A modern approach to marital traditionFame in business or art often emerges from humble origins. For An Jung-hyun, whose reputation has been built on efforts to preserve the tradition of Korea’s elaborate wedding food, the journey began with her marriage in the early 1970s into a conservative family in Daegu.
“I was 23 and didn’t know anything,” says Ms. An, whose voice and mannerisms still evoke those of a young woman. She looks embarrassed to be talking about herself, covering her coy smiles with her hand. But with her perfectly coiffed hair, careful makeup and crisp fuscia suit, she also exudes the aura of a sophisticated society woman.
She recalls having to dress up in a pink bridal hanbok gown to serve her first meal to her parents-in-law, one of the important filial duties of a newlywed. “But I didn’t know what to do in the kitchen,” she says, “so I just stood there. Every time I moved, I would step on my dress and trip, that’s how naive and clumsy I was.”
Women’s social status was so poor at the time that during each meal the woman with the lowest position, such as Ms. An, had to sit at the corner of the dining table and was not permitted to use chopsticks. That meant, Ms. An says, that women could not choose among the dishes on the table. They were expected to finish their meal of rice and water as quickly as possible and go back to the kitchen.
To this day, she has a vivid memory of her elderly mother-in-law angrily pacing around the garden, muttering, “That ignorant thing!”
“For months, I didn’t even know that I was the one she was so angry with,” Ms. An says. “So I became determined to become a good daughter-in-law. The servants were so kind to me and they taught me many things.”
Getting used to cooking took a lot of practice, but she had plenty of opportunity to take charge of the kitchen in a home occupied by three generations.
A family member’s birthday meant preparing multiple meals, Ms. An says. “The first day started with a full-course meal for immediate family members. On the second day, the family invited a group of old friends. The third day was for relatives. Then, on the fourth day, neighbors came. So it was normal for one birthday celebration to go on for days.”
In the late 1970s, Ms. An and her immediate family of four, including two young children, moved to Seoul. In “declaring her independence,” she wanted to develop an activity she could call her own.
She had studied ikebana, or traditional Japanese flower arrangement, so she opened a small studio in southern Seoul to teach small groups of housewives. Then, in the early 1980s, she became involved in candle art.
Kim Mee-hee, a former magazine editor who later worked for Ms. An, recalls: “Ms. An used paraffin to create artistic sculpture, but candles were considered a cheap item for home use, so few were willing to pay the price for a piece of art.”
Even as Ms. An became one of the leading candle artists in Korea, she was not satisfied since she wanted to be financially independent from her in-laws. To her, candle art was just an expensive hobby.
The only other thing she thought she knew how to do well was cook, but she didn’t feel confident that she could actually make money from it. So, in starting a business in 1995 making ibaji, or wedding food, in her own home, she used a pseudonym. The first client paid 3.5 million won ($3,500) in advance.
“It was very, very strange for me, because I’d never been paid to cook,” Ms. An says. “In fact, I’d never received money to do anything in my entire life.”
For that first order, she remembers nervously working day and night on a large steamed fish that was covered with tiny fried patties made to look like fish scales. Each sheet of beef jerky, once a prized food, was “embroidered” with pine nuts and dates.
The client was quite impressed, and word of mouth brought increasing demand for her wedding foods.
That boosted her self-confidence as a businesswoman. A year later, using her real name, she opened “An Jung Hyun’s Somssi-wa Jeongseong” (roughly translated as An Jung-Hyun’s Talent and Hard Work), an elegant consulting office in Cheongdam-dong. The cost of her wedding food runs from 300,000 won into the millions, depending on the variety and amount of food prepared.
Ms. An’s beautifully designed tteok, or rice cake, an important wedding food and holiday gift, quickly became a steady seller, prompting her to open a shop inside the Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong-dong in southern Seoul.
Ms. An is proud of her rice cake, which is substantial and authentic in taste and texture. “Elderly upper-class women are surprised to find that classic tteok is still available,” she says.
Most tteok sold in stores is made from a simplified recipe in which powdered rice is steamed in a vat and artificially colored. Her rice cake strictly adheres to the time-consuming and labor-intensive method to give it the appropriate texture and taste: Rice is steamed, then air-cooled, and hand-kneaded in a stone mortar.
So far, Ms. An has introduced over 40 kinds of traditional rice cakes, and the business has grown to achieve annual sales of more than 500 million won.
When asked about her business philosophy, Ms. An replies that it is to preserve the authentic taste and tradition of Korean food, although she notes that change is inevitable, since traditional Korean culture cannot only satisfy the older generation but must be able to embrace and appeal to the younger generation.
“In the old days, food was so scarce that people only cared about the variety and the amount,” she says. “I’m still very conservative in maintaining the Korean recipes to keep the original taste and I use 100 percent natural ingredients, but I want our food to be presented in a stylish and convenient way.”
While maintaining the authentic taste of the wedding food, for example, she packages it in such a way that it can be readily served at a buffet party.
Reflecting health- and style-conscious trends, she introduced rice cakes topped with fruit, nuts or even cheese. To cater to younger people, who usually find traditional Korean confectionery boring or bland, she has developed rice cakes that are made with wine or that are decorated like European cakes.
But Ms. An’s effort to preserve refined Korean cuisine goes beyond rice cakes and wedding food. When a space adjacent to her consulting office became vacant last year, she decided to open her own Korean restaurant.
At first glance, the restaurant, Wooreega, might appear to be one of those trendy spots that come and go regularly. Its clean and modern interior was decorated by Ma Yong-beom, a local interior designer who has worked on a number of trendy bars in Seoul. Traditional Korean dishes are served with the flair of a modern sculpture: A bowl of saengseon tangsu, or red snapper fritters, is presented on a bed of rose petals, while dried chrysanthemum blossoms float in a cup of chrysanthemum tea served in an Italian tea cup on a yellow saucer.
Ms. An calls her presentations “the art of Korean cuisine,” epitomizing her years of expertise in Korea’s culinary tradition. But, her innovative attempts at serving traditional Korean food in a modern setting have hit a few rough spots, as some very conservative patrons disliked her approach. Ms. An becomes tearful when describing how an angry fashion designer once returned a plate of fried fish served with a dipping sauce containing ketchup, telling her to serve it in the “Korean way.”
She says she often gets offers from department store buyers and businessmen to open franchises, but she has no intention of doing so. “I have 30 staffers in my company who painstakingly handcraft each item every day, and I cannot and must not change that,” she says. “I’m not interested in making a big name. I’m happy if I can satisfy the top 1 percent of [the clientele in] Korea.”
Two types of offerings: pyebaek and ibaji
There are two types of wedding foods prepared in Korea, pyebaek and ibaji. Because most weddings in Korea today are modeled after Western-style ceremonies, pyebaek, or the traditional Korean wedding ceremony, is often abbreviated or even skipped by pre-arrangement of the marrying families.
The pyebaek ceremony involves the bride and groom, and, almost exclusively, the groom’s immediate family members. In most weddings, the Korean-style ceremony takes place immediately following the Western-style event.
The pyebaek table setting requires three items: a pile of dates connected with a red thread, a pile of beef jerky tied with red and blue yarns and a bottle of distilled liquor.
Everything prepared on the table symbolizes yang, or the positive of the two forces believed to harmonize the world in ancient Oriental philosophy. According to the belief, the number of dishes must total an odd number, also symbolizing the yang force, which is supposed to bring good luck for the new marriage, prosperity to the united families and the promise of male offspring.
Ibaji is a pure Korean word which means to serve the in-law family and its ancestors with utmost respect. Thus, ibaji food ranges from a few dishes to lavish full-course meals made from the bride’s family’s recipes, using the best seasonal and regional ingredients, including beef, fish, fruit and liquor.
In the old days, servants and female members of the bride’s family cooked for weeks to impress the groom’s family. The ready-to-be-served dishes were carefully wrapped in silk cloth, put in bamboo baskets, and delivered to the groom’s family on the wedding day, to be used by them for the reception.
by Ines Cho