Monday, May 09, 2011
Alongside the standard fare of Korean people stands Royal Court Cuisine – food that developed primarily through the Joseon dynasty. While much of it is similar to traditional Korean food there are many items that truly were unique as dishes for the King and his family. Since the end of the Joseon dynasty court food has become available to all – and there is even a special organization designed to protect it. An official school exists to teach new students how to prepare this sumptuous food so that it will not fall into oblivion though much of it has now become typical food for all Koreans.
In the royal court most of the food preparation was done by court ladies who lived in the palace and were essentially there for life. They were usually taken from common families and the only time men would be brought in to assist them was during especially grand feasts. The women of the kitchen were divided into separate areas – with some specializing in the making of rice cakes, alcohol, and various other preparations needed. [Image © GyeonGi-Do Tourism]
The Royal family ate five meals per day – three main full course meals and two smaller meals. The first meal of the day usually consisted of rice porridge (flavored with such things as abalone) and side dishes of kimchi and other light vegetables or fish. The main meal was typically eaten at 7 or 8 in the evening in a special dining room. The King and the Queen both had three tables each for dinner and three court ladies to lift bowl covers and ensure that none of the food was poisoned. There was always a hotpot on the table – typically sinseollo (more on that below) and it was obligatory that two sura (bowls of rice and grains) were served.
The amount of work that went into Korean Court Cuisine is obvious from the illustrations here – it was a task requiring a huge staff and vast quantities of ingredients. Fortunately the governors of each province regularly sent their finest food to the palace for royal meals. This meant that the kitchen staff learnt to deal with all kinds of unusual and unique ingredients. [Changdeokgung Palace image © Kevin Jackson]
Royal cuisine is a fascinating style of food and I strongly recommend that you try to make at least one or two of these dishes. My own goal is to try them all singularly and eventually prepare an entire royal feast for my friends and family to treat them to some of the finest food in history. Below we look at a few dishes that were special to the royal court.
Gujeolpan is a dish of nine delicacies. It is rather time consuming to make but the effort is well worth it when you see the finished result. People who are not familiar with Korean royal cuisine are always wowed by this dish. In fact, the famous writer Pearl S. Buck refused to eat it when she first saw because she didn’t want to “destroy such a beautiful thing by eating it.” But the real delight truly does come in the eating; into one of the central pancakes you add a little bit of each of the other eight ingredients and dip it in Korean mustard or soy dipping sauce before eating it in one bite. The combination of such a perfect blend of ingredients really excites the tastebuds and makes you want more. Here is an excellent recipe for gujeolpan if you are willing to spend the hour or more preparing it. You can buy a gujeolpan dish here (international orders accepted). I am quite new to Korean cooking so the fact that I was able to produce the food in the photo above is proof that this is not a difficult dish – just a laborious one.
Sinseollo is a royal hot pot. It is made primarily from meat, eggs, and vegetables which are then cooked in a broth at the table via charcoal in the central chimney. This dish is so tasty that it is also called yeolguja tang which means “soup that makes the mouth happy”. The ingredients list is long (up to 25 items) but the resulting appearance of the dish makes the effort involved in creating it well worthwhile. There are really no limits to what ingredients you use as long as everything is uniform in size. Garnishes typically include gingko nuts and walnuts as well as royal meatballs (made from a mixture of seasoned beef and tofu). This dish should have pride of place on the royal table standing above everything else. [Image © Koreataste - recipe]
This is a delightful and fun dish – the fish is filleted and the fillet is cooked in small pieces to resemble scales and placed back on the carcass which is steamed so it is edible. The picture above is a little deceiving because domimyeon is primarily a noodle soup. The fish rests on a bed of starch noodles and broth and surrounded by a variety of vegetables, eggs, and meat. In fact, it is very similar in principle to sinseollo but with the addition of the delicious fish pancakes. To make this a true delicacy you should use sea-bream as your fish. [Image © Koreataste - recipe]
I bet you weren’t expecting to see bibimbap here! Interestingly bibimbap (called goldongban in the royal court) came from the palace (as did japchae, the other very popular Korean noodle dish). It would often appear as one of the two obligatory sura (mentioned above – bowls of rice or grain). It is also believed that this dish was used as a snack by the King in between meals when he was particularly hungry. If you haven’t tasted bibimbap make it your first Korean dish – you will love it – in fact everyone does which is probably why it has become so popular outside of Korea. If you want to learn more about bibimbap you can read my recent article Bibimbap Deconstructed. There is a very delicious recipe for it here.
This light dish was enjoyed during the summer and spring months by the Royal family. Its base ingredient is acorn jelly or mung bean jelly which is what gives it such a delicate taste. The jelly is mixed with a variety of vegetables like watercress and mung bean sprouts as well a small amount of beef. Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, author of “Growing up in a Korean Kitchen” tells this interesting anecdote about tangpyeongchae: “Throughout Korean history there were endless factional struggles among the ruling elite. However, the reign of King Yongjo (1724-1776) is to have been the most peaceful [...] because of his policy of employing men from all factions – a policy called tangpyeongchaek.” That peaceful policy lends its name to this dish of many ingredients that share the same plate in harmony. [Image © KoreaTaste - recipe]
The dishes above are just a small sampling of the myriad of delights that adorned the royal table. It is my hope that this will pique your interest sufficiently to make you seek out more information about Korean Royal Cuisine and possibly even try making some yourself at home.
All images are licensed for use in this article; licenses are noted in the body of the article.
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