Korean royal cuisine

Barbecued beef?  Tick.  Eye-wateringly fiery kimchi?  Tick.

Don’t get me wrong, I love eating grilled beef and kimchi.  I believe most Koreans delight in them too.  But I never tire of saying that Korean food is so much more than those 2 items.

Koreans living in Sydney often lament many restaurants’ narrow portrayal of this ancient and wide-ranging cuisine.

In a bid to address this, the Korean Cultural Office in Sydney hosted a Korean Banquet Showcase, featuring court cuisine dating back to the Joseon dynasty.  (That was a whopper of a dynasty, lasting for 5 centuries from late 1300s to late 1800s.)

KoreanbanquetshowcaseroyalcuisinekcobannerhamperThe banquet was prepared by Chef Heather Jeong, a veritable fount of knowledge on Korean cuisine and a willing and patient teacher.

When David Chang (Korean-American chef of Momofuku fame) was in Sydney, Chef Jeong showed him around.  I’m told she imparted Korean culinary knowledge that even he found enlightening.

The Korean Banquet Showcase was billed as a 12-course dinner.  If you add the 15 side dishes and 3 canapés, you could say it was 30 courses.  And then there was the alcohol, in the form of ginseng wine, plum wine, raspberry wine, Penfolds Bin 28 shiraz and Marlborough Hills sauvignon blanc.  A different selection was served as part of pre-dinner drinks.  Whew.

The Menu

KoreanroyalcuisinemenukoreanbanquetshowcasekcoSpotlight on a few courses

hobakjukpumpkinsoupkoreanfoodsavourykco1.  Pumpkin congee (hobak juk)

This is pumpkin cooked with glutinous rice to give it a sticky texture.

It was savoury with a delicious hint of sweetness.

Try making it with this recipe.

2.  Korean-style sashimi (seasonal hwae)

Centre: Seaweed.  Clockwise from top: snapper, abalone, salmon, squid.

KoreansashimihwaefoodsavouryabrawabalonesalmonsnappersquidkcoIt was a real treat having raw abalone.  The thin slicing made the best of its chewy texture, and there was a sweetness mixed with the essence of the sea.

A punchy alternative to the soy-and-wasabi dipping sauce is the Korean dipping sauce, which contains the chili paste gochujang.

3.  Seafood pancake (haemul pajeon)

koreanseafoodpancakehaemulpajeonsavourykcoThis was served with a soy and Korean chili powder sauce.  The springy bits of squid were scrumptious.

4.  Savoury bean jelly with soy and sesame (tang pyeong chae)

Below: The dish before it was tossed in a soy and sesame dressing.

koreanbeanjellyfoodsavourytangpyungchaeI had a lively conversation with the two accomplished Korean ladies at my table who make the bean jelly from scratch (of course).  (The texture of ready-made versions does not meet their standards.)

The process of making it is seemingly simple: just combine bean jelly powder and water.  The hard part is in cooking and stirring the increasingly stiff mixture for 10 minutes – a necessary step to get the requisite bouncy texture.

“So I get my husband to do the stirring.  Yes, he is good that way,” said one of the ladies, as I expressed surprise.

To emphasise the importance of both parties contributing to household duties, the other lady intoned: “I always tell my son he must learn to cook.  Otherwise his wife will not like him.”

Below (centre):  The bean jelly dish after being tossed with the dressing.

bossambeanjellytangpyeonchaekoreanfoodsavourykco The Director of the Korean Cultural Office, Dr Lee Dong-ok, is so passionate about his heritage that he made an impromptu appearance on stage to share the historical significance of this dish.

During the Joseon dynasty, ministers in the King’s court formed opposing factions, in a web which would make the Australian Labor Party’s machinations look like child’s play.  This troubled the King.  He would encourage his ministers to eat tang pyeong chae, likening the mixing of ingredients to the ministers putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good.

The KCO Director felt sorry that the King couldn’t enjoy good food as it was; even while eating, the King continued to devise solutions to the problem of warring factions.

5.  Slow cooked pork with chili radish (bo ssam)

The Korean style of eating meat and bean paste wrapped in a salad leaf is clever, flavoursome and healthy.

The slow cooked pork was intentionally plain, and its warm softness fused well with the crunchy and spicy chili radish.

Below (bottom left): Bo ssam with lettuce and sesame leaf.

bossambeanjellytangpyeonchaekoreanfoodsavourykco

6.  Beef fillet with pine nuts and garlic cloves (nurbiani)

This is the royal predecessor to today’s immensely popular beef bulgogi (sliced beef in a sweet soy marinade – read about the Hugh Jackman connection here).

grilledbeefkoreanfoodsavourynurbianiI love beef bulgogi for its crowd-pleasing taste, and also for being fast to cook – just put a whole pile of marinated meat in a pan, fry, and you’re done.

In contrast, in keeping with the great care that comes with preparing imperial cuisine, nurbiani must:

  • be cut into evenly shaped pieces of equal thinness
  • be grilled a few pieces at a time
  • have pine nuts daintily grated over the cooked meat.

Chef Jeong did a cooking demonstration on making nurbiani.  

nurbianikoreanbeefbarbecuefoodsavourykco

As I listened to her clear explanations delivered in a measured tone with smiling eyes, it struck me that Chef Jeong – for all her accomplishments and experience – is refreshingly down-to-earth and humble.

How many respected chefs and cuisine leaders (doubling up as food safari queen Maeve O’Mara’s go-to Korean food authority) would you find walking (not strutting) around a room, bowing courteously and smiling with sincerity?

Nurbianikoreanfoodgrilledbeefsavourycookingdemonstrationkco

7.  Cold soba noodle soup (mul mak guksoo)

These are buckwheat noodles in a chilled beef broth, topped with seaweed, nashi pear, pickled radish, quail’s egg, green onions and sesame seeds.  For more on something very similar, see this post.

mulmakguksookoreancoldnoodlessavouryfoodkco8.  Not 5, not 7, not even 12, but 15 side dishes (banchan)

We were treated to no less than 15 side dishes, which exceeds the expectations of even the typical Korean royal diner.  This is getting more royal than the royals.

Traditionally, ordinary folk would have 3 to 5 side dishes.  Nobility would have 7 to 9.  Royalty would have 12.

In olden days, if you weren’t blue-blooded but had to audacity to put 12 side dishes on your table, you’d be in massive trouble.

Just imagine our fate, had we been living a few centuries ago, with Chef Jeong boldly offering us 15 side dishes.  This might have been my last meal – but oh, what a meal!

banchankoreanfoodsavourysidedisheskcoHere is the list of side dishes:

  1. Traditional (cabbage) kimchi
  2. Salad (cabbage) kimchi
  3. Wild sesame leaf kimchi
  4. Radish kimchi
  5. Cucumber kimchi (with a ginger hit – yum!)
  6. Soy braised black beans
  7. Sautéed garlic stems
  8. Egg roll
  9. Sautéed tiny anchovies with sunflower seeds
  10. Spinach with sesame seeds
  11. Soy braised tofu
  12. Sautéed fish cakes
  13. Soy braised potatoes
  14. Assorted pancakes
  15. Salad greens with creamy sauce

koreansidedishesbanchanfoodsavourykcoMost, if not all, these dishes were made from scratch by Chef Jeong.  Every item was delectable, but the traditional cabbage kimchi was the undeniable star, being greeted with much approval by everyone at my table.

thebestkimchikoreanfoodkcoThe gift

“It’s now close enough to Christmas and I want to play Santa Claus. But your present won’t be under the tree, so remember to take your gift basket before you leave,” said the KCO Director during his final appearance on stage.

koreanfoodhamperpresentgiftkcoThe generous basket was filled with traditional Korean foods, with a handy illustrated card containing the English and Korean names of each item.

koreangiftkoreanbanquetshowcasekco Koreanfoodstuffsenglishtranslationkco

To sum up the meal…

Barbecued beef?  Tick.  And yet…this one is more refined than most, with a subtler marinade to showcase top quality eye fillet.

Kimchi?  Tick.  And yet…this one shows restraint without sacrificing taste.  Savoury and more-ish, without being overly salty.  Warm and red without burning off tastebuds.

The usual suspects of a Korean meal are still here, but in a superior, barely recognisable form.  Notably, these usual suspects are accompanied by a host of unusual ones that will surprise and enchant the unsuspecting diner.

kcokoreanbanquetshowcasetablesettingflowersFITK was a guest of the KCO, but this is an unpaid and uncommissioned write-up.

For more pictures and a detailed description of each course, have a look at this slide pack provided courtesy of the Korean Cultural Office.

Slides for Korean Banquet Showcase

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