was more difficult.
“We often ask Mr. Yoon to translate some of the recipes in the cookbooks we got from Korea,” said Petrov.
“Here, it’s hard to understand if you are cooking real Korean food since we don’t know the traditional taste of the Korean food. So we needed a Korean opinion,” Georgieva chimed in, adding they invite Korean travelers to taste their dishes to make sure they are cooking authentic Korean food.
The endeavor of learning to cook Korean food in a city that has only one Korean restaurant and a small Korean population paid off when they grabbed the first prize of the “2011 Seoul Delicious Story,” a cooking contest for foreigners organized by the Seoul city government.
After easily winning a preliminary contest with homemade kimchi and Bulgarian variations of tofu dishes, the duo clinched the top spot by serving makgeolli with tofu-kimchi, a common but traditional dish that mixes pork with fried kimchi.
“I think the judges were impressed because each team set up three dishes for the three judges, but we just set up two,” said Petrov.
“At first, they thought we didn’t honor one of the judges, but we explained Korean cuisine is something that you should share,” he said.
Following the contest, the two sourdough bakers have been promoting Korean cuisine across the Balkan Peninsula. They have been invited to embassy events and even cooked for more than 250 people at a recent event hosted by Korean wave fans in Romania.
Their passion for Korean cuisine has transformed the two Bulgarians, who were just interested in Korean pop culture, into iconic figures for Korean wave fans in the country.
Petrov said fans who are interested in the “deeper” side of the Korean culture are on a slow, but steady rise.
“We separate fans into two groups. The first group not only listens to Korean music but are interested in everything. The other only likes listening to music and the appearances of the K-pop artists.”
“The first group, that are really getting deep into the Korean culture, sometimes even don’t like K-pop. They listen to traditional music like pansori,” said Petrov, who has been watching Korean dramas for more than seven years.
In the meantime, the duo plans to continue their journey to learn and cook Korean cuisine.
“We want to make a cookbook consiting of around 50 easy-to-follow recipes for Korean fans in Bulgaria,” said Georgieva.
“In the long term, we want to make Bulgaria more famous in Korea and Korea more famous in Bulgaria, not only in the music and film industry but through food and culture,” said Petrov. “There are similarities that run deep. Most of all, I think food is the basic (foundation) of human relationships.”