Known as “The Land of Morning Calm”, South Korea is a country in which tradition and modernity come face to face.
The capital, Seoul, with its 11 million inhabitants, is a centre of excellence for the full range of South Korean cuisine. Anthropologists say, in an ever-changing world, food is one of the characteristics of a society that changes the most slowly. South Korea is no exception. Anthropologist Joo Youngha said: “During the Josun dynasty, which lasted more than six centuries, we were very influenced by the Confucian thinking of the Chinese Yuan and Ming dynasties. The basis of good table manners was set out then and it’s in this period that the cuisine of the Royal court was also established.” “Confucianism preached the virtues of modesty and simplicity,” Youngha continued. “At its heart, people lived frugally, except during big festivals, when sumptuous banquets were the order of the day.” The daily Korean diet is based on rice, often served with soup and kimchi, that is fermented seasoned cabbage. Soy sauce is an essential ingredient. Many side dishes cover the table. Over the centuries, rare ingredients and specialities from countries around the world arrived at the royal court. Their recipes were a secret known only by the chefs of the palace. When the monarchy was abolished at the beginning of the 1900s, the royal chefs, to ward off unemployment, spread the dishes they once cooked for the king to local restaurants in areas like Insa-dong. There we also discover another facet of South Korean cuisine – the street food stalls. With appetizers to suit a variety of tastes; ranging from the sweet, the salty, and to sweet and sour, this type of cuisine appeared for the first time during the last century, at the time of the Japanese occupation. Part of a daily ritual for many is “tteok”, a traditional sweet rice cake, eaten during a lunch break and while window shopping. Spreading the Korean cuisine around the world – that is the mission taken on by Soo Jin Kim. To achieve her aim, she has simplified recipes and above all made the final result more aesthetically attractive. Influenced by French and Japanese cuisine, she has opened a cooking school. She has also starred in television programmes and is a consultant on films. Always open to innovation, she never forgets to praise the beneficial effects of the national dish, kimchi: “Kimchi contains many enzymes and minerals,” Soo Jin Kim said. “It’s good for the skin: it doesn’t make you fat and it has been scientifically proven to contain many elements which help prevent colon cancer.” Another facet of South Korean fare is the so-called “temple” cuisine, that is the dishes eaten by the buddhist monks in the country. They are simple. Based on green vegetables, grains and soya, they are never too salty or spicy. Strong flavours risk disturbing the monastic way of life, devoted to meditation, compassion and discipline. There is no decoration. The temple cuisine must nourish the body and the spirit. Another type of Korean fare is the “fusion” cuisine. It is an attempt to reconcile east and west, to harmonise the benefits of the oriental cuisine with the mod cons and ease of the western world. People are seated on chairs and tables, rather than on cushions. Instead of bringing out different dishes altogether and eating them at the same time, the courses are served one by one. Only the chopsticks remain – made out of metal, not wood, according to the Korean tradition. Joining them are spoons for certain dishes. The land of morning calm strives to reconcile two very different spirits. It is torn between extreme modernity and a history, thousands of years old. Obsessed by competition and consumerism, it is always searching for efficiency and absolute precision. But one thing is difficult to deny – South Korea has already reached the pinnacle of beauty.