What's cooking? Just read Madam Jang

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

What's cooking? Just read Madam Jang

Cookbooks have always been a source of inspiration, whether you're a master chef looking for an exotic new dish or a novice mixing up a quick and easy dinner. Though today's colorful cookbooks are a feast for the eyes, the glossy pages are a relatively recent development.

In fact, the earliest Korean cookbooks, dating back to the 15th century, look like ancient Chinese tomes. Some 300 antique cookbooks dating from that time to today are showcased at an exhibition organized by the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine that runs through Jan. 7 at Seoul's National Folk Museum of Korea. At "The Scenery Exhibition of Korean Ancestral Cookbooks," visitors can see old recipes written from top to bottom in flowing Chinese brush calligraphy - without any sketches of how the final dish should look.

Among the rare books are four being shown publicly for the first time. "Sangayorok," by Jeon Sun-ui, a medical officer to three successive Joseon kings - Sejong, Munjong and Sejo - dates back to about 1459, making it perhaps the oldest extant Korean cookbook. It contains 229 recipes, including how to make basic items such as wine, sauces and kimchi and how to preserve fruits, vegetables and fish. Mandu (dumplings), noodles and porridge are some of the dishes in "Sangayorok" that are still popular today.

"Umsikdimibang," written around 1670, is the oldest known cookbook written entirely in Hangul, the Korean writing system invented in 1446. Attributed to Madam Jang from the Andong Jang clan who lived in Gyeongsang province, the handwritten book features both her original recipes and those handed down for generations in her family. On the inside of the back cover she explains that she wrote the book despite her failing eyesight, and tells her daughters to copy the book by hand. "Do not even think about taking it away with you," she wrote. "Take care so that it does not get destroyed and do not throw it away."

The exhibition includes a reproduction of tables used in 1795 to celebrate the 60th birthday of the mother of King Jeongjo, Madam Hong. Re-created according to the court record chronicling the eight-day journey the two took from Seoul to Hwaseong to visit the grave of the king's father on Madam Hong's birthday, the tables are piled high with bright and colorful foods.

Also, traditional Korean cooking methods will demonstrated Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. For more information, call the museum at 02-734-1346.


Han Bok-ryeo heads the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine, which organized the ancient cookbook show at the National Folk Museum. Ms. Han, who is up for review for the honor of being named one of the country's human cultural assets, spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently.

IHT-JAI: How has Korean cuisine evolved as seen through the cookbooks?

Han: It may appear that what we eat changes rapidly. Food is definitely influenced by history and politics. Foreign influences cannot be ignored either. But any change in our diet actually comes about very slowly.

If we make dishes by strictly adhering to old recipes from the 1800s, they still taste quite different from what they would have tasted like then. The basic jang (soybean paste, hot pepper paste and soy sauce) today has changed. Also, measurements are inconsistent.

IHT-JAI: Korean food is invariably characterized as being spicy and hot. Has this always been the case?

Han: From what we gather from written records, the hot pepper was introduced to Korea in the early 1600s following the Japanese invasion in 1592. Prior to that there is no mention of hot peppers. A record from around the same period mentions a man who ate a hot pepper at a tavern and died because it was so hot. Just after it came to Korea, hot peppers were often eaten with wine.

IHT-JAI: What taste is unique to Korean cuisine?

Han: Saltiness, sweetness, bitterness and sourness are the basic tastes that the human tongue can detect. but in Korean there is gamchilmat, which we refer to as the fifth taste that is not detected by the taste buds but felt in the brain. It derives from a mixture of several ingredients being cooked together. Korean cooking uses a lot of fermented products, such as jang, pickled seafood and kimchi, which help digestion and make you feel full.

IHT-JAI: What other characteristics can you find in Korean dishes?

Han: The use of several ingredients in a single dish is a notable feature of Korean cuisine. Yin and yang and the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) are all taken into account when preparing food because the body is considered a universe. The result is often a very colorful dish.

Korean dishes are also easy to eat, meaning they are soft to chew. Women traditionally had to cook for the elderly parents and great care was taken to make sure that they would be able to enjoy the food. This came at a price to the women who had to mince and chop many ingredients, including meat.

IHT-JAI: Are you working on any other projects?

Han: I am working on developing four-course menus that can be presented on a small table or a tray for each diner, in contrast to formal Korean meals served at hanjeongsik restaurants, which are heavy and wasteful.

by Kim Hoo-ran

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now