Harmonizing different cultures through Korean royal court cuisine
Bok-Ryeo Han promotes popular interest in Chosun dynastic royal cuisine and has been appointed by UNESCO as a National Designated Intangible Cultural Treasure. She is the director of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine and has won the official commendation of the Minister of Culture. She studied at the University of Seoul,as well as Korea University for Food Engineering, and earned her doctorate in Food and Nutrition at Myongji University. Following after Hwang Hye Sung, who is also a researcher in royal court cuisine, a National Intangible Cultural Asset of Importance, and most important of all, her mother, Bok-Ryeo Han continues to contribute to the cuisine’s reproduction and modernization. At the 2000 Inter-Korean Summit, 2006 APEC regular conference in Busan, and 2010 G-20 Summit in Seoul, she helped develop menus and provided support as a consultant. She also acted as a consultant for the Korean drama, Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace), which is about Korean royal cuisine. She stresses the importance of food in understanding other cultures, especially when the royal court cuisine has become a global phenomenon. She runs two restaurants, ‘Jihwaja’ and ‘Gungyeon,’ and currently offers cooking classes at the Institute for foreigners to participate in and promote Korean cuisine.
SJ: What influenced you in the past to learn about royal cuisine?
HAN : My mother, Hye-Sung Hwang, was a researcher in court food and I naturally came to learn from her. I helped my mother as a research assistant ever since I was in middle school, and I officially began learning as my mother’s student in 1971 when Chosun dynastic royal cuisine became a national cultural treasure and Hye-Sung Hwang established the Institute for Korean Royal Cuisine.
SJ: was the most important lesson your mother taught you about royal cuisine?
HAN: My mother always emphasized two things – respectfully thinking of where the ingredients came from and what kind of work the people producing those ingredients did, as well as sufficiently considering how the people who eat the food will eat it. She was the one who taught me modesty through food.
SJ: What was the first dish that you learned to make for royal cuisine?
HAN: It was pine nut porridge (Jatjuk). Pine nut porridge has a similar texture to Western cream soups. In the Chosun Court, they frequently ate porridges with a spiced and greasy taste, and in particular, pine nut porridge was served as a health food to the sovereign as breakfast along with water kimchi and dried side dishes. Rice and pine nuts were ground up and boiled until they were transparent, making it a simple food, which is the first menu taught at the Institute for Royal Cuisine’s educational program.
SJ: How long did it take for you to master that dish?
HAN: I’m not sure. It is a very simple recipe but getting the pine nut oil and rice to harmonize into a gentle flavor takes a lot of practice. So even now, I end up with results that I do not like from time and time.
SJ: What's the most challenging thing about being a royal cuisine chef?
HAN: A royal chef or culinary researcher is not a role that simply studies the food that goes into your mouth, but the role also has to research and transmit all of the culture behind those foods. The royal cuisine, which is currently being transmitted, is that which has been recovered from the testimony of Hee-Shoon Han who had been in attendance to the Royal family in the palace until the end. Subsequently, you cannot say this encompasses the entirety of the Chosun period. Instead, to understand the royal cuisine of the past, we need to collect and reconstruct the information that is scattered piece by piece in the literature and records (royal protocols, notes and old culinary documents) of the period. You can also say that one issue is that the revived foods might not match the tastes of modern people.
SJ: What is the most rewarding thing about being a royal cuisine chef?
HAN: : I feel rewarded whenever I see students who have learned royal cuisine from me apply their lessons to their own workplace; whenever I see the reactions of people tasting royal cuisine during an event at the palace, the place where royal cuisine was meant to be served; and whenever I have the opportunity to treat foreign guests at major national events and introduce them to royal cuisine as the representative of Korean culinary culture.
SJ: What dish would you recommend readers to try during this season?
HAN: I would like to recommend Japchae, which can be savored by just about anyone. Japchae takes translucent dangmyeon (noodles made from sweet potato), roasted vegetables with various colors, finely cut meat, along with other ingredients, and mixes them all together with soy sauce and sugar as a marinade. Anyone in Korea can enjoy, especially in autumn when I like to mix in mushrooms rather liberally and have mushroom Japchae.
SJ: Do you hope that more of the younger generation in Korea will come out to try royal cuisine?
HAN: Of course. However, even if they do not take to royal cuisine, I hope they experience a lot of different flavors and become chefs who carefully attend to the ingredients. Before they grab the knife, they need to have an attitude wherethey come up with and deliberate on the ingredients that would go well with their dishes. The food we strive for is not made quickly like the food from a factory; these ingredients were made with a lot of time and energy from both nature and many people. I hope the people eating appreciate and savor the value of these precious ingredients, and let us cook them wholeheartedly.
SJ: What do you think makes royal cuisine so different from a typical Korean meal?
CHO: The royal cuisine of the Chosun dynasty was not radically different from the food eaten by the common people. It may have been food seasoned through complicated techniques and made from rare ingredients only used in the court, but there were also lots of simple foods made from standard, common ingredients such as cucumber, pumpkin, and tofu. Yet what really separates royal cuisine is that even the food may have been made from the same ingredients. They used ingredients of the highest quality possible, employing the most skilled chefs.
SJ: How long does it take to prepare royal cuisine for one group of diners?
HAN: Royal cuisine uses a variety of ingredients, prepares all the food into one large course, and often uses recipes that take a long time to cook, so it may take longer than a standard meal to prepare. In particular, the time taken to prepare everything beforehand is more than the time taken to actually cook the ingredients.
SJ: Have you been seeing many more foreigners coming in to try the cuisine?
HAN: It is pretty rare to see foreigners coming out to learn how to make Korean royal cuisine properly. Generally, curious tourists come out to experience Korean royal cuisine. Eastern tourists tend to have more interest than Western tourists. From time to time, famous foreign chefs visit to study Korean royal cuisine, aiming to broaden their culinary horizons. These cases seem to be a bit more frequent than before.
SJ: With more foreign tourists visiting Korea, what do you think is the charm of royal cuisine that would make them want to try the food?
HAN: When people hear “royal cuisine,” the image of a table filled with elaborate, high quality foods comes to mind, but in reality, the food eaten at the court was made with the consideration of how to live healthily. Their food embodied the idioms “medicine and food are the same,” and “the effect of the food is determined by its color.” In reality, there are lots of old cookbooks of research about the properties and effects of a sundry of grains, meats, and vegetables. As I mentioned before, we study these books and strive to recreate those results in our contemporary royal cuisine.
SJ: Do you ever get influenced by outside countries with the dishes you create? Or is it solely traditional Korean food?
HAN: After my mother learned royal cuisine to a certain extent, in order to study diverse foods, she went abroad to study culinary arts at professional schools in Japan and the United States, and she has studied a variety of foods from around the world. In terms of pursuing food, there is definitely value in preserving the past, along with the food, just as it was. However, food is also a culture that has to be relished. As such, so that more people can eat delightfully and create foods in which we can feel is even more beautiful, I think it is only natural to change food to match the changing world.
SJ: Outside of Korean food, is there another type of food that you enjoy eating?
HAN: Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Southeast Asian, and French cooking – if it is made with a whole heart and respect, I like food from any country in the world. Recently, I had the chance to taste Basque cuisine from a famous Spanish chef who came to Korea; the taste was great and the sincerity he devoted to the ingredients was quite impressive.
SJ: Could you tell us about your role in shaping the cuisine in the show, Dae Jang Geum?
HAN: Before Dae Jang Geum was filmed, producer Lee Byung Hoon came to me with a plan. He already studied a lot about royal cuisine, but he was concerned with how to tell a story about food on a court stage. This was because it was good that the main character was a palace attendant, listed in the records as a nurse but had begun her early work in the kitchen, but there was not much known about food from the 16th century during which the drama took place. The Institute of Royal Cuisine and I became charged with the historical research and the on-site recreation of the royal cuisine of the 16th century, and so we went through the old cookbooks and medical documents in order to recreate the food from that time period. The carrots and onions that are widely used in Korea today did not exist back then, and there were also not a lot of different recipes, so we had to take in a lot of consideration in order to make the food look appealing on the television screen. There are also ingredients that are listed in the records such as whale or bear feet, which are difficult to find nowadays, and so there were times when we had to use different ingredients in an attempt to recreate the same feeling. We had to check the drama’s script with the historical records and make the food in a limited timeframe, and we also had to film scenes where the food was in the process of being made, so it was quite a difficult task. All in all, the staff and I had to make food from around 1600 throughout the entirety of the drama. It was a tough and extensive task, but without an ample budget, it would be difficult for anybody to start and the result had a great deal of meaning even on a scholarly level. I was very happy that the drama achieved great success altogether and that there were a lot of viewers not only in Korea but overseas as well who gained an interest in Chosun royal cuisine.
SJ: What has been your proudest achievement?
CHO: First of all, I would say that it would have to be acting as culinary advisor and head chef for the banquet at the 2000 Inter-Korea Summit. It was a very significant event for the North and the South to officially meet together for the first time in 50 years, and I was able to exchange and show Southern recipes with Northern chefs. As a result of this event, I was able to prepare menus for later state banquets as well. Next, I would choose the time when I prepared my mother and mentor’s Hwang HyeSung’s 80th birthday meal in exactly the same way as the 80’s birthday of the Queen Mother, Cho Dae Bi, had been during the reign of King Gojong in 1887. Because the record is well documented, the recreation had a high level of completeness. If I were to offer another, I cannot leave out the advising and managing work I did as well as having actually made all of the food during the production of Dae Jang Geum. The Korean government used catchphrases like “Culinary Hallyu,” or “The Globalization of Korean food,” and with all the effort that was put into introducing Korean food culture to other countries, I wonder if that might not have been the drama’s starting point.
SJ: What are your goals for the future?
HAN: There are still a lot of things for us royal cuisine researchers to study. Even if only a little, I want to research more and leave a more refined outlook for future generations. Of course, I also have the dream of teaching those future generations of researchers who will continue our work. I also want to establish a Royal Cuisine Culture School and gather all of the artifacts and documents left by Hwang Hye Sung and build a museum so they can all be seen in one place. My mother laid the foundation for royal cuisine and worked hard to popularize it. I want to finish a number of research projects for the next generation and I hope to see many students studying royal cuisine to continue to research and develop.
SJ: What advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
HAN: I believe that as people age, their work is decided to a certain extent. When someone enters a subject and is still immature, they need to be devoted to learning, and then afterwards comes a period in which they have to learn much more and go around experiencing things. Those people who come out with their own system for the things they have familiarized themselves with, they can be called professionals. I mentioned it before, but in order to be a professional in one thing you instead have to have diverse knowledge and experiences. And just in case you are dreaming of becoming a culinary researcher, I want to advise you to find out your own taste and remember it. Once you begin cooking, one day or another, the ideal taste you have been trying to make will come out. Pursue that taste without ever stopping. However, perhaps after heading out on the path of cooking, the easiest method is to try cooking with your mother (or with whomever else). Those experiences will become a huge help later on.