Exploration of Kaesong food leads to deeper understanding of Korea’s culinary history
“It’s called joraengi tteok [snowman-shaped rice cake], and you make it by putting sesame oil on the white rice cake and rolling it around with your palm until it is thin. When it becomes thinner than Seoul’s usual white rice cakes, use a knife to tighten its waist and then cut it. Repeat the process of tightening and cutting, and it will look like a small cocoon or like the number eight.”
This is an excerpt from writer Park Wan-suh’s book, “The Naked Tree.” Park’s hometown is Gaepung County in Gyeonggi Province, which is close to Kaesong, North Korea. Her experiences have helped enrichen the sentences in her book which depict the kitchen scenery and delicacies of Kaesong.
Aside from what the book illustrates, how exactly can we know how the food of Kaesong tastes? Recently, a book titled “The Taste, Roots and Wings Prepared by Onjium” (translated), that explores the seemingly strange but familiar Kaesong cuisine, was published to answer that very question.
The Culinary Studio of Onjium, a research institute for traditional Korean culture, has a long history of studying ancient recipes and recreating royal cuisine from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Onjium essentially means “create completely,” which reflects the institute’s aim to build a future based on the clothing, cuisine and architecture from the past. The result of some of that research was the book “The Taste Prepared by Onjium” (translated), which was published in 2016.
“The Taste, Roots and Wings Prepared by Onjium” is the institute’s second book in six years, tracing back even further than Joseon to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and focusing on Kaesong’s food.
Goryeo’s culture flourished some 1,000 years ago and was the first independent, open and creative country to have unified the Korean Peninsula. It was the only dynasty in which the three religions — Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism — managed to coexist. It was also an era when aristocrats had economic power, thanks to active trade among foreign countries such as the Song and Yuan Dynasties and Japan, which aided in cultural development.
Goryeo passed down an elegant yet elaborate and original cultural legacy, which includes the celadon, najeon chilgi (lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl), metal crafts and Buddhist paintings that we see in museums today.
Kaesong was the capital of Goryeo, which explains why it is intrinsic when it comes to exploring the roots of Korean cuisine. Onjium’s latest publication starts by asking, would Kaesong food taste be a good reflection of Goryeo?
Chung Hae-kyung, professor emeritus of food and nutrition at Hoseo University, is an advisory committee member for Onjium’s Culinary Studio and defines the food of Kaesong in many different ways in her book, “Unification Restaurant Kaesong Table” (translated).
“A progressive taste of the international trade city,” “the taste of the living history of the Goryeo Dynasty,” “the taste of Buddhism,” “the rich taste of Kaesong merchants,” “the taste of harmony of various ingredients,” “the center taste that is neither salty nor boring” are some of the phrases she uses to describe the food of the region.
There were many different notable aspects of Kaesong food: some that were enjoyed by the royal family and aristocrats, some that were created as a result of frequent trade with nearby countries, vegetarian dishes that were influenced by Buddhism and tea culture that originated in the Song Dynasty.
The Kaesong region is close to mountains, fields and the ocean, making it abundant with meat and grains, as well as plenty of seafood and wild edible greens that make the area perfect for the culinary arts to prosper.
“After Joseon was established, Hanyang [today’s Seoul] became the new capital, and Kaesong’s food culture spread to the new territory as well,” Prof. Chung said. “We can say that many elements of the food we now see today in Seoul stemmed from the food in Kaesong.”
Prof. Chung’s book, which was originally published as a 260-page hardcover, is filled with imagery related to the aesthetics of Goryeo. From celadons and sketches of scenery to famous writers’ depictions of the “taste of Kaesong,” the book aids in understanding what was so special about the old Goryeo capital.
Prof. Chung added some 80 recipes of Kaesong cuisine that anyone can easily cook at home, with joraengi tteokguk [snowman-shaped rice cake soup], Kaesong-style wrapped kimchi and Kaesong mandu [dumplings] being major examples. She made sure to include recipes that have slowly gone extinct in modern society.
These recipes were revived by the 20-something research workers at Onjium’s Culinary Studio, including chief researchers Cho Eun-hee and Park Seong-bae.
The pair met with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, on Jan. 30 and both agreed that after spending the past three years studying the food of Kaesong, they’ve garnered a sense of pride for the roots of Korean cuisine.
“Lots of Kaesong food add ‘Kaesong’ to their names, which proves how proud they were of the ingredients, recipes and the presentation,” Cho said.
“It’s fascinating how our ancestors made such elegant and versatile food,” Park said. “You can just feel how serious they were about what and how they eat.”
There are very few ancient recipe books that have organized the food culture of Goryeo, leading Park and Cho to look through a wide range of genres to find out more about Kaesong food, like books written by scholars Yi Gyu-bo (1168-1241) and Yi Saek (1328-1396). These two particular scholars were known to explicitly express their love for Kaesong food in their books.
Through their research, Cho and Park reimagined the creative cooking processes of Kaesong food.
“A classic example is flower-shaped braised abalone,” said Cho. “There isn’t a specific traditional method passed down to present day to cook abalone, but we tried imagining how the people of Goryeo would have splendidly presented their dishes. It involves finely cutting root vegetables such as deodeok [the root of a local mountain herb] and doraji [balloon flower roots] and placing them atop the steamed abalone dish. The final result looks so graceful, like a flower that blossomed, which is why we added flower to its name.”
“We made sure that the greens were cut the best way possible by chefs to portray the preciseness as seen in Buddhist paintings from Goryeo,” Park said.
It was also Onjium’s idea to serve sinseollo, or a hot pot with seafood and vegetables, in individual portions.
“Instead of arranging a large steel pot on the table, we applied Kaesong’s food culture in which they eat soup with rice and served sinseollo separately,” Cho said.
“We made the broth with beef and after placing rice into the bowl, we poured the broth and arranged colorful garnishes according to obangsaek [a traditional Korean color spectrum of red, blue, yellow, white and black],” Park said. “The garnishes, which included small octopus, abalone, sea cucumber, mushrooms, eggs, water parsley and carrots, created a graceful and beautiful appearance that garnered positive reviews.”
Cho and Park are also the top chefs of Onjium, the research institute’s one-star Michelin restaurant of the same name. They say that they always try to observe what aspects of traditional food that the current generation like.
“Sometimes the table setting is unfamiliar to our customers and they get frustrated at first, complaining that it isn’t the hansik [Korean food] they know,” Cho said. “But after the first taste, they usually end up nodding their heads. Like how times are changing, our eyes and appetites are as well. It’s our challenge to try to narrow down those discrepancies and pass our generation’s food on to the next.”
“It’s rewarding when seeing younger people, who know relatively less about our traditional food, compliment it as fresh and older people say it reminds them of times gone by,” Park said.
BY SEO JEONG-MIN [firstname.lastname@example.org]