In pursuit of new style of hansik
When trying to get inspiration in cooking Korean food, Chef Lee Sang-hoon at the Renaissance Seoul Hotel’s Korean restaurant Sabiru refers to foreign cookbooks, not Korean ones.
Lee studies, for example, how to display food from the books, because he thinks Korean dishes don’t need to be displayed as they have been since the Joseon Kingdom.
“For example, 'milssam,' or assorted vegetables in flour wraps, comes as a separate appetizer, being almost always served first. It doesn’t need to be. It can be served in the middle of a meal; or be included in a salad if it is well harmonized with the vegetables used,” the 40-year-old said.
Such new attempts and study by the chef with 16 years of experience are part of efforts to better introduce “hansik,” or Korean food, to the world.
“Foreign people will eventually seek authentic hansik made in traditional ways. But before that final stage, there needs to be an interim stage where they become familiar with it. To present Korean food in a way foreigners feel familiar with, we have to first understand their culinary culture and their tastes instead of sticking to authenticity at the beginning,” he said.
Following such a belief, Lee recently introduced a menu in Global Korean Cuisine Promotion, using original Korean cooking methods and slight variations in seasoning to suit foreigners’ tastes.
He used ingredients and products from Gangwon Province and Ulleung Island. “I thought dishes using them would satisfy Koreans with fresh seasonal ingredients and publicize the regions to foreigners,” he said.
The menu includes poached murex with fresh ginseng and pear with a citron dressing; rice porridge; milssam and purple sweet potato salad; skewered pollack, tofu and beef; pan-fried hanwoo sirloin wrapped with marinated “myeongi” (wild garlic); mussel “bibimbap” with seaweed soup; chilled buckwheat noodle; and a dessert.
Lee said he considered “balance” when creating the dishes. “Korean food is pungent. For example, I make gochujang (red pepper paste) mild for the sauce of the murex appetizer and serve it together with ginseng and pear salad that neutralizes the spiciness,” he said.
Understanding different tastes
In 2009, Lee won the grand prize at the World Korean Food Competition and Festival held in New York. He made “tteokgalbi” (short rib patties), “bibim naengmyeon” (spicy cold noodle) and dumpling soup.
“In the preliminary held in Korea, I was almost at the bottom. But the foreign judges liked the simplicity of my dishes as they recognized traditional Korean cuisine with numerous dishes, which other contestants presented, as wasteful. I learned a different understanding of food between Koreans and foreigners,” he said.
When the chef began his career at the hotel in 1995, almost every top-grade hotel had a Korean restaurant. But now only four in Seoul have them, and Lee ascribed it to their sticking to old ways and not accepting changes.
“It is sad that Korean hotels don’t have Korean restaurants. Some may say Korean food at hotels is expensive while they can have cheaper ones at restaurants outside. Now hotels need to present quality food worth such a high price. Introducing Korean food is introducing Korean culture,” he said.
Chef Lee’s menu is available at 90,000 won. For more information, call 02-2222-8655.