Home - T Singapore

The Spirit of Korean Food — A Korean Chef Explains

By Guan Tan

Seasonal Hot Pot Rice

Three Michelin-starred La Yeon, located in The Shilla Seoul, released its Spring menu in late April. The hot pot rice includes sea bream, bamboo sprouts set on Gimpo Gold rice, a rice that has been continually harvested by the Han river in the Gimpo city, South Korea, for over 5,000 years. Under Kim's tutelage, every facet of a dish calls to the time-tested traditions of the Korean cuisine.

Chilled Keen's Gaper Salad with Wild Greens Sauce

This dish is a modern iteration of a classic Korean dish. Here, pen shells or fan mussels are paired with bamboo sprouts, wild vegetables and marinated scallions.

Chilled Sea Bream with Soy Bean Paste Sauce

Here, sea bream dipped in a marinade made of yuzu, herbs, salt, radish, apples, and water parsley. The soy bean sauce is fermented in-house by Kim's team at La Yeon.

Braised Chicken in Sweet Soy Sauce

Another main from La Yeon's spring 2018 menu.

Chef Kim Sung Il

The 55-year-old chef Kim Sung Il has been cooking at The Shilla since 1988.

La Yeon

The team of chefs and staff at La Yeon.

La Yeon

La Yeon opened in August 2013, on the 23rd floor of The Shilla Seoul. Its spring menu is now available for lunch from KRW 103,000 (S$128) per person, and for dinner from KRW 175,000 (S$218) per person.


"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.