By Lee Hyo-won
Garfield the cartoon cat often says, ``you are what you eat.'' Rightly so, the art and science of eating and culinary customs and styles define a people's culture, tradition and spirit.
While Korea possesses a unique gastronomic culture, many have turned to imported pastas and pastries. But a few years ago, the TV drama ``Jewel in the Palace'' (aka. Dae Jang Geum) rekindled the general public's interest. The culinary adventures of a Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) court lady traveled overseas, leading hallyu or the ``Korean wave'' far and wide, gaining fans even in Zimbabwe.
Recently, the box office hit ``Le Grand Chef'' and popular TV soap ``Golden Bride'' also featured mouthwatering Korean dishes, sizzling the enthusiasm. Hansik, or Korean traditional cuisine, has gained momentum and is out to go global.
Let's go behind the scenes to see who cooked up the visually scrumptious delights and ways you can get a tasting!
Regal & Refined
Those who watched ``Jewel in the Palace'' closely may have noticed that the stocky fingers busily preparing court dishes are not actress Lee Young-ae's ― they belong to one of the professionals at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine.
Founded in 1971, the Institute specializes in the research and education of hansik, which was designated as an Intangible Cultural Asset by the government. Director Hwang Hae-sung inherited and succeeded the late Han Hui-sun, the chief cuisine court lady who served the last king of the Joseon Kingdom.
For starters, you can learn about Korean gastronomy at www.food.co.kr (Korean, English and Japanese). Under ``Traditional Korean Food Culture,'' there are articles, complete with mouthwatering photographs, introducing various aspects of hansik.
For a flavorful experience
, visit the Institute. The beautiful hanok or traditional Korean building is located near Changdeok Palace in northern Seoul. The Institute also runs the Traditional Snack Institute. Check out the Web site for detailed information about taking courses.
If you're craving genuine royal court dishes, visit Jihwaja. Run by the Institute since 1991, the restaurant is located in the artsy Samcheong-dong area, near Gyeongbok Palace. You can taste traditional meals in a thoroughly modern, yet Korean, setting. Sets cost around 30,000 won up to over 100,000 won. Dishes a la carte are 30,000-50,000 won. Call (02) 733-5834. Visit www.jihwajafood.co.kr (Korean).
Lights, Camera and Cook!
While ``Jewel in the Palace'' showcases the period detail of Joseon gastronomic culture, the movie ``Le Grand Chef'' celebrates the palate of modern Korea, featuring everything from ramyeon (instant noodles) to court-style delicacies.
Inspired by Huh Young-man's epic cartoon series ``Sikgaek,'' the film was a box office smash that drew over 3 million viewers. Food & Culture Korea,
a leader in breeding food stylists, was behind the making of the featured dishes.
The institute's president Kim Soo-jin is called the nation's first ``food director'' for movies, beginning with the blockbuster ``King and the Clown.'' Not only does she need to make sure the dishes taste and look good, but direct the actors as well. ``I meticulously planned out all the food scenes, sketching out how characters should prepare the food and eat it, including gestures and facial expressions,'' Kim told The Korea Times.
She also paid heed to minute details for ``Le Grand Chef,'' a story about an intense cooking competition. ``Chefs have rough hands ― it'd be unrealistic to show the pale, smooth fingers of actors onscreen. So I had the actors soak their hands in cold water before shootings so they'd turn red. It also helps keeping ingredients fresh,'' she said. Though the actors had to go through intense cooking training, they didn't have to worry about being hungry on the set. Kim's dishes are also appearing in the upcoming TV soap version of ``Sikgaek.''
For a flavorful experience
, sign up for a session where you can learn how to make kimchi and also try on hanbok (traditional Korean dress). When The Korea Times visited, a boy's soccer team from Hong Kong was making kimchi. Food and Culture also regularly hosts courses for foreign students at Yonsei University and Korea University. Long-term course can also be arranged. Courses are available in English and Japanese.
Call (02) 362-6704 or visit www.fnckorea.com (Korean and English). Food and Culture Korea is located near Gyeongbok Palace in northern Seoul.
Empire of Rice
Another culinary leader is the Institute of Traditional Korean Food.
Director Yoon Sook-ja's dishes have appeared everywhere from Busan (2005 APEC summit) to Pyongyang (2007 Inter-Korean Summit) and New York (2006 Korean Food Festival at the United Nations headquarters) ― and high up in the air (Korean Air's award-winning in-flight meal service).
The effect of ``Jewel in the Palace'' rubbed off: the feast for former President Roh Moo-hyun and Dear Leader Kim Jung-il was named ``Paldo Dae Jang Geum'' after the TV soap's heroine. Yoon's own hansik expertise shone through in ``Golden Bride.'' The explosively popular TV drama recorded a 30 percent viewer rate. The protagonist, a Vietnamese-Korean wed to a Korean man, tries to become a tteok, or rice cake, expert.
The cooking scenes were shot in the Institute, a 10-story tteok ``wonderland'' complete with tteok laboratories, tteok
museum and tteok cafe. ``Tteok lies in the heart of our culture. We eat tteok for major holidays: tteogguk (tteok soup) for Seollal (Lunar New Year) and songpyeon (type of tteok) for Chuseok.
``I fell in love with tteok among other hansik. Because rice is the main ingredient, it's very healthy, and it also helps the consumption of rice, helping our farmers,'' said Yoon, who is also a goodwill ambassador for the Korean agricultural sector.
For a flavorful experience
, visit the Institute, located near Anguk-dong by exit 6 of Jongno 3-ga Station on subway lines 3 and 5. Try some tteok, tteok sandwiches and more with traditional Korean tea at tteok cafe Jilsiru on the first floor.
Jilsiru has another branch on the main strip of Insa-dong near Anguk Station on subway line 3. Call (02) 733-5477.
On the second and third floors of the institute is the Tteok and Kitchen Utensil Museum. It's a compact but cohesive collection that shows how tteok is made and consumed. Various utensils are on display, as well as tteok's place in the context of weddings, birthdays and other traditional festivities. You can sign up to try making tteok yourself. Call (02) 741-5414.
General hansik cooking classes are available by instructors who speak English, Japanese and Chinese. For more, visit www.kfr.or.kr (Korean).
Standardization for Globalization
``With hallyu contents like `Jewel in the Palace,' Korean cuisine and culture is gaining international prominence. But Korean cook books are full of `pinch of salt,' `hint of pepper' and such. We need standardized recipes,'' said Food and Culture's Kim.
The book ``The Beauty of Korean Food: With 100 Best-Loved Recipes''
(Hollym, 20,000 won) was thus compiled by Yoon's Institute of Traditional Korean Food. The book is part of the government-supported Research and Development Project for the Standardization of Korean Cuisine. It is currently available in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese, and the French version will soon be released.
``The flavor for a Korean dish varies by household and region. The book doesn't overlook these differences by offering a uniform flavor. Our research team decided on the proportions to created the best taste,'' said Yoon.
``I once visited a Korean restaurant in Denmark run by a Chinese couple. It was terrible, but something like this could help anyone make and taste genuine hansik,'' she said.
``The book marks a great beginning,'' Kim (Food and Culture) said about Yoon's book. ``Korean restaurateurs abroad can offer what is truly `good' hansik.''
Try whipping up your own hansik dish
with the book. ``Beauty'' is not just a recipe book. It has chapters on general observations of hansik, including table manners and health benefits. It is available at local bookstores. For online orders, contact Hollym (www.hollym.com, in English).