Intangible treasures, Tangible tastes by Hwang Hye Jung

With mixed feelings I entered Loblaws, my favorite Toronto supermarket, for the last time before I left for Korea. Dusk cast a golden glow on the autumn maple leaves outside the giant glass windows.

Revisiting familiar aisles like a pensive old friend, I bid loving farewell to long-time favorite items, ranging from grade A maple syrup to Canadian back bacon. Suddenly, my reverie was broken as I hit upon the aisle of sauces:

President’s Choice, one of the biggest up-market food manufacturers in Canada, has officially launched their Bulgogi Sauce, one of the very first Korean Cuisine products produced by a mainstream company in North America.

Standing slightly stunned, a wave of conflicting emotions hit this die-hard Koreophile. Yes, it’s good news that Korean food is starting to get the attention it deserves in mainstream Canada; however----I’M SICK AND TIRED OF PEOPLE JUST CITING BULGOGI AND KIMCHI WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT KOREAN FOOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes, with all due respect these two dishes are important, BUT I JUST CAN’T STAND THE TYPECASTING ANYMORE, THERE’S JUST SO MUCH MORE TO KOREAN CUISINE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At that moment I decided, standing solemnly before a bottle of sauce, that my task in Korea for the coming year will be working to “un-brainwash” westerners about Korean food.

Then the whole journey of how I became a Koreophile flooded through my mind: it all started 2005 when the lessons I learnt through Royal Cuisine in the history drama Dae Jang Geum changed my whole direction in life, and one of my life’s goals from now is to share with people this lesson that could not only take them on a journey of epicurean bliss, but even a journey of moral and historical edification…

It is not for frivolous reasons that the Korean government designated Chosun Dynasty Royal Cuisine as Korea’s Intangible Cultural Asset no. 38. When I visited Dr. Han Bok Ryeo, the highest authority on Royal cuisine and the holder of this Asset, I learnt how the study of this art can be life-changing.

During the days of Chosun Korea, palace maids took almost thirty years of training to become what we would call today a chef. It’s easy to talk about cooking with love; but when Dr. Han talks about cooking with love, she refers to the highest spirit of the palace chefs: being a servant of the court they had nothing but the well-being of the royal house----hence of the whole nation----on their minds.

And according to Dr. Han, the essence of Korean flavours come from the maker’s finger-tips. When you look at the sheer intricacy of some royal dishes, and imagine the hours spent on them in the days before modern machines, you will understand the meaning of the two words “heart” and “sincerity”.

So come with me on this journey of eye-popping, mind-elevating, not to mention mouth-watering delights. Be the first westerners to know Korea’s royal secrets, enter the Dojang of Royal Cuisine!!!!!

Hwang Hye Jung is an expert on Royal Court Cuisine and  teacher at the UNESCO Peace Village in Icheon. She will be writing regularly about Royal Court Cuisine, you can e-mail her here.

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