How many meals did the Korean kings have a day? Records indicate that they had five meals a day which was called Surasang, or Royal Table. Early in the morning they had a small bowl of Juk (gruel), regular breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snack or meal (related story on page 11).
Early in the morning the kings also had herb medicinal meal or Mieum (thin rice gruel) instead of Juk, breakfast at around 10 o’clock in the morning, dinner at around 5 in the afternoon and lunch between breakfast and dinner. For the late-night snack, the kings had Yaksik (flavored glutinous rice), Sikhye (‘rice punch’ or sweet drink made from fermented rice or) and/or milk gruel.
The king never had their meal together with the queen. The queen had her meal separately from the king.
Reflecting the regionalism of the kingdoms and bordering countries of the peninsula, the cuisine was borrowed from each of these areas to function as a showcase. The royalty had the finest regional delicacies sent to the palace. Although there are records of banquets pre-dating the Joseon period, the majority of these records note a vast variety of foods without mentioning the specific foods present.
The meals cooked for the royal family were not seasonal, like a commoner's meal. Instead, they varied significantly day to day. The eight provinces were represented each month in turn in the royal palace by ingredients presented by their governors. This gave the cooks a wide assortment of ingredients to utilize for royal meals.
Food held a very important place in Joseon period. During the Joseon Period, Yejo (Board of Rites) was responsible for foods prepared for ancestor rites, attaining wines and other beverages, and medicinal foods. There were also hundreds of slaves and women who worked in the palace that had tasks such as making Dubu, liquor, tea, and Ddeok (rice cakes).
Surasang (Royal table) should be served with three tables and a hotpot. The largest round table at the right upper corner is the main table which contains main bowl, soups and stews, dishes, side dishes and fermented stored dishes. The small round table at the left upper corner contains red Sura, Gomtang or thick meat broth, dessert, tea, empty dishes and bowls. This table is also used to store the covers of bowls and dishes used in the main table. The rectangular table in the right lower corner contains eggs, sesame oil, various raw vegetables and several sauces. The hotpot at the left lower corner is heated with charcoal, and usually contains Jeongol such as Sinseollo.
Some records indicate that Sanggung (court ladies) brought in the food table into the King’s room and helped the king but other documents state that it was not court ladies helping the king but it was eunuchs who did the job. Sampling of the king’s food and beverage to make sure the foods and drinks were free of any poison was done normally by the court ladies at the Royal kitchen before the food table was brought into the king’s room.
The main foods for the king were rice and Guk (watery soup), which was the same with the common people, but king had many more different kinds of Banchan (side dishes).
So how many different kinds of side dishes did the kings have?
Basically, they had 12 different kinds of foods at each meal at the normal times, but the number of foods increased to 30 and even 40 at the time of festivals such as the Lunar New Year’s Day, Dano Day, Chuseok Full Moon Festival, Dongji (Winter Solstice) and the birthday of the King and other important members of the Royal Family such as the birthday (especially the 60th birthday) of the king, queen and queen mother, the designation day of the crown prince, the Royal wedding and receptions for foreign envoys.
The normal meal table of 12 different kinds of food included two different types of rice (one bowl with only rice and another bowl with rice mixed with peas or other grains), two different bowls of Tang (another name for Guk or watery soup, one bowl with Miyeok Guk [seaweed soup]) and the other with Gomtang [beef-bone soup]), Jjigae (stew), Jjim (steamed food) and Jeongol (chowder).
Other records of the 12 dishes also include Guksu (noodles), Mandu and Ddeokguk (small rice cake- dumpling soup), Jjim (steamed food), Saengchae (fresh vegetables mixed with seasoningmaterials), Gui (roast beef and/or fish), Hoe (raw fish and/or beef slices), Sinseollo (brass chafing dish with beef, fish and vegetables), Jorim (food boiled down in soy sauce or other seasonings), Jeonyuhwa (assorted pan-fried delicacies), Jang (soybean sauces), and tea and/or fruit punch with Gangjeong (fried glutinous rice crackers with sesame or beans).
However, as was briefly mentioned above, the number of different dishes increase to a few dozens on festive occasions.
They include Songsongi (cubed radish kimchi), Jeotgugji (kimchi from Chinese cabbage seasoned with Jeotgal[salted fish]), Dongchimi (white kimchi of radish), Jeotgal (fermented, salted seafood), Jorigae (hard-boiled food with heavy seasonings), Namul (seasoned vegetable side dishes), Saengchae (fresh salad), Jjim (steamed or boiled dishes), Mareunchan (dried foods), Janggwa (braised seafood), Pyeonyuk (boiled and seasoned meat pressed by heavy weight and then sliced thinly), Changui (fried Codonopsis lanceolata), Jeonyuhwa (pancake- like fried dish), Jeotguk jochi (kind of fish soup), Togu (a plate used to hold bones during the meal), Jang (soy sauce), Chojang (soy sauce with vinegar), Cho gochujang (chili cream with vinegar), Tojang jochi (soybean soup), Huinsura (white rice), Gwaktang (seaweed soup), Suran (poached egg) and Hongban (rice with azuki beans).
In contrast with the large variety of foods and drinks the kings and other members of the Royal Family had in the past, the common people had a much fewer number of side dishes.
The common people mostly had three meals a day and each meal consisted of one bowl of Bap (rice), one bowl of Guk (watery soup), one bowl of Jjigae (stew), one bowl of kimchi, one dish of Namul (seasonal greens) and a few more side dishes if they were rich enough to afford them.
In the feudal days, Sangin (the common people), mostly the peasants, eked out a scanty living as they were heavily taxed by the king and were severely discriminated against by the Yangban (nobility) class of people. Hence the widely used common expression, Borigogae (literally, the Barley Pass) deriving from the steep mountain pass that offers one a hard time trying to go up and pass. Borigogae normally is May of the year (April in Lunar calendar) when the crops of the previous year have all been consumed and yet the barley is not yet ready to be harvested. The common people at the time had another expression, Chogeun Mokpi (grass roots and tree barks). As they were out of food, they dug up the roots of grass and stripped the bark off a tree to eat them. They barely managed to stay alive eating herb-roots and tree-barks until the barley was ready for harvesting.
However, of course, there were people who were better off than the peasants and laborers such as the landlords and the middle class like merchants who made more money than the common people.
The landlords and merchants did not enjoy the special privileges of the Yangban Class but with their money they lived a much more comfortable living than the commoners. Some of the landlords even bought the status of a Yangban.
Perhaps, they did not afford to enjoy all the foods and drinks of Surasang (Royal Table) but they developed a large variety of food and beverage through several thousands of years of experience.
The foods were developed somewhat differently depending on the different regions and localities.
Korean food and beverage today:
With the success of the Korean TV drama Daejanggeum (a lady head chef at the Royal Kitchen and also a Royal Physician during the rule of King Jungjong of the Joseon Dynasty in 1515), which was also aired in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan, the popularity or Korean foods has been rising in Asia and in other parts of the world. The growing popularity is also attributable to the Korean Wave (Hallyu) sweeping Asia and around the world.
Korea has much in common with China and Japan in terms of dining style due to frequent cultural and historical exchanges. But over time, Korea has developed its own unique cuisines.
Korea was once a primarily agricultural nation, and boiled rice has become Koreans’ stable food. Stable food and side dishes are clearly distinguished in Korean table settings. A traditional Korean meal consists of a bowl of rice and side dishes. Koreans use a wide range of ingredients such as meat, fish, vegetables and seafood with unique seasonings. As there are many ways to cook these ingredients, Koreans have developed diverse kinds of cuisines.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism (MCST) and Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) have published many articles on Korean food and beverage in English and other foreign languages as well as in Korean. Some of the common Korean foods covered by the MCST, KTO and a number of other cultural organizations follow:
Bap: Boiled rice, it is the staple of Korean cuisine. Barley, millet, beans, and red beans are sometimes mixed with rice for special taste and nutritional value. Vegetables, seafood, and kimchi are also added to rice when cooking for a better taste.
Bibimbap: Rice mixed with vegetables and beef). The ingredients are rice, fernbrake, balloon flower root, bean sprout, beef, red pepper paste, sesame oil.
How it is made: A dish made by mixing rice with various other cooked vegetables. Great for experiencing different vegetables, pleasing to the eye, and full of nutrients. Jeonju's variation of Bibimbap is most famous.
Guksu: Korean noodles. Korean people have developed a wide range of noodle dishes that are full of symbolic meanings. One such dish is Janchi Guksu (literally ‘banquet noodles’), which is served in a hot anchovy broth to the guests at a wedding reception, (hence the name). This dish is so closely related with the idea of a happy marriage in Korea that a question such as “When can we eat noodles?” would readily be understood to mean “When do you plan to get married?” It is also eaten to celebrate birthdays because it symbolizes a long, healthy life. Korean people also have a long established tradition of eating Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles), served in either cold beef broth (Pyeongyang Naengmyeon) or with a spicy chili sauce (Hamheung Naengmyeon).
Kimchi: This is most commonly used food in Korea next only to rice, the staple food of the Korean people. The ingredients are cabbage (or radish, cucumber, etc.), julienne radish, minced garlic, diced green onion, salted fish and salt.
How it is made: Cabbages and other vegetables are soaked in salt water, then seasoned with different spices before being fermented. There are many different types of kimchi, such as cabbage kimchi (the most common), cucumber kimchi, radish kimchi, cubed radish kimchi, green onion kimchi, and more. It is a health food filled with vitamins, minerals, and more.
Namul: Seasoned vegetables. Namul is one of the most basic side dishes in the Korean diet. While Namul refers to both raw and cooked vegetables and wild-greens, it usually means cooked ones these days. Almost all kinds of seasonal vegetables and wild-greens are used for Namul dishes. Koreans often skewer and dry the ingredients to use them when they’re out of season. There are different ways to cook Namul according to the type of its ingredients. Vegetables with green leafs are parboiled and seasoned with combinations of salt, soy sauce, sesame seeds, sesame oil and garlic. Wild greens such as Chinese bellflowers are boiled and stir-fried with seasonings. Fresh seasonal vegetables are not boiled, but tossed in a sweet and sour seasoning.
Bulgogi: Beef in a soy sauce marinade. Ingredients are beef (or pork), pear juice or sugar, soy sauce, minced garlic, diced green onion, sesame oil.
How it is made: Beef or pork is sliced thinly then marinated in seasoning before being grilled.
Galbi-gui: Marinated grilled beef short ribs. The ingredients are beef rib (or pork rib), sugar, soy sauce, diced green onion, minced garlic, sesame oil.
How it is made: Beef or pork ribs are sliced into easy to eat portions, then marinated in seasonings before being grilled. Suwon galbi is very popular.
Samgyetang: Ginseng chicken soup. Ingredients are young chicken, sweet rice, ginseng, garlic, chestnut and jujube.
How it is made: A young chicken is cleaned, then stuffed with various ingredients before being simmer to draw out the delicious broth.
Naengmyeon: Buckwheat noodles in a chilled broth. Ingredients are noodles made of buckwheat or starch, beef broth, thin slices of beef, julienne cucumber, julienne pear and boiled egg.
How it is made: Noodles served in chilled beef broth - makes this soup refreshing. There is also Bibim Naengmyeon, which doesn't have a soup base but is mixed with red pepper paste instead.
Haemultang: Seafood stew. Ingredients are crab, clam, shrimp, fish, radish, red pepper paste, red pepper powder, green onion and garlic.
How it is made: Various seafoods are boiled before adding red pepper paste and red pepper powder. The broth is both refreshing and very spicy.
Kimchi Jjigae: Kimchi stew. Ingredients are kimchi, pork, sesame oil, green onion, garlic.
How it is made: First, the pork is browned in the bottom of the pot before water and kimchi are added. Using sour kimchi makes a better-tasting stew.
Dakgalbi: Chicken ribs. Ingredients are chicken, red pepper paste, pear juice, molasses, sugar, minced garlic, diced green onion.
How it is made: Chicken is seasoned with various spices, then grilled before eating. Chuncheon chicken ribs are famous.
Seolleongtang: Ox bone soup. Ingredients are rice, beef, beef broth, diced green onion, minced garlic, red pepper power, pepper, salt.
How it is made: Beef is added to beef broth and long-simmered before being served with rice and various seasonings. The deep, rich taste of the broth, simmered for over 10 hours, is simply delicious.
Galbitang: Short rib soup. Ingredients are beef rib (or pork rib), radish, diced green onion, minced garlic, pepper, sesame oil, sesame seed
How it is made: Ribs are boiled with radishes to create a savory soup. Eaten with rice, the broth is a delight.
Juk: Gruel or porridge. Ingredients are various grains.
How it is made: Juk is a rice porridge, similar to Congee. The rice develops a soft texture after being boiled for a long time with sesame oil. There are many variations of Juk such as pine nut Juk, sesame Juk, jujube Juk, red bean Juk, beef Juk, pumpkin Juk, and abalone Juk.
Gochujang (Chili Paste): Gochujang is a traditional Korean condiment made by fermenting a mixture of soybean malt, salt, and chili pepper powder with a blend of powdered rice, barley, flour, and malted barley. Gochujang has long been one of the most important traditional condiments among Korean people, whose palates have evolved towards a preference for hot and spicy foods since they were introduced to chili several hundred years ago. Chili and Gochujang are now often regarded as a symbol of the vibrant, energetic disposition of Korean people.
Saeujeot (Salted Shrimp): One of the two most popular fish sauces in Korea, the other being anchovy sauce, this shrimp sauce made by fermenting salted shrimps is used to improve the taste of dishes, including kimchi.
Jeotgal (Salted Seafood): An almost indispensable ingredient for kimchi and a very popular condiment used to enhance the taste of food, Jeotgal (salted seafood) is made by mixing one of a variety of seafood (such as anchovy, shrimp, oyster, or clam) with salt, or with other condiments in addition to salt, and fermenting it in a cool place. They say that a longer period of fermentation makes it tastier. The tradition of making fermented fish sauce yielded several special delicacies including Sikhae, which is made by fermenting fish mixed with rice and condiments.
Jeon: Jeon (pancake) is a pan-fried dish. It is also called as Jeonyueo or Jeonyuhwa. These dishes include thinly sliced meats, fish, and vegetables that are coated in flour, dipped in egg and pan-fried. Some common pan-fried dishes include pan-fried summer squash, pan-fried fish, and pan-fried meat. Jijim is a small pancake made of flour batter pan-fried with various ingredients. Some popular pancakes include mung bean pancake, green onion pancake, and layers of thin wheat pancake.
Jangajji is vegetables pickled in soy sauce, red pepper paste or soybean paste. They are stored for a long time and used as a side dish in winter times when vegetables are hard to get. Jeotgal and Sikhae are also a type of stored foods. They include seafood fermented in salt.
Twigak: Deep-fried seaweed or leaves and stems of various vegetables. Bugak (vegetable and seaweed chips), and Po (beef or fish jerky). Yukpo, one of the most popular types of jerky, is thin slices of beef marinated in soy sauce, then dried in the shade. It is often served as a dried snack with alcohol or prepared for a wedding ceremony.
Hoe: Raw fish or raw beef. It is served with dipping sauces such as red chili pepper paste with vinegar and sugar, soy sauce with vinegar and sugar, mustard, and salt with sesame oil. Sukhoe is similar to Hoe, but it uses parboiled ingredients. Some of the popular ingredients for Sukhoe include parboiled parsley, small green onions, and fatsia shoots.
Ssam: Vegetable leaf wraps. Ssam is a unique eating style of the Korean diet which is loved by many Koreans. Ssam is spoonfuls of rice wrapped in wide leafs such as lettuce, Chinese cabbage, sesame leafs, fresh seaweed and dried laver with soybean paste.
Ddeok: Traditional rice cake. Koreans always prepare Ddeok for festive occasions and a variety of special occasions. It is usually enjoyed as desserts these days. There are wide varieties of Ddeok based on how to make it. Siru Ddeok is rice power mixed with other ingredients and steamed in a Siru, an earthenware steamer. Jeolpyeon and Injeolmi are made by steaming glutinous rice and pounding it to make a firm and sticky dough.
Hangwa: Traditional Korean sweets and cookies. It is rice or wheat flour dough mixed with honey, Yeot (sticky rice sugar), and sugar and then deep-fried. It is also made by simmering fruits and plants’ roots in honey syrup until they are glazed. It is also called as Jogwa, which means cookies made of natural produce by adding artificial flavor. There is a wide variety of Hangwa, such as Yakgwa (honey cookie), Sanja (deep-fried sweet rice cookies), Ganjeong (sweet rice puffs), Yeotgangjeong (malt toffees), Dasik (tea confectionery), and Jeonggwa (candied fruits and roots).
Hanjeongsik: Korean set meal. It originally consisted of cooked rice, soup, and anywhere from three to five, (largely vegetable,) side dishes. As people are gradually becoming better off due to the thriving national economy, today’s set meal tends to be much more luxurious with tens of new dishes, meat and fish included, although the three basic dishes, i.e. rice, soup, and kimchi, still remain. Two cities in the southwestern part of Korea, Jeonju and Gwangju, are particularly famous for this traditional Korean meal.
Korean Temple Cuisine: Korean Buddhist temples have maintained their own culinary traditions, creating a wonderful range of vegetable dishes and ingredients and developing recipes to provide the proteins and other substances required for the monks and nuns to remain healthy. Temple foods are now enthusiastically received by vegans and other people who follow special diets for health-related reasons.
Makgeolli: This rustic alcoholic beverage, which is widely popular in Korea, is made by fermenting steamed rice, barley, or wheat mixed with malt.
One of the most popular traditional alcoholic beverages across Korea today, Makgeolli (rice wine) is also known by other names such as Nongju (farmer’s wine), Takju (cloudy wine) and Dongdongju (rice wine). It is made by a process in which steamed rice, barley or wheat is mixed with malt and left to ferment, and has an alcohol content of 6-7%, making it a fairly mild drink. It has recently begun to fascinate connoisseurs and health-conscious young consumers across many parts of the world, resulting in the opening of Makgeolli brewery schools and the appearance of well-trained sommeliers.
A wide variety of alcoholic beverages have been developed across different parts of Korea to meet the needs of local communities during holidays, festivals, memorial rites and other commemorative occasions.
Currently some 300 traditional beverages have survived, including Munbaeju (wild pear liquor) and Songjeolju (pine knot liquor) in Seoul; Sanseong Soju (distilled liquor) in Gwangju of Gyeonggi-do; Hongju (red liquor) and Rigangju (distilled liquor) in Jeolla-do; Sogokju (rice wine) in Hansan of Chungcheong-do; Insamju (ginseng liquor) in Geumsan; GyodongBeopju (rice liquor) and Andong Soju (distilled liquor) in Gyeongju of Gyeongsangbuk-do; and Okseonju (distilled liquor) in Hongcheon of Gangwon-do.
Perhaps the most popular alcoholic beverage of Korea is Soju which is made by adding water and flavoring to alcohol extracted from sweet potatoes and grains. With an alcohol content that varies but is significantly higher than Makgeolli, it is much appreciated by ordinary citizens across Korea and is rapidly gaining enthusiasts outside Korea.