Food Fit for a King Now Widely AvailableKorean food is generally known to be spicy and synonymous with charcoal grills, kimchi and various side dishes called banchan. Strangely enough, while these things are associated with Korean cooking, these days they are usually served in Western restaurant settings complete with tables and seated chairs.
The ubiquitous sikdang (Korean-style restaurants) have been thoroughly "modernized" through national clean-up campaigns since the 1970s, and the majority of dishes have long been modified to suit the taste of the contemporary diner. Banchan is served on plastic plates, and not-so-attractive portable gas ranges unceremoniously decorate the tables. The mass-produced kimchi from factories all tastes the same and instead of using traditional rock salt and molasses ingredients, artificial taste enhancers are added. Seafood dishes slathered in red pepper paste and garlic sauce are numbingly hot, killing the subtle flavor of the meat.
More exotic restaurants, that specialize in more traditionally cooked foods, are furnished with low tables placed on a yellow linoleum flooring called ondol. The dishes are cooked in red hot chili pepper and accompanied by a larger selection of banchan, followed by sungnyung (rice soup) and frozen pear for dessert. Some fusion-type restaurants serve spicy vegetable and noodle dishes reeking of garlic and onion, but few connoisseurs of Korean food would agree that these restaurants even remotely resemble what was once cherished by previous generations.
The Korean food that people enjoy today is said to have been most influenced by the royal cuisine of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), the last dynasty of Korea and best known for its splendid culture and heritage. When modern-day Koreans think about those days of old they may faintly recall hearing tales of the surasang, an exclusively set table reserved only for the king. Even though the word surasang is still used in modern day expressions, there is basically little else remaining of Korea's rich culinary past.
A royal table, or surasang, was served five times a day with two light meals scheduled after lunch and dinner. The dishes were prepared by a head chef, who held the title of Jubang Sanggung. In the palace, a group of gungnyeo (court ladies) were in charge of the domestic functions of the royal court, ranging from preparing foods, handling dining ware, the making of bedding and clothes, rearing children, providing entertainment and security and other miscellaneous secretarial duties.
Young female apprentices between the ages four to five were selected from all regions of Korea for training to become a gungnyeo. Training usually took 15 years before apprentices were given the position of court lady. Status within the group was based upon beauty, character, intellect and leadership skills. The highest honor among court ladies was to be chosen as the taste tester for the king's food to verify the presence of poison.
Two kinds of steamed rice were served on the royal table: white rice and red bean rice, which is cooked in the water used to soak red beans. Besides rice, a variety of dishes were served on the lacquer table, which included fresh vegetables, steamed dishes and boiled and fried items. There were four kinds of kimchi made from Chinese cabbage and radish fermented with shrimp and/or croaker jeotgal (fermented pickle). Desserts consisted of tteok (rice cakes), vegetables, honey, herbs, nuts and hwachae (fruit cocktail). Beverages included sungnyung, makgeolli (rice liquor) and teas made from herbs or roasted grains such as barley, corn and yulmu (Job's tear). All dishes were placed on the surasang and served at the same time. A pair of silver chopsticks and a spoon served as eating utensils as silver was known to detect, upon contact, poisonous substance in the food.
The royal calendar consisted of a number of national events, birthdays of royal family members and rituals according to the almanac during which banquets and festivities were held. The most important occasions were New Year's day, followed by the king's birthday, full moon day and dongji (winter solstice). For the setting of the royal table only the finest seasonal ingredients, either fresh or cooked, from all over the country were regularly presented to the palace (refer to the royal selection left).
The royal table was prepared by one of the gungnyeo, who would have been in her 40s with close to 30 years of experience in the royal kitchen. Under the head chef, there were a number of assistants who took part in preparing the table as well doing chores like obtaining ingredients and raw goods, cooking the rice, preparing desserts and preserved sauces, placing the table in front of the king and so forth. The chefs and servants for day-to-day dining were mostly female, but official feasts were prepared by male chefs whose title had been inherited. After the fall of the dynasty, male chefs were hired by yojung or exclusive private restaurants, which contributed to the spread of royal cuisine among the general public throughout the country.
The last chef, or Jubang Sanggung, of the Chosun dynasty was Han Hee-sun. Ms. Han was designated as a national treasure under the official title, Important Intangible Cultural Properties No. 38 in 1971. After she passed away in 1972, the title was handed down to another pioneer of Korean cuisine, Hwang Hye-sung. Ms. Hwang had received more than 30 years of training under the tutelage of Ms. Han. Ms. Hwang presently holds the same title specializing in Choson Dynasty Royal Cuisine.
As the tradition of authentic Korean cuisine rapidly disappears amidst the continuous invasion of fast foods and foreign recipes, Ms. Hwang and her daughter Han Bok-ryeo (a famous author of cookbooks and also a candidate to receive the same title as her mother currently holds) have made a conscious effort to maintain and enhance the traditional culinary arts. To proliferate the taste and style of Korea's culinary tradition, in 1971 they opened the Institute of Royal Korean Cuisine in northern Seoul. In 1990 they opened Jihwaja, a restaurant specializing in royal Korean cuisine. Jihwaja is not just considered a restaurant, but a "cultural center" where authentic Korean taste and style can be experienced.
The finest course available is called the Gungjungmanchansang and was served at the presidential banquet in Pyongyang, North Korea, during the North and South Korea summit meeting last year.
The course includes classic selections, such as sinseollo (a kind of chafing dish), grilled beef rib and ginseng, steamed assorted seafood, bibimbansang (a set of bibimbab and namul) and seokryutang (dumpling soup). The prices of dinner courses range from 36,000 won to 90,000 won ($28 to $70) and lunch courses range from 20,000 won to 90,000 won, to which 10 percent VAT will be added.
Sikdang Jihwaja is located on the first floor of the National Theater in Jangchung-dong, Seoul and is open daily from noon to 9:00 p.m. For reservations, call 02-2269-5834~5 (English and Japanese service available).
Monthly Royal Selection According to the Korean Almanac
January: miyeok (sea kelp), gim (seaweed)
February: fresh clams, octopus, abalone, frozen trout, herring, half-dried pheasant, jakseolcha (a variety of green tea)
March: jogi (croaker), nuchi (cornet fish), gosari (braken), lime
April: junchi (a species of herring), squid, bamboo shoot
May: sole, barley, flour, apricot, cherry
June: rice, kaoliang, millet, apple, melon, watermelon, eggplant, sweetfish
July: salmon, pear, grapes, walnut, pine nut, hazel nuts, lotus seeds
August: crab, goldfish, pine mushroom, dates, chestnuts, persimmon, fresh liquor
September: pomegranate, meoru (wild grapes)
October: gray mullet, codfish, octopus, ginkgo nuts, dried persimmon, yam, citron, kumquat, tangerine
November: pheasant, swan, baegeo (white fish)
December: tangerine, rabbit, gray mullet
[Courtesy of the Institue of Korean Royal Cuisine]
Location: Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; near the Cheongdam intersection
Tel: 02-546-0647 (English and Japanese language services available)
Business hours: 12 p.m.-3 p.m for lunch; 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. for dinner
Yongsusan specializes in traditional Korean foods from Kaesong in North Korea, the ancient capital of the prosperous Koryo dynasty (935-1392). Named after a famous mountain in Kaesong, the restaurant has continued the culinary traditions of the region, with menus created by the 73-year-old founder and owner Choi Sang-ok, who was born in Kaesong and married into a yangban (aristocratic) family in Seoul. Yongsusan is a member of the world-famous gourmet group, the Chaine des Rotisseurs in France and has three more branches in Korea (in Samcheong-dong, Biwon and Jamsil) and another in Los Angeles.
Its various menus includes a number of Kaesong specialties such as jorang tteok (a kind of rice cake originated in Kaesong), memil guksu (buckwheat noodles), namul dishes made of dried persimmon, radish and bean sprouts and bossam kimchi (traditional kimchi wrapped in cabbage leaves). The price of dinner ranges from 28,000 won to 98,000 won to which 10 percent VAT will be added. The top selection course meal includes salmon and salmon roe grill, boiled ox tails with ginseng, a sinseollo served individually and steamed assorted grains and rice served in a bamboo vessel. The lunch set costs 35,000 won.
Location: Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; opposite the Korea Customs Service building
Tel: 02-518-0161~6 (Japanese language service available)
Business hours: 12 p.m.-3 p.m. for lunch; 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. for dinner
The six-story building that is Koryeo Jeong, located in the posh district of Gangnam, has a Korean-style interior that resembles the inside of a traditional house or hanok. It provides a matching Korean dining experience of authentic royal and traditional cuisine. Korean traditional performances, which start at 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. daily, feature over 10 different kinds of music and dances by 16 artists. A commentary is provided in Japanese and a brochure is available for English speakers.
Full-course dinners come in three types: Sujeongsang, Mansumugangsang and Surasang, with prices ranging from 45,000 won ($35) to 70,000 won (plus 10 percent service charge). Each table consists of classic royal meal with seasonal varieties of porridge (pumpkin for the season), fresh vegetables and seafood dishes as starters, jeongol (casserole), deep fried and grilled dishes, basic banchan (side dishes), jjige (stew), rice served in a stone bowl, followed by Korean-style desserts. Unlike the old day surasang presentation, the food is prepared in the order of Western-style course meal as modern-day diners prefer their foods served at optimal temperature. Lunch costs from 15,800 won to 33,500 won.
Location: Hyoja-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul; near Jahamun tunnel and Sangmyung University
Tel: 02-395-2500 (English and Japanese language services available)
Business hours: 12 p.m-3 p.m. for lunch; 5 p.m.-10 p.m. for dinner
At Sukparang, visitors can enjoy both royal cuisine and the classic atmosphere of traditional Korean surroundings set against the scenic Mount Bukhan. The restaurant building, which moved to its present location in 1993, used to be the villa of a Korean royal family member － the father of King Kojong, better known as Daewongun in Korea.
The main building resembles the house in which the King Kojong's queen was born, and its large gate is modeled after one in Gyeongbok palace. The small house set on a rocky hill that sports giwa or Korean-style roof tiles, was called Sukpajeong, a place for entertaining guests. Sukpajeong, which is designated as the Seoul Tangible Cultural Properties No. 23, is an example of the harmonious designs created for the high society of the late Choson dynasty.
The meal, which is served in courses, includes not only classic recipes but also relatively modern ingredients such as prawn and lobster steamed in the Korean jjim style. Prices of the dinner main courses start at 70,000 won up to 120,000 won; for lunch from 35,000 won to 90,000 won. Add 10 percent service charge and an additional 10 percent VAT.
What's On the Royal Menu
jjim (steamed dishes)
ssam or saengchae (fresh vegetables)
namul (cooked vegetables)
jjige or jochi (stew)
jorim or jorigae (braised dishes)
jeok or gu-i (grilled dishes)
gujeolpan (vegetable crepe)
hoe (fresh fish)
janggwa (pickled dishes)
sinseollo (chafing dish)
pyeonyuk (boiled dishes)
bugak (fried dishes)
po (dried foods).
by Inēs Cho