The pickles called kimchi are widely considered to be quintessentially Korean by Koreans and foreigners alike. As an accompaniment to practically every meal, kimchi has almost as great a claim to the title of "staple food" as rice. The anthropologist Dr. Han Kyung-Koo of Kookmin University argued that kimchi is particularly suited to projections of the Korean national character. The aggressive, red colour and the spiciness of kimchi (both resulting from the addition of red pepper powder) stand for energy and masculinity. As a simple, unsophisticated and inexpensive vegetable food, kimchi also fits the Korean self-image: underdogs who, through hard work, rise in a world where the lazy, fat cats linger over big steaks (Walraven 2002).
Joseon Royal Cuisine
Although it hardly seems plausible that the role of kimchi as the symbol of Korean food culture could ever be threatened, recent developments indicate that contemporary Koreans are ready to embrace a very different part of their culinary heritage -- the feminine, sophisticated tradition of Joseon Royal Cuisine (gungjung-eumsik). Since last summer, when the popular TV drama "Daejang-geum" aired on MBC, an increasing share of the population has become familiar with this refined art of Korean cooking. The series follows the life history of the legendary female who combined the career of royal chef with that of the king's private physician in the early sixteenth century. While kitchen intrigues constitute the core of the plot, cooking scenes feature prominently throughout the story. By the end of October, the series had reached a viewing rate of almost fifty percent, and was declared one of the most popular dramas in the history of Korean television.
Joseon Royal Cuisine has long been recognised as an important part of Korean cultural heritage. The expert that supervises the culinary aspects of the series is none other than Han Bok-ryeo -- the eldest daughter of Hwang Hye-seong, the government-designated Human Cultural Property of Royal Cuisine.
Although Hwang has never been a royal cook herself, she spent decades learning from Han Hui-sun, the last surviving royal chef. Ever since Han passed away in 1972, Hwang has been the highest authority and the ambassador of Korean Royal Cuisine at home and abroad. She has published a great number of cookbooks and is the founder of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine, which carries out various activities propagating the royal art of cooking, such as cookery lessons and exhibitions. She has also set up the restaurant and tea-room Jihwaja, which gives the public an opportunity to literally bite into Korea's royal past (if only for those who can afford it -- prices at Jihwaja range from 46,000 to 99,000 won per person). Jihwaja confectionery and snacks are also available at select leading department stores.
Popularization via Television show
Despite its unquestionable recognition as Cultural Property No.38, gungjung-eumsik is still relatively unknown among young Koreans, admired only by a few people with specific culinary interests. Thanks to the popularity of 'Daejanggeum,' however, the exclusiveness of Royal Cuisine has been turned into a nation-wide obsession. Although it is unlikely that Korean housewives will be serving royal dishes at kitchen tables anytime soon, Joseon Royal Cuisine will certainly, and indeed already does, exert an influence on the culinary culture of the Republic of Korea. For example, the same Han Bok-ryeo responsible for cooking scenes in 'Daejanggeum' supervised the royal banquet given by Kim Dae-jung in honour of Kim Jong-il during their historical meeting in June 2000.
The popular television series has, in my opinion, merely accelerated the gentrification of taste that has been occurring over the last two decades. That economic prosperity is largely responsible for the abundance of food choices in Korea seems quite obvious. Since the 1980s, insufficient food supply has completely disappeared as a social problem and formerly exclusive types of food are now within the grasp of practically everyone. Despite a recent recession, Korea's GNP allows the majority of its population to follow worldwide culinary trends (at least, in urban areas), and to enjoy a diet that, in the past, was affordable only to the very rich. The limited rations of the wartime and postwar periods are a distant memory for the elderly alone, and, for the first time in Korean history, the daily menu of people of varying social and economic status is basically the same.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Koreans are ready to embrace the imagery of the sophisticated tradition of Joseon Royal Cuisine. As a direct consequence of the success of 'Daejanggeum,' its popularity has skyrocketed. During the second weekend of November, in response to the gungjung-eumsik craze, the Lotte department store in Seoul organised a mini-exhibition of Royal Cuisine in its underground food-hall, featuring one of Jihwaja's menus. A few weeks before, during the last weekend of September, a much grander exhibition was held at Deoksugung Palace, including the making of royal kimchi and a display of royal confectionery. Earlier this year, Asiana Airlines began serving Royal Cuisine to their first class passengers, and it seems only a matter of time before ready-made components of gungjung-eumsik will appear on the shelves of up-scale supermarkets or become available via mail order. In November, food advertisements using the royal theme were already being featured on Korean television.
Evolving Food Habits
One may ask whether this phenomenon is short-lived or if it will have a lasting effect on the food habits of the Korean people. One may also question the authenticity of this 're-established' tradition. These questions cannot possibly be dealt with in an essay of this format. At first glance it seems that the gungjung-eumsik revival gives contemporary Koreans an opportunity to explore their past in an entertaining way that suits their consumption patterns. At the same time, gungjung-eumsik is a sophisticated cuisine to be proud of, comparable to the French nouvelle cuisine or the Japanese kaiseki ryori.
Royal Cuisine's recent ascent into Korean vogue also indicates something spectacular about the nature of food habits in general. There is an inherent realization that many characteristic features of 'traditional' cuisine are often modern introductions or inventions. Wherever one looks, one realizes that food culture is always changing. New dishes, food-related habits, and culinary myths are created and transformed daily in most societies, especially in materially affluent ones. It would appear that the timing of my fieldwork on the transformation of Korean food habits was perfect (autumn 2003) because of its coincidence with the nation-wide revival of Joseon Royal Cuisine.
I would like to thank Akiko Moriya for her help in gathering information for this essay.
Boudewijn C.A. Walraven, 'Bardot soup and Confucians' meat: Food and Korean identity in global context' in K. Cwiertka with B. Walraven (eds) Asian Food: The Global and the Local Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 2002.