"Korean food is rooted deep in tradition. There are a lot of recipes handed down from generation to generation, and there are old cookbooks available for such recipes," quips chef Kim Sung Il, the man who helms the traditional Korean restaurant, La Yeon at The Shilla Seoul. Kim and his team of chefs search for ancient Korean recipes and cookbooks before bringing them to the table for a round table workshop. His foray into culinary literature left him with a realisation — Korea's culinary history is waning away. "Unfortunately, the culinary heritage recorded is slowly becoming forgotten, and I want to try to refresh their relevance and share their wisdom with people."
It was somewhat inevitable, given the fact that Korean cuisine's history dates back to the 1200s, when Mongolia invaded and occupied Korea. The occupants introduced some very familiar foods — dumplings, grilled meat, and noodles — to Korean cuisine. That gave birth to the Korean cuisine as we know it today.
From then on, the cuisine took a life on its own and developed over the following centuries. "The ancient cookbooks were written during different periods," Kim explains. He turns to two well-known cookbooks from the 1500s — the 500-year-old Soowoonjapbang and a 340-year-old Eumsik Dimibang. While "no original versions of the cookbooks... remain," Kim uses "their published translations to study traditional recipes, reinterpret and recreate them". Books aside, Kim visits "rural communities in person to learn about native local foods".
Through his studies, Kim has come to fully understand what Korean food means and stands for. The very spirit of Korean food is time and tradition.
The very concept of endurance and longevity is manifested in the way Korean food is prepared — fermentation. "Typical fermented ingredients include doenjang (soybean paste), gochujang (red-pepper paste), ganjang (soy sauce), kimchi and jeotgal (salted seafood). These contribute to the unique flavours of Korean dishes."
The ingredients are prepared, dropped into a pot, and set aside to sit for months on end. In Korean cuisine, time works its magic. "Typical fermented foods of Korea are made after months to years of wait," Kim echoes.
This technique, recipes, know-hows, and a love for food is continually passed down generation to generation, making it a tradition. Food, therefore, becomes a constant. And it is a bastion that threads people, families, and the entire society together.
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